Dr. Sherry Aw shares about her role model, barriers faced by women in taking up leadership positions and her advice for young women thinking of a career in science.
The L'Oreal For Women In Science National Fellowship (FWIS) programme, is an award aimed
at empowering women 35 years and below to further their achievements in science. Held annually and in its 9th year, Dr. Sherry Aw was a recipient of the prestigious 2017 national fellowships.
In view of our ageing society, Dr. Aw’s research explored the mechanisms underlying tremor in neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Aw is an Independent Fellow at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). She explained about the research, “As age is a key risk factor of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, their prevalence is increasing in our ageing societies. I am conducting genetic experiments to develop new treatments for these diseases. We do this by studying the effects of disease-associated human genes in the fruit fly, which shows neurodegeneration when these genes are mutated, just like in humans”.
Her research revolves around using the fruit fly Drosophila, which shares 60 per cent of our genes, as a model for understanding the genes and cell mechanisms that underlie brain function and disease. This in turn helps to find the causes and potential treatments for tremor.
Why neurodegenerative diseases?
Dr. Aw holds a PhD in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Harvard University. It was when she was working in the lab at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), when she first developed an interest in understanding the pathophysiology of neurodegenerative diseases.
Why neurodegenerative diseases? “I got into this field rather late, after I completed my doctoral studies. I study neurodegeneration because it has a severe clinical impact. The reason that we use the fruit fly model is because it has a short lifespan (good for aging experiments), and is amenable to genetic tools that allow us to carry out sophisticated experiments to closely model human disease processes,” she said.
An exciting moment
On receiving the FWIS award, Dr. Aw said that she was very honoured to have received this fellowship and felt even more empowered to strive to do impactful research. As a recipient of the prestigious award, Dr. Aw walked away with a research grant of SGD30,000 and join the ranks of more than 275 talented young women scientists awarded globally each year.
When quizzed on a memorable moment throughout the entire process, she shared, “It was when I received my first large grant developing this project. This was an important and exciting moment as it gave me the confidence to spearhead this direction of research”.
Current situation of science in Singapore
Dr. Aw says that Singapore’s biomedical landscape has developed rapidly in the past two decades and is now undergoing a significant reshaping to focus on research with strong clinical and economic impact. There will therefore be some upheaval in the coming years.
She wished that, “There will be open dialogue among the government, funding agencies and researchers, so that all factors are considered to allow us to emerge stronger after the transition. In addition, I hope there will continue to be structures in place to allow for active basic science research, which is the basis for true innovation”.
For the next generation of women
An important and hotly debated question is often the barriers faced by women in leadership roles. Dr. Aw believes that the lack of role models at the highest levels is an important factor. “Girls growing up do not see many women in these leadership roles and hence few may realize that they have what it takes. They may not see taking on leadership as a viable career goal. This unfortunately becomes a self-perpetuating cycle”.
When asked to share a role model, she mentioned Jackie Ying. “Jackie inspires me, as she has always chartered her own path to become a top scientist and inventor, bridging different fields in biology and engineering”.
Dr. Aw feels that the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind her would be their ability to succeed in different roles, both personally and professionally. It may seem that opportunities and doors have been opened for them, and these women are expected to wear many hats – to succeed at work and exceed expectations as mother and wife. The challenge is for women to take their own chosen paths without being judged for their choices.
She believes in finding people who support and cheer your successes, and to remember to also be that person for others.
She ends with a message for young women thinking of taking up science: The most important ingredient in doing science is passion, so if you have the interest, do not let your preconceptions about scientists hold you back. Scientists are just normal people! I would strongly encourage young people interested in science to find good mentors. Do not be shy or intimidated. Write to scientists whose work interest you and you will probably impress them with your passion.
The L’Oréal Singapore For Women In Science National Fellowship
The L’Oréal Singapore For Women In Science National Fellowship programme was established in 2009, and is organized with the support of the Singapore National Commission for UNESCO and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). The programme recognizes talented women researchers in the scientific field and aims to encourage women to not only pursue and maintain careers in science; but actively participate in Singapore’s research and development sector as well. The fellows can use their grants with no restrictions.
“Women account for 28 per cent of the world’s researchers. At L’Oréal, where our work is deeply ingrained in science and research, we believe that there is still much we can do to accelerate the advancement of young women in science globally,” says Mr. Henric Sark, Managing Director, L'Oréal Singapore.
Nine years after L’Oreal have hosted the FWIS awards in Singapore, the fellows that received the awards are taking up more active roles in Asia and becoming role models for those around them and for younger generations. “For example, Assistant Professor Juliana Chan, the recipient for 2011’s fellowship, was awarded the 2013 Singapore Youth Award, and named the ten Innovators under 35 (Asia) by MIT Technology Review in 2014. Dr Li Jingmei, our 2014 fellow, was awarded The Singapore Women’s Weekly Great Women Of Our Time for the Science & Technology category this year. Another noteworthy fellow is Dr Neo Mei Lin, who was the recipient for the award in 2015. She has gone on to being on Forbes Asia’s 30 under 30 in 2016. The past fellows have also gone on to give talks and speeches, giving more confidence to other females that STEM is not a field that is just for males,” says Mr. Sark.