Dr Xue Shifeng & Dr Anjan Soumyanarayanan: When curiosity leads to ground breaking research: TALENT TIMES

Dr Xue Shifeng (left) and Dr Anjan Soumyanarayanan (right) grew up fascinated with science and how things around them work- which led them to apply for the National Science Scholarship from A*STAR. More than 10 years on- both received the Young Scientist Award last month (Sep).

One is on a mission to understand how cells in the body- carrying the exact same DNA- can morph into very different things. In other words- why is a nose not an eye?

The other is on a quest to develop nanometre-scale "particles" that could bring about next-generation memory and computing technologies.

Developmental biologist Xue Shifeng's and physicist Anjan Soumyanarayanan's research topics are worlds apart. But what they have in common is a thirst for knowledge and the drive to make a difference.

Those traits have taken them on a journey- from inquisitive students to award-winning scientists.

One gene- two results

Dr Xue- 32- said her interest in development biology started during a class in university on embryology. She saw an embryo dividing in real time and was hooked. "It is a special moment when you watch something grow-" said the scientist from A*STAR's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. She is part of a team which discovered a gene that does two things – creation of human noses and contributor to the development of muscular dystrophy- a disease which leads to loss of muscle mass. "We are currently trying to understand how one gene can cause two very different diseases-" she said. Winning the Young Scientist Award has given her a confidence boost and the motivation to contribute more to science in Singapore. "I hope for sustained support for research and development in Singapore because without R&D- we can never have new technologies- or direct solutions to national challenges-" she said.

Computers with "human brains"

Dr Soumyanarayanan- 34- from A*STAR's Institute of Materials Research and Engineering- won the Young Scientist Award for his work on unveiling emergent properties of electronic materials.

A simplified illustration of emergence is when two people get married. "A couple- or a family behaves very differently from separate individuals." he said. "The same holds for electrons in many novel materials."

At A*STAR- he has been studying skyrmions – nanoscale arrangements of electrons which behave as individual magnetic particles.

His team has recently developed an industry-friendly material where the size and density of these skyrmions can be controlled. This opens the door to the possible integration of these structures into computer chips. "The dream is to have a supercomputer in your pocket."- he said.

The award motivates him to work on more challenging and impactful problems.

"Initially I was focused on doing good science in my lab. But to scale up- I need to also bring together people with complementary skills" he said.

He hopes that as discoveries like his are scaled up into products- more electronic companies will be drawn to locate and invest in Singapore.

When the going gets tough- he falls back on a Chinese saying his supervisor often uses: 船到桥头自然直 (chuan dao qiao tou zi ran zhi).

"It inspires me to focus on the variables I can control- and to keep the faith that things will eventually work out-" he said.