SCHOLARS OF A*STAR: Dr Siti Nurhanna, IBB
The A*STAR Graduate Academy provides scholarships and fellowships to enable young aspiring scientific talent to pursue their passion in science and prepare them for a rewarding career in research and development (R&D).
Meet our scholars and find out how an A*STAR scholarship has helped them in their R&D careers.
Dr Siti Nurhanna, Senior Research Scientist, A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Bioimaging (IBB)
Q: Tell us more about your work at A*STAR.
A: My current research interests are green chemistry and antimicrobial materials. I am working on the synthesis and characterisation of a new class of antimicrobial materials. These materials are based on non-chemical pathways of killing microbes like bacteria and viruses that will not give birth to superbugs (bacteria immune to whatever antibiotics you throw at them). They will also reduce environmental pollution and burden. I am looking at collaborating with A*STAR colleagues and local enterprises to incorporate these materials into everyday materials such as plastics, paints, and fibres.
Siti is one of the most valuable team members. She has been with us for more than ten years and has made significant contributions to our dynamically changing research directions. Her role involves leading and managing research projects and collaborations. She is also a mentor to students and junior researchers. Some of her research works have attracted considerable attention worldwide and have been highlighted in top journals.
Dr Yugen Zhang, Senior Principal Investigator, IBB
Q: What are some of your most notable achievements?
A: The most memorable achievement would be my first “first-author” paper in Angewandte Chemie International Edition in 2008, published as part of my PhD dissertation on “Carbon Dioxide Fixation and Utilisation”. We were the first in the world to report the use of environmentally friendly catalysts to convert carbon dioxide to methanol without the need for heating or external pressure.
Q: What does the A*STAR scholarship mean to you?
A: I can pretty much say that I grew up with A*STAR. I joined A*STAR right after graduating with my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. Being in A*STAR allows me to work with some of the brightest and most hardworking scientists.
When the opportunity to embark on an A*STAR International Fellowship (AIF) to pursue a postdoctoral stint at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) came knocking, I jumped at it.
It was surreal working in the same building as many Nobel Laureates (the late Prof Ahmed Zewail, Prof Rudolph Marcus and Prof Robert Grubbs). Caltech exposed me to the rigours of academia, research and the pursuit of “how things work”.
(Left) Summer days in Caltech, August 2014
(Right) Celebrating the first day of Hari Raya at the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Conference in 2017
Q: What was your first research project?
A: My first research project was probably my honours project. I worked alongside a graduate student on building the chemical backbone of pharmaceutical drugs using non-toxic metal catalysts. That was my first exposure to catalysis and green chemistry, where we tried to design products and processes that can reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous materials.
Q: What were some of the challenges and learnings?
A: Agility is crucial as a scientist; science and tech move very fast, and one must embrace change and adapt. “The only constant in life is change” – Heraclitus.
For example, my main area of research in chemistry in both my undergraduate and graduate studies was catalysis and methodology involving small molecules. I studied and optimised catalytic systems for their best performance in chemical conversion to fuels and valuable feedstock. Along the way, I also dabbled in organic syntheses of molecules, exploring their utility as anti-cancer agents.
The skills I picked up helped in my first research project. Was I unsure of myself when I first started in the lab as an undergraduate researcher? Yes, I was. But as I read more and became more adept, my confidence naturally grew.
Studying across the world in Caltech, away from my comfort zone, was another learning curve for me. It was a challenging academic setting, but I was glad I took the leap of faith to embark on this journey.
Upon returning to Singapore in 2016, I switched back to antimicrobial materials and technology. With new projects came new roles and responsibilities. There will always be an uncomfortable feeling with each change, called “imposter syndrome”. But the lessons I learnt from the very beginning – willingness to learn, humility, adaptability and research integrity – have put me in good stead for future projects.
From left to right: Dr Siti Nurhanna, Dr Andrew Wan, Dr Winston Koh, Dr Eunice Leong and Dr Smarajit Chakraborty
Q: What do you do outside of work?
A: I enjoy many activities outside of work. They include:
Baking – I’m more of a baker than a cook. An occupational hazard of following protocols. Baking is a form of science!
Gym – Kickboxing, strength and HIIT training and pilates. I need to work off those bakes.
Travelling and itinerary planning – I’m known as the travel agent amongst my friends.
At the summit of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa
Q: What keeps you motivated in your career?
A: “Ihsan”- an Arabic word for “Excellence”.
My motivation is to strive towards excellence, be it in my work, interactions with colleagues, students or collaborators, and the learning of new research areas, amongst other things.
Chemistry has always fascinated me, the way one can mix two very different compounds, resulting in a new compound with new properties that are not just a simple sum of its discrete parts. The challenge of figuring out why molecules act a certain way, and indirectly, the pursuit of knowledge, has been a driving force in my research.
I hope to contribute to green chemistry and materials technologies that will benefit the larger community. It may not be the most technologically advanced or award-winning research areas, but if the knowledge gained can be built upon further to solve greater issues, then that is a win for me too. It’s not the end, but the journey that matters.
Q: Any words of advice for new scholars?
A: Find your passion. Be agile and amendable to change.
Growth, both personal and professional, comes with being a brave and constant student.
Find good mentors and pay it forward - I’ve been extremely blessed and lucky to have had amazing mentors. They taught me the theory and skills, realised my potential, and encouraged me when I felt like giving up. Their faith in my capabilities far exceeds my self-assessment, and I would not have gotten this far without them.