How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Dr. Chin Sau Yin created a fusion of advanced biopolymers and the Geneva mechanism, a pocket watch device dating back to (at latest) 1893
"Our family did the whole traditional enrichment thing like ballet and piano and so forth. But Mom realised I would come home in my tutu and be kicking my brothers. After seven years of classes, I finally convinced Mom to let me quit and later signed on for Taekwondo and Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing)."
That spirit of independence and willingness to cross boundaries has served Dr. Chin Sau Yin well. Long after ballet and martial arts, she earned a PhD from Columbia University in biomedical engineering, developing an advanced biopolymer device for cancer medication — implantable, at the location of the cancer. Instead of flooding the entire body with chemotherapy drugs and enduring all the side effects, why not provide the medicine only in the place where it's needed, at much lower doses (e.g. a tenth)? Instead of using a biopolymer coating to retard rejection by the body (which sometimes rejects later when the coating is disturbed), why not make the entire device out of biopolymers? "As with a lot of engineering projects, it was a solution looking for a problem…. We talked to many clinicians to figure out what disease to target with the drug device."
"I had designed and tested it, but the dosing mechanism wasn't quite working, and there didn't seem to be any easy answers for making it reliable and accurate. Then a lab-mate [Nalin Tejavibulya] happened to see it. We were working on different projects, but she got interested."
"Did you look up the Geneva drive mechanism?" Nalin asked.
Not only was Nalin a scientist (and four years Sau Yin's junior), but she was also fascinated with horology — watch making. She wanted to be a professional watchmaker, but the science career won out.
"I never knew. So I looked it up in Wikipedia. I didn't need something as complicated as what's used in watches, so I simplified it and made it. This one failed less than the other design and was more precise."
Cross-disciplinary collaboration and sharing is a core element of inter-disciplinary work, and Sau Yin adds her own out-of-the-box approach. Her colleague Wan (Tassaneewan Laksanasopin) noted that watch-making was not Sau Yin's only unusual source of inspiration:
"We went to Chinatown and looked at the toys out there and bought and played with them. We think it's possible to simplify some of their mechanisms to work as a device. We explored machine shops and any other options we could think of."
After all, if the double-helix structure of DNA can be discovered and modelled with Tinker toys (Watson, 1968), then why not use pocket watches and toys in advanced biopolymer medical device research? Out-of-the-box inspiration is not just fun, though. Wan noted, "It's part of the nature of the problem she chose to work on that she has to be so broad and incorporate very different ideas."
Breadth and incorporation are nothing new to Sau Yin. She grew up in Malaysia, speaking Malay, English, and Mandarin. Before her undergraduate studies, she emigrated to Singapore (where she is now a citizen), studied two years for her A levels (on scholarship from the Ministry of Education), applied for an A*STAR scholarship, and worked in a lab for 9–10 months. She then went to Imperial College for biomedical engineering (an interdisciplinary field/program), starting with medical-school topics plus engineering, then delving into chemistry and materials development. After graduating and working in a lab for a year, she went to Columbia for her biomedical engineering PhD.
"You're so young [when starting a PhD], you don't entirely know what you want to do, the rest of your career. A lot of my friends struggled, and we ended up changing. When A*STAR gives a scholarship, they encourage research attachments during the summer and a year of lab work after undergrad, both of which I did.
"Most people use that year to figure out what they don't want to do…. I need to have a tangible product. I need to hold whatever I'm developing, and I prefer shorter term goals. Whereas for tissue engineering it's going to take decades and decades for you to be able to see results in the form of an actual product in the market. My adviser wanted to make MEMS devices (Micro Electrical Mechanical Systems), basically tiny machines entirely out of bio-med compatible materials. At that time, I thought it would be a game changer because it's a totally new way of making them."
Her first project was in a microfluidic lab, miniaturising a white blood cell counter to be used for HIV/AIDS monitoring — a collaboration between Columbia University and the Ministry of Health in Rwanda, where she did the device testing.
After her PhD, she joined A*STAR's Molecular Engineering Lab (MEL). Brainchild of Sydney Brenner (Principal Investigator of the lab and a Nobel Laureate), it's a place where young researchers of different fields can work together on inter-disciplinary projects. The lab has given the opportunity for young post-docs to work together and explore the intersection of their disciplines in order to find novel applications. It includes a wide range of research interests, and these interests are constantly in flux as the team grows.
Everyone works on something different at MEL, and there's only one other engineer in the Lab besides Sau Yin. "We need to be able to bounce ideas off each other, but not necessarily in the same field of research. In my current lab, we don't all work in the same field of research, but everyone has one interest." They bounce ideas when they have a problem, or are just talking, and at meetings when they present research problems and ask for different approaches. Having all been thru their PhD's, they're comfortable sharing failures and problems.
What happened to the cancer treatment device? "Ultimately, we showed that we do have a better treatment efficacy compared to the chemotherapy systematically, and decreased side effects." Results have been published in the Science Robotics journal.
What are some inspirations we might gain from Sau Yin? She began, as many of us do, with an independent spirit and a healthy disregard for boundaries. Maybe if more Moms and teachers gave up and helped us follow our passions (even if they're unusual), there would be more of us learning, collaborating, and creating things across boundaries. Multilingual and multicultural, Sau Yin fused together biology and engineering, and an engineering solution with a problem it could solve (or improve). Sometimes you'll have the solution first, sometimes the problem first; nonetheless you must fuse them together to create impact.
She listened to a younger scientist, which doesn't always happen, given boundaries of seniority and disciplines. (Shockingly, not all scientists are humble and open.) You don't always have to be the one with the ideas. It can be just as valuable to listen to others, put the pieces together, and act.
Openness comes with a cost, however. You may need to spend time figuring out all the things you don't want to do, then focus within your lens, i.e. say no to what's outside it — as Sister Cyril Mooney did.
Sau Yin went where she's unusual (only one other engineer in the Lab), which makes her perspective even more valuable. Sharing that valuable perspective takes a giving heart, because most of the collaboration will be to solve other people's problems. But then when someone reaches in to help you with yours, you can create something together you couldn't create alone, and the fusion begins….
Have you reached out?
Has someone reached in?
Has your fusion begun?
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;
Dr. Chin Sau Yin is a Research Fellow at A*STAR's Molecular Engineering Lab and is "from" Malaysia, Singapore, UK, & the USA (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on her work, see: LinkedIn & a-star.edu.sg/mel.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Dr. Chin Sau Yin, Depositphotos, and our own creative team.
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