Loh Xian Jun, writing for journals, holding multiple roles, and being a fellow at Fitzwilliam College
Today’s interview is with Loh Xian Jun, research scientist, polychemist and Wiley author.
After earning his BA in Applied Science in 2006 and Ph.D in 2009 from National University of Singapore, he has held several positions at both academic and research institutions. His research interest focuses on biomaterials for healthcare (specifically delivery applications and tissue engineering), as well as nucleic acid delivery for therapeutic applications and shape memory polymers. Currently, he is the program manager and scientist at A*STAR Institute of Materials Research & Engineering.
As a young person in the industry, he had a lot of interesting thing to say about fellowships, publishing articles, and holding the distinguished honor of being the first from Singapore to be inducted as a fellow at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam College. Read the entire interview below.
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Write for Wiley: How did you get interested in your area of research? Who were some of your heroes as a young academic?
Loh Xian Jun: Research came naturally to me as a kid. I was interested in ‘kitchen’ chemistry stuff. My first project was to try to grow rock sugar from normal cane sugar. I figured out that if you could have large salt crystals, you could do the same thing with sugar. I like good science and I do not really have any single hero. I really like the area of hydrogels and used to devour any articles that mentioned hydrogels in the work.
Talk about your current positions as scientist and program manager. Why did you decide to change gears from professor to manager and scientist? How did you prepare for this position change? How do these positions differ?
I have a dual role as a Program Manager of the Personal Care Program in Agency For Science Technology & Research (A*STAR) and as a scientist in the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). These jobs are complementary.
As the Program Manager, I am given the opportunity to lead the direction of the Personal Care initiative in A*STAR. I find it exciting to talk to the different scientists from the institutes, universities and companies and to try to align their directions towards a main thematic thrust. Through the interactions, I learn more about their science and then assess their relevance to the program. My other role is as a scientist in IMRE. Here, I am most at home and very happy with my chemicals and round bottomed flasks. Life as an independent investigator is very interesting. As I continue to push the boundaries which I have set during my PhD, I remind myself that I have to surpass what I have achieved and to be better than my predecessors.
I read that you were the first Singaporean to be inducted as a fellow at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam College. Talk a little about this. How did you get to receive this high honor?
At Cambridge, I was inducted to Fitzwilliam College as a fellow, the first Singaporean to be given this honour. For me, a Singaporean, it is a great honour to belong to the same college as Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew who is an honorary Fellow at the college.
What effect has it had on your career and your work and your recognition within the industry?
Joining Fitzwilliam College has been a very humbling and exciting appointment that has given me the opportunity to be part of the unique pedagogic faculty at Cambridge. Together with my research experiences, this exposure has enabled me to have personal insight into the eclectic and vibrant culture there. Being there allowed me to be exposed to many things, I did the usual journal publications, wrote a book there, organized conferences and had the opportunity to create world beating technology while I was there.
What are the major things you learned from your fellowships? Which one has been the most memorable?
I learnt three things.
First is humility, scientists have to be humble. We are in the business of generating knowledge and this is a never ending cycle. We should be humble to accept that we do not know or understand everything. Once we think that we are a know-it-all, we are finished.
Second is an open nature. Sometimes, we hold on to something, be it a technique, a know-how or a formulation, that seems valuable to us and we might be unwilling to share because we are afraid that others might copy the same idea and propagate the science instead of ourselves. This is not sustainable in today’s world. I believe in an open concept and continued innovation. Ideas can always be generated. Building walls and living in your isolated castles can only retard the progress of science. This leads directly to the point I made earlier about being able to communicate my science to the people.
Third is being able to give credit where credit is due. This comes later in the career where you become the project leader. I have seen the way my supervisor at Cambridge (Prof Oren Scherman) worked and how he accredits the lab members accordingly. And I have contrasted that with my observations at some conferences where scientists present their work without giving due credit to the co-workers. Even in journal publications, I believe that postdocs who are trying to build their own careers should ‘own’ the work together with their supervisors. This is a concept which will take time to gain acceptance but is something which I want to put right in my own team. If a student or a postdoc develops a technology in my lab that is world class and decides to develop it further later in his career, I would be more than happy to support that.
I believe the third is the most memorable and noteworthy.
What advice do you have for others applying for fellowships? Why do you believe these to be important?
Have a clear view of what you want and the final goal you have in mind. Be able to communicate your science to the interview panel. Being book smart is no longer sufficient these days; you have to be relevant to the ecosystem you are in.
You’ve published a large number of journal articles. What tips do you have for those who hope to get their research published in journals? What do you wish someone had told you at the start of the process?
I believe that writing style is important. The clarity of the manuscript is important. The reviewer typically looks at the title, followed by the abstract. Reviewers and editors are very busy people and for proper journals, the cover letter is your 15 minutes of exclusive time with the editor. It allows you to put forward your case for publication.
What is one thing you wish you learned earlier in your career? What advice do you have for younger colleagues?
I started my research at a very young age of 17. Throughout, I have been through experiences, both good and bad. For all the papers, none is more important than the grant that financially provides a conducive research environment. I wished that I had a mentor who had guided me in grant writing earlier. Early on, what I knew, I learnt from books, from the internet. I learnt hands-on grant writing very late in my career.