From Penang to the Outer Reaches of Science

Talent is one thing Penang is not short on, and unbeknownst to many, a handful of Penangites are making waves abroad in the field of science.

Dr Khoo Teng Jian, 32, works at the University of Geneva and spends his days studying proton collisions from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the world’s largest machine that slams protons together at 40 million times per second.

Starting out in Penang, then moving to Williamstown, Massachusetts before crossing to University of Cambridge, the journey to Switzerland has been far from dull for the Old Free.

After finishing school, Khoo obtained a scholarship from the International School of Penang (Uplands). “I started my undergraduate degree at Williams College, which is located in a super ulu (rural) snowy mountain town,” he says. He majored in Physics, but also did a good number of music courses, learned a bit of Mandarin and took classes in history, philosophy and German.

Dr Khoo Teng Jian 100m underground with the ATLAS detector.

“I was then fortunate enough to earn a PhD scholarship from Williams, for which I crossed back over the Atlantic to the University of Cambridge. My research area was in Experimental High-Energy Physics (or Particle Physics),” Khoo says.

After completing his PhD, he secured a Junior Research Fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge and is currently a Maître-Assistant (French for “Master Assistant” – in Khoo’s case, senior postdoc) at the Department of Nuclear and Particle Physics of the University of Geneva.

Khoo currently works on a number of things, including being part of the ATLAS experiment – a huge experimental collaboration involving 3,000 physicists around the globe – at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) from which he had won the ATLAS Thesis Award for his PhD work and the ATLAS Outstanding Achievement Award for other important contributions in keeping the whole enterprise running.

In a nutshell, he studies collisions from the LHC using the ATLAS detector, which he describes as a microscope about the size of a row of 10 shophouses.

Khoo performing with the Cambridge Graduate Orchestra.

An expert in techniques such as the “missing transverse momentum” used to extract information within a single collision event, his research also covers a multitude of other different topics, like the search for “supersymmetric” particles which could explain the existence of dark matter and the measurement of properties of the top quark – the heaviest elementary particle.

On the future, Khoo says a move back home would be challenging as the Particle Physics field is not yet established in Penang, but he does make it back every few years to visit his grandmother, fulfil his nasi kandar cravings and dust off his Hokkien and Malay.

With a little over a year left on his current contract, Khoo says he is pursuing opportunities for tenure-track jobs particularly in Europe, noting the very limited permanent positions in the academic job market. “In less pragmatic terms, I intend to keep improving our tools and techniques, chasing that next discovery. Dark matter is still a really tantalising goal for the immediate future, while beyond that there are prospects for studying the Higgs boson (particle) in greater detail than has been possible so far. Science is full of surprises, so we just have to keep our eyes open!”

Dr Jessica Teh receiving an award from the American Association for Cancer Research-Ocular Melanoma Foundation to investigate the utility of CDK4/6 inhibitors in uveal melanoma.

Cancer researcher Dr Jessica Teh scored 9As in SPM and obtained a full JPA scholarship to the US. “I prepped for one year at UiTM Shah Alam for SATs and college applications. The Pennsylvania State University was one of the few first-tier colleges that offered Biotechnology as a major and I minored in Microbiology,” she says.

Carrying out independent studies at a breast cancer lab in her junior year, Teh got hooked in the area of research. She was then accepted into Rutgers State University in New Jersey and was awarded her PhD in 2013.

Currently a Research Instructor at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Teh, 34, is focused on melanoma – a disease responsible for the most skin cancer-related deaths.

“Our lab is interested in studying resistance to targeted therapies in melanoma. Aberrant cell cycle is one of the hallmarks of cancer and is driven by oncogenic signaling and aberrant expression of cell cycle components in melanoma and other types of cancers,” she says.

Her research is focused on optimising CDK4/6 inhibitors, currently approved by America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the use in oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer patients. “My long-term research goal is to guide the utility of CDK4/6 inhibitors in early phase clinical trials relevant to large melanoma patient populations. In our studies, we identified resistance mechanisms to CDK4/6 targeting in both mouse models and patient samples,” she explains.

Teh says that science is typically very collaborative. “This allows for multi-disciplinary and innovative research. It’s almost impossible to produce high-impact studies working on your own,” she says.

With half a dozen post-doctoral publications under her belt, Teh also holds a patent with her supervisor Dr Andrew Aplin on a method of using modified melanoma cells capable of quantification of the effects of CDK4/6 inhibitors.

“I like to think that I’ve accomplished what I set out to do in my postdoctoral training so I’m very excited for the next step in my career, particularly transitioning into a more independent role in research. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten from my mentor is to never force data. I think you can apply that advice to almost all aspects of life,” she says.

Teh credits her parents as the biggest positive influence in her life and says she misses the unbeatable food here – both from hawker stalls and her mother’s kitchen. “Penang cuisine is unbeatable. I try to visit about once every two years. I’m always open to moving back as long as it makes sense for my career and family,” she says.

Dr Ong Lin Kooi in the lab at the Hunter Medical Research Institute.

Neuroscientist and medical biochemist Dr Ong Lin Kooi studied at Penang Free School until STPM. The Sungai Nibong native ultimately chose to major in biomedical science after finishing school and moved to Australia in 2005. Graduating with a PhD in Medical Biochemistry from the University of Newcastle, Ong, 34, is now a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Stroke Recovery Research Group at the Hunter Medical Research Institute.

Leading and developing research programmes that centre around the progression of stroke recovery, the avid scuba diver now, in layman’s terms, studies ways to fix damage to the brain caused by strokes.

“My research is focused on understanding the biological mechanisms of post-stroke cognitive impairment, investigating the impact of chronic stress on stroke recovery, and developing and testing novel interventions to enhance brain repair after stroke. I have recently identified that growth hormone treatment following experimental stroke improved cognitive function and additionally observed an enhancement of the repair of neuronal networks and new brain vessel growth,” he says – a breakthrough that led to Ong’s first ever TV interview, featured in 9 News Australia in May last year.

Ong’s work has a personal connection to his life, which makes up for the long hours spent in the lab. “I am fascinated about the brain and I want to make a significant difference to people’s lives. I have family members and friends who suffer from neurodegenerative diseases and stroke, so understanding how the brain works and how to fix the brain when it fails is very rewarding,” he says.

He returns to visit Penang at least once a year although he has now spent over a third of his life in Australia. “I like the Newcastle lifestyle – the good environment, variety of outdoor activities, no traffic jams, day care for my daughter is just next door, and importantly, the people. There are several Penangites who are residing in Newcastle, so we are keeping Penang Hokkien alive,” he says.

On the flip side, Ong is no fan of winters and the variety of food in his area, he explains, is rather limited. “I am glad that I have learned how to cook Malaysian cuisine, and Sydney is not too far away. My family and my in-laws are still in Penang and we go home for the 3Fs - family, friends and food. Penang is always my home, and if there is opportunity, I am happy to move back,” he says.

Hwa Shi-Hsia (front, left) with (clockwise from left) mom Chang Tsