How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Dr. Adelene Sim fuses:
- physics, informatics, & biology
- holistic connections with a diverse set of colleagues, students, & mentees
- international life & language
"My PhD lead supervisor was Michael Levitt, Nobel Prize winner, 2013. I learned so much from him. In a lot of places, people backstab in order to succeed, but he never resorted to that. To be really successful in what you do: Do good. Be good. Be humble. He'll tell you the same thing, and he led by example. After my thesis defense, he asked me, "What do you want for your thesis party? I'm going to the supermarket now, and I can grab whatever you want."
How often has a Nobel Prize winner offered to grocery shop for you? Most of us can't get our spouse or kids to do it. And yet, simple acts of reaching out can do two things: join us together so we can build together, and help us understand the space we're reaching across. The first helps us collaborate. The second pushes us to understand at depth, from more perspectives than our own.
Dr. Adelene Sim is the only scientist in her family. Dad does business, Mum did law, brother did geography and now teaches. To bridge the gap, she had to understand others' perspectives and often had to explain why she did what she did, which made her think more deeply.
As a kid, she solved puzzles for hours on end, assembled aeroplanes and ships, and played Lego. She was driven by curiosity and a desire to solve problems. Good in football and keenly aware of her surroundings, she noticed things and often heard from her parents, "Wow—you're the only one who saw that."
When she sees a problem, she lets it simmer, discusses it to gain other perspectives, then tinkers, because oftentimes, "until you actually sit down and get your hands dirty, you don't know the right questions to ask."
Unlike some parents, who push their kids to follow in their footsteps or follow better footsteps like medicine, law, and engineering (especially in Asia), her parents were supportive of whatever interested her. They fed those interests with models, toys, and education, and enjoyed the benefits of having a tinkerer around:
"When something doesn't work, it really bothers me. Why did it stop working? Can I fix it? At home, I'm actually the one who fixes stuff and assembles Ikea furniture. And it becomes a cycle. When you fix more stuff, you encounter more problems, and you keep fixing and learning."
She followed her curiosity beyond problems at-hand and beyond school, via the Internet:
"I grew up when the Internet was growing, and it made a huge difference. When you learn stuff in school, it's typically quite narrow and is focused on learning for the exam. I remember looking up Chemistry with Yahoo Search (Google wasn't big then) and cutting out pictures of how orbitals look. I was really intrigued by it and how it wasn't adequately described in class. I'm motivated by interest and want to decipher how things work. It was so much easier to learn with Yahoo instead of going to the library. And the curiosity and learning built upon itself."
Her interests moved from chemistry to physics, which she approached with the same desire to understand. However, it held an extra feature—it could help her understand everything else:
"When I was growing up I was always interested in physics because I thought it could link together everything. I used to say that it's the most basic of all sciences. It helps me connect things. I like underlying principles, underlying ideas. At a deeper level, they're all connected."
She earned her bachelor's in physics at Cambridge. After three years there, she returned to Singapore to work for a year in materials research.
She moved on to Stanford for her master's and doctorate degrees in applied physics. In the first of her 6 years there, she rotated to different labs, which gave her a chance to try new things before settling into one area of focus at the Levitt Lab. She started with photonic crystals (designing them to guide light in different ways), and moved into biophysics, ultimately working to predict and understand RNA tertiary structure using knowledge-based potentials, low-resolution experimental data, and novel computational sampling and clustering approaches.
Returning to Singapore as a post-doc for 5 years, Adelene set to work on computational modeling of protein structures and protein-RNA interactions at the Verma lab in A*STAR's BII (Agency for Science Technology and Research, Bioinformatics Institute). She studies the key RNA structural motifs involved in protein-RNA interactions and uses molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo sampling to determine conformations and dynamics of proteins involved in the p53 tumor-suppressor network.
For the rest of us, that means she works in computational structural biology, i.e. modeling the structures of biological macromolecules (like proteins) and how structural changes affect their function. The methods and models she develops can be applied to a wide range of specific situations, like the spread of dengue or cancer.
Cancer, for example, is basically cell mutation and proliferation. Cells deform and reproduce in a way that's harmful. The way she explains it to students (and interviewers) is: if your printer started printing junk, you would cancel the print job or (if that didn't work), turn off the printer or pull the plug. We don't really understand cancer well enough to know how to stop the print job or "turn off" the cancer cells readily. If we understood the machinery, we might be able to.
Similarly, when Adelene's brother got dengue (twice), all anyone could do was admit him to hospital and give him Paracetamol. No one knows exactly how dengue works, despite (annually) 390 million infections, 500,000 hemorrhagic fever cases, and 25,000 deaths. We can't easily "turn off" dengue.
Then, when you add Zika (in the same family as dengue) and other viral infections, the picture (printed or not) becomes clear: we need to understand at a basic level how they work and how to stop or reprogram them. So, we need to model their structure and behavior using advanced mathematical methods and computer algorithms—such as those created by Adelene.
"I work on multiple projects at the same time, and things I understand or uncover in one eventually have implications on others which were seemingly unrelated. It can be as simple as finding a new way to write a computer program that makes it faster, or a modeling technique."
Adelene learned that developments in one discipline might have uses in many others. Her research and personal style is to learn broadly, understand deeply, and make a connection to what she's working on.
