Digging into the mind of Dr Wong Min Hao: Rooting for better food security

ASTAR_Dr Wong Min Hao_1000X500Dr Wong Min Hao, Strategy & Business Development Junior Group Leader at A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation and recipient of the National Science Scholarship in 2007 (BS) and 2013 (PhD)

Do plants have conscious feelings? While it remains a divisive issue in the world of botany, Dr Wong Min Hao believes they have lots to say.

Dr Wong was awarded the A*STAR National Science Scholarship in 2007 (BS) and 2013 (PhD). He pursued his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where his research yielded ground-breaking results. By embedding nanosensors in plant cells, he found that plants could “talk” to farmers through infrared communication and relay their real-time needs.

His efforts were recognised: In 2018, he was selected for both the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list for Healthcare & Science and MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 Asia.

Dr Wong, 34, now works with A*STAR’s Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) to share research capabilities with industry players in food-related areas.

The Strategy & Business Development Junior Group Leader at A*STAR explains his love for science, research and food.

Q: How did your interest in science develop?

In 2005, when I was in junior college, I did a lab internship at the National University of Singapore (NUS) under its Science Research Programme. After a few internships, I got more interested in the science. It helped that my teachers were extremely passionate about the subject, making learning hands-on and interactive.

Q: Why research?

My findings during my lab internship at NUS were published in a small section of a larger paper. Research was something I could see myself working on long-term.

Q: What brought about your interest in food tech innovation?

I love eating. Ultimately, you can be interested in a field for very personal reasons. Of course, I also think it is a field that I have the right skill set to make a difference in, because I understand the science well.

Q: What are you currently working on?

One example of a project that I am working on is the upcoming Food Tech Innovation Centre that Temasek Foundation and A*STAR have set up. It aims to close the current gap in the market and serve as a physical centre to support alternative protein companies in upscaling, be it in terms of their capabilities or equipment.

Q: Have there been any breakthroughs that you are particularly proud of?

I am really happy with my PhD work on agricultural nanosensors in plants, which I spent more than five years on. These optical nanosensors allow for instantaneous feedback from plants as they grow and develop. Sometimes, a plant can look green and healthy but is actually showing early signs of health issues. If you are planting high-value crops, this is important information that you can act on.

ASTAR_Dr Wong Min Hao_group photoDr Wong (left) with Prof Seon Kwak (now at Seoul National University) and Prof Juan Pablo Giraldo (now at University of California Riversides)

Q: What do you hope your work will achieve?

I hope that we will be able to improve the efficiency of crop growth through translating some of the work from the lab to the farm. I am rooting for the work of several groups and colleagues in Singapore who are working on various sensor modalities which I hope will make a difference to Singapore’s “30 by 30” goal.

Q: Any words of advice for budding scientists?

Find the intersection between what society values, what you are passionate about and what you are good at.

Keep a very open mind, make friends and, most importantly, be persistent. Doing a PhD is a five-year commitment with its highs and lows, and you do need stamina to pull through.