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Vol 19, No. 11, November 2015   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
The Great Mind in Research & Enterprise: A conversation with Professor Jackie Ying
Prof Jackie Ying was born in Taipei, and raised in Singapore. She received her B.E. and Ph.D. from The Cooper Union and Princeton University, respectively. She joined the faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, where she was Professor of Chemical Engineering until 2005.

She has been the Founding Executive Director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore since 2003. For her research on nanostructured materials, Prof. Ying has been recognized with American Ceramic Society Ross C. Purdy Award, American Chemical Society Award in Solid-State Chemistry, Technology Review’s Inaugural TR100 Young Innovator Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Allan P. Colburn Award, and International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Jubilee Medal.

Prof Ying was elected to the German National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina. She was named one of the “One Hundred Engineers of the Modern Era” by AIChE in its Centennial Celebration. She was an Inaugural Inductee for the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Nano Today, which has an impact factor of 15.000.

Lin: With the improvement in medical technology and nanotechnology, do you think it is possible for the life expectancy to reach a 100 years? And for us to be living in good health at age 90 or 95?

Ying: It is better to have a healthy life and experience healthy aging than to celebrate your 100th birthday. It is important to make informed decisions throughout your lifetime, including leading a healthy lifestyle, in order to enjoy a good quality of life.

Lin: What were your motivations to study a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering, and followed by a PhD in Materials Chemistry? Was it an obvious route or was it more of a, “I will have a try, and perhaps I will like it?

Ying: Since high school, I have been passionate about and interested in Chemistry. Mr. Williams is one of the best teachers I have, and he was a key motivation for my decision to pursue a career in Chemistry. When I joined the University, I switched my major from Electrical Engineering to Chemical Engineering because of my passion for Chemistry. I continued my PhD studies in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Princeton University, with a focus on Materials Chemistry.

Lin: You were born in Taiwan, moved to Singapore, and grew up in New York. Do you think that your exposure to a diverse cultural background has helped in your career achievements? And how has it shown to be helpful?

Ying: Yes, definitely. I moved to Singapore when I was 7 and I attended school here. When I was 15 years old, my family and I moved to New York, which was very different culturally. This international exposure at a young age has helped me to adapt to changes fast and become more culturally sensitive.

Lin: From your publishing profile, you place a significant amount of emphasis on interdisciplinary research work. What is the importance of interdisciplinary research? And how will it change research innovations and discoveries in the next ten years?

Ying: Interdisciplinary research is critical to tackling complex problems. It is important for young researchers to broaden their perspectives by learning more about other disciplines. They may then apply the new knowledge to their research work.

Lin: How do you encourage young post-doctorates to pursue a similar research strategy (i.e. interdisciplinary research work)?

Ying: The Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) has an active Youth Research Program (YRP) that promotes scientific research to students from secondary schools, junior colleges and the universities. This program was established to provide young students with the opportunity to learn more about research before they decide to pursue further studies or a career in science. Since 2003, more than 88,000 students and teachers from 290 schools have participated in YRP activities, including over 2,200 students who have completed at least four weeks of research attachment at IBN. To date, 160 YRP students have taken up scholarships to pursue further studies in science, engineering and medicine, and 56 former YRP students have joined IBN as research staff.

There are no shortcuts in research. It is really a lot of hard work. An early start in hands-on research will benefit the students tremendously as they would be able to learn how to approach open-ended scientific problems. This experience would inspire students to make informed decisions on pursuing research as a career.

Lin: As a Principal Investigator and the Executive Director of the Institute, how do you decide on projects that are high and low in risks, and whether a high-risk project is worth the take?

Ying: Research projects require a critical evaluation on the risks involved. Every PI should recognize the strengths and limitations of their own research team. Aside from intelligence and an interest to acquire new skills, a researcher’s personality is important for determining future success. For example, when I was a professor at MIT, I came across many students who were extremely motivated. In order for researchers to take on high-risk projects, they not only need to be capable and driven, but they should also have a “can-do” attitude and the ability to set the bar higher for themselves and for their team members.

I believe that we need to nurture curiosity and creativity, and teach the young to understand concepts rather than just memorizing theories for exams. It is important to hire researchers who are willing to engage in high-risk projects.

IBN’s innovations have led to over 300 active patents and patent applications, 84 of which have been licensed. We have also spun off 9 companies. Our goal has always been to attract different types of people to do research, and to nurture the young.

Lin: You have a lot of energy, and you are a very busy person. How do you ‘recharge’? Do you consider you work as your hobby, and vice versa?

Ying: The key is to work on a variety of interesting projects. I really enjoy what I’m doing. When you enjoy what you are doing, you will be motivated and energized every day.

Lin: Do you reckon Maths open up more doors? And does it take researchers further?

Ying: A good foundation in Mathematics and an analytical mind would certainly help in problem-solving.

Apart from analytical skills, a good researcher must also have good intuition. Research is labor-intensive. It is unusual to obtain the right answer at the first try, but good intuition can save a lot of time and energy. This “instinctive” ability often comes with experience.

Lin: Do you have tips or encouragement for young researchers to establishing good and long-term collaborative work?

Ying: As much as aptitude is vital in research, sincerity and Emotional Quotient or EQ is important for collaborative work.

Lin: And for entrepreneurship?

Ying: We need to have the ability to view things from the investors’ perspective: the product line, marketing and sales, and have good negotiation skills. One of the spin-off companies that I co-founded, SmartCells, owns a technology platform to auto-regulate the release of insulin therapeutics based on blood glucose levels. This technology was developed by my laboratory to improve diabetic patients’ healthcare and quality of life. The product has a clear objective that addresses market needs, which is one of the dominant factors that investors look out for. We were also very lucky to have angel investors for SmartCells. Merck has since acquired SmartCells for $500 million. A successful enterprise requires great ideas and a lot of effort, as well as a “can-do” mind-set.

Lin: Not everyone has the full package like you do; commercial- and academic-oriented. What do you like most about your work?

Ying: I have a lot of fun with what I am currently doing. I enjoy directing the institute, recruiting excellent researchers from different fields, running my research group, working with a dynamic team and collaborators, establishing spin-off companies, editing Nano Today, and organizing international conferences.

Upcoming Events: Nano Today 2015, December 6-10, Dubai

Professor Jackie Y. Ying will be chairing the 4th Nano Today Conference (Nano Today 2015) orga-nized by Elsevier, the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology and the journal Nano Today. This international conference aims to bring together researchers interested in nanoscience and nano-technology. Nano Today 2015 will be held on December 6-10, 2015 in Dubai, and will present the latest research at the multidisciplinary frontier of nano-structured materials and devices. Visit www.nanotoday-conference.com for more details and registration.

Lin: What are the key elements to be successful in research grant applications?

Ying: There are some who do better at obtaining funds or grants. Often, the less risky projects would receive funding support, leaving less resource for high-risk research projects. The proposal reviewers have to be selective when choosing which research projects to recommend. At IBN, we have regular internal reviews that give all staff members the opportunity to present their research progress and pitch their new ideas. Frankly, this is a much more efficient and effective process of determining who and what project to fund than the grant applications process.

Writer: Yuhui N Lin

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