Doctoral Student at Genome Institute of Singapore
House geckos that shed their tails captured Ha's imagination as a child—as she marvelled at the dramatic distraction act that helps lizards to survive. That fascination with how science can explain the lizard's tail loss and provide answers for a better and more sustainable future intrigues her.
"I believe in the potential of science to help us solve problems, even unprecedented problems like COVID-19," she shares.
Science is just fun—the whole process of forming hypotheses and testing those hypotheses is like tackling a puzzle. It feels so good when you solve one."
What baffles the ardent puzzle-solver now is figuring out the therapeutics for Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD). This disease has become globally prevalent due to growing affluence and the accompanying sedentary lifestyle.
As part of her PhD, Ha is working with a team of researchers under Prof Ng Huck Hui. They try to turn the tide on this under-diagnosed disease with no accurate non-invasive diagnostic assays or currently approved therapies.
Another branch of research that Ha is keen on is a regenerative medicine that looks at restoring or repairing damaged cells, tissue or organs in the body. Her talking about this brought to mind a comic series that she enjoyed as a child—Dragon Ball—where the characters had superhuman regeneration capabilities.
While regeneration may seem like fantasy, Ha believes that science has the potential to make it a reality. "The human liver can regenerate from just 25% of its tissue, and in future, there is the possibility, and it will be quite amazing if other defective parts of the body can regrow—that will be game-changing."
With a Bachelor's degree in Biological Sciences and currently a doctoral student, Ha recalls how an A*STAR scholarship completely changed her life. Her aptitude and interest in science helped her in receiving the coveted school-based scholarship sponsored by A*STAR in Vietnam, bringing her to Singapore.
"My life would have been very different without the A*STAR scholarship. To a teenage girl raised by a single parent, the scholarship is like a luxury. I never thought I would go to another country to study or to get a PhD."
An encounter with Mr Lim Chuan Poh, then A*STAR Chairman, cemented her purpose in choosing a career in research. "I was 19 and unsure about my life's direction in terms of career choices. Chairman Lim's conviction about leaving the world a better place left a deep impression in me."
Ha then worked as an intern student in Dr Bob Robinson’s lab, elucidating protein structure. She recalls how she saw the passion and energy that the researchers had for the sciences and the challenges they faced.
The experience in A*STAR taught me many lessons in science and life. The interactions with the principal investigators and seniors in the lab and the A*STAR’s overall environment are invaluable.
After three years at university, Ha decided to return to A*STAR to study for her PhD, attracted to its highly competitive, fast-paced environment and opportunities.
Science and Stories
While Ha has spent much time in scientific endeavours, she is now exploring theatre and theatrically telling stories, which she believes has similarities to science. She plans to tap into this experience to communicate science in a more relevant, accessible, and engaging way to different audiences.
"Communication is so important in science—such as in the publication of research. For instance, when we need to communicate about the role of certain molecules and proteins in a disease, we have to decide on the best way to give the background and tell its story."
Paint-ball session in January 2020
“A scientist is indeed an artist, and my art is to enable humanity to understand and improve their health at the molecular level."
Even as Ha looks forward to an exciting career ahead, there are times when she hits a dry spell, and nothing goes well. Then she will remember her desire to "make people's lives better so that they can enjoy a better quality of life." Her advice for students who dream of a STEM career is to love science for what it is.
"Tough days will come when everything fails. To endure through that, you will need to love science to stay the course. Then you won't take the failure personally, but to just persevere."