Nurturing Top Talent for the Local R&D Ecosystem
Breaking Barriers in Skin Research: Professor Rachel Watson’s Research Journey
24 Aug 2023
Professor Rachel Watson, an esteemed skin biologist and leading figure in skin ageing research, has been passionate about science since her secondary school days. Inspired by a dedicated teacher named Christine Bulger, as well as her older sister's pursuit of a medical career, Prof Watson developed a keen interest in understanding how the body functions, particularly in relation to ageing. This led her to pursue a PhD in the Biology of Neurodegeneration, solidifying her commitment to studying the various mechanisms of ageing.
During the early years of her career, Prof Watson focused on identifying the mechanisms responsible for sunlight-induced skin ageing in Caucasian populations. Her ground-breaking discoveries in this area led her to develop an assay examining skin repair, which has since been used by numerous personal care companies to credential products, contributing to the development of products for improved skin health.
Prior to her move to A*STAR in Singapore, Prof Watson was Professor of Cutaneous Science and Head of Division for Musculoskeletal & Dermatological Sciences at The University of Manchester, UK. There, she led a team dedicated to understanding the intrinsic and extrinsic causes of skin ageing, a topic that deeply fascinated her. Through her research, she made significant contributions to dermatology and skin ageing, and also trained multiple researchers in the field. In recognition of her scientific achievements, she became the first non-clinical scientist to be awarded the Honorary Fellow of the Hungarian Dermatological Society in 2016.
Having worked on understanding how ageing impacts Caucasian and African skin, I really want to identify and develop targeted treatments to skin diseases and disorders in Asians. Singapore is the best place to do this research – It has a diverse population, including talented scientists and clinicians, and world-class research facilities.
In March 2023, Prof Watson assumed the role of Executive Director of the A*STAR Skin Research Labs (A*SRL), a research institute in Singapore dedicated to translational research in wound care innovation, inflammatory skin diseases, skin ageing and pigmentation disorders, and skin microbiome , focusing on the unique manifestations of these conditions in Asians and in a tropical climate.
Concurrently, she leads the Skin Research Institute of Singapore (SRIS), a tripartite collaboration between A*STAR, the National Healthcare Group (NHG) and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) as its Executive Director. Building on the strengths of each partner, the collaboration harnesses the expertise of scientists, clinicians and engineers to conduct high impact, interdisciplinary skin research for improving skin health and reducing the burden of skin diseases for Asian populations and globally. SRIS hosts extensive research programmes, covering areas ranging from clinical dermatology to bioimaging, bioinformatics plus health economics. A*SRL, with its deep expertise in skin biology, contributes actively to SRIS to improve skin health through innovative science and technology.
A renowned expert in the field of skin research, Prof Watson leads her teams of scientists in tackling the complexities of skin health and disease, focusing on areas such as ageing, skin fragility, chronic wounds, and inflammatory skin diseases like atopic dermatitis (AD). She emphasises the important need for a deeper understanding of these conditions and the identification of new therapeutic targets.
At the 25th World Congress of Dermatology in July 2023, Prof Watson, alongside several A*SRL and SRIS scientists, showcased their cutting-edge research in combatting skin disorders and diseases, as well as significant findings from a collaboration between SRIS and Procter & Gamble (P&G), focusing on the use of Niacinamide (NAM) to address premature skin aging effects. The conference served as an important platform to highlight Singapore's outstanding scientific and translational work in improving skin health outcomes globally.
Be brave and don’t be afraid to fail – we learn just as much from negative data as we do from positive data.
Armed with her wealth of experience and insights, Professor Watson is committed to nurturing the next generation of skin researchers, and forge strong collaborations among research players in the ecosystem to jointly push the boundaries of dermatology research and address challenges in skin health and disease. She aims to catalyse the future of skin research, paving the way for transformative skin-related innovations that will benefit Singapore and beyond.
On a fun note, here are some anti-ageing tips from Prof Watson:
1) The skin is the outward manifestation of your health. Take good care of your skin, like how you would take care of your body.
2) Prevention is better that cure – Wear sunscreen daily, broad spectrum with a high sun protection factor. Don’t forget your neck and the backs of your hands (as these age from sun exposure too).
3) Eat the rainbow – Fruits and vegetables are rich in dietary antioxidants which help the skin resist the challenges of the sun. Green tea is especially protective – though you need to drink at least five cups per day!
Bonus fun fact: Prof Watson's parents were professional theatre performers – her father an actor and singer and her mother, a classical dancer!