"The more I'm exposed to, the more I connect and see patterns. It builds on itself. In fact, if someone looked at the things that I've done, they might think it's all separate & doesn't make sense. But to me, it does. In my mind, it's all connected. It's all the same thing."
In fact, she doesn't even have to make the connection—a good thing, since her job is in basic research (not applied research). She compares research to a team building a skyscraper. Everyone adds bricks (knowledge), and no one knows the value of a particular brick. Einstein's equations were not originally thought to be useful. Lasers initially had no use. The first programmable devices were musical instruments and toys, not computers for the workplace. So, Adelene continues to pursue new knowledge about how things work and publishes in top journals. She's passionate to know how things work, but she often doesn't know how her work will be used. When asked if that bothers her, she says, "It's fine not knowing."
Although she may not know who will use her "brick" or place the next "brick" on top of hers, and despite the popular image of impartial scientists alone in their labs, collaboration is key. The best collaborations she's enjoyed have come through friends and colleagues and involved deep discussions beyond the research at hand.
Colleagues describe her as collaborative, open to sharing her ideas, a good teacher, patient, strong in spirit, deep-thinking, broad, hard-working, effective & efficient, and productive, seeing the big picture as well as how parts work together. She asks deep questions at weekly lab meetings and helps shape others' thinking of their projects with deep listening and questions (not just answers).
In fact, she impressed her colleague Chinh Su Tran To with a very simple act on Chinh's first day of work at the lab. Adelene offered Chinh first use of the computer. It sounds so small and forgettable, but over a year later, it was the first thing Chinh mentioned in an interview about Adelene. Her last sentence was, "She's one of the few people that make me impressed."
Adelene is extremely passionate about mentoring and teaching the next generation of scientists and data analysts. Further, she finds the best way to learn really is to teach, and it boosts her creativity through analogous thinking:
"I often draw analogies of complex/abstract stuff to things that I'm familiar with. I notice I always have to do this when working with students, to explain things to them in a way they can relate to. In retrospect, I think these help reinforce intuition (for me), which may be important in drawing connections and networks. In particular, I'm forced to draw connections between things that are seemingly disparate, just to better explain an idea."
Those who help others often co-incidentally help themselves, like the old story of a man in need of help on a snowy mountain. People passed him by, saying they had to get to the top before the blizzard, so they couldn't help. One man picked up the fallen traveler and hiked up the mountain with him on his back. One by one, he passed the others, frozen dead in the snow. When he reached the temple at the top and laid the fallen man on the ground, he at last took a moment to wipe off his sweat.
Students and interns at various levels work with Adelene—high school, undergraduate, graduate, and PhD candidates. She mentors the whole person—not just the scientist—and seeks to cultivate values (so, of course, mentoring at depth). As a Christian, she feels God gives her inspiration, and she chooses problems to work on for both the intellectual thrill as well as the potential impact on humanity.
Her students come from very different backgrounds and a variety of nations, so she's stretched to see from their diverse perspectives, including international. Like teaching, it helps her see from others' perspectives, make new analogies, and craft creative solutions.
Likewise, her own life abroad (and trips to bookstores) opened her eyes to "just how big the world is"—the excitement (and acute humility) of discovering what she didn't know and didn't know she didn't know.
"I have friends who've lived in one nation their whole lives. Their perception of the world is different from someone who has not just travelled, but actually lived on another continent."
A native Mandarin and English speaker, she appreciates how language can help you immerse in a different culture and understand more deeply and flexibly. When she travels, she learns at least some of the language, as on a recent trip to Spain.
"Never, ever stop learning. And never do it to get smarter. You're not going to know it all."
Adelene reads prolifically and broadly, takes courses on Coursera and EdX, and talks to different people (including many good friends outside the sciences). With bachelor's, master's, and PhD degrees in hand, she recently earned her second master's degree—in computer science at Georgia Institute of Technology.
No one's CV needs that many degrees. She's exploring what interests her and enjoys learning. Nowadays, she intentionally learns from different disciplines in order to cross-connect, e.g. mathematics principles that can be applied to social or biological networks.
"The dots are there. It's just that no one's connected them yet."
Despite her breadth (from the average scientist's perspective) she feels she's siloed herself in the sciences. She wants to branch out, learning more languages and humanities, with a desire to use her skills in genomic data science, educational technology, and healthcare.
So far, her journey has been rooted in diversity, powered by deep understanding, crafted with connections and analogies, and enabled by humble, holistic personal connectedness.
To go on a similar journey, we can actively diversify ourselves, follow our interests towards understanding at depth, make intellectual connections, and practice analogies.
However, we may need to do something harder and less obvious, for advances we can't make alone. Maybe the real question is:
Whose groceries did you get today?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Adelene is, "a lifelong learner who loves to break silos across different disciplines. I started as a physicist, moved to become a biophysicist and now am probably closer to be known as a data scientist/machine learning engineer. I love to work with data (genomic data, molecular simulation data, wet-lab experimental data, electronic health records, etc.) and to uncover the secrets they tell us. The noisier and bigger the data, the more fun it gets! On top of that, I am also very particular about acquiring proper domain knowledge, so that I can avoid getting garbage out (due to garbage in)." She is "from" England, USA, and Singapore (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on her work, see : Linkedin and her research website and The Bioinformatics Institute at A*STAR.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you're all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research—you're the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Adelene Sim, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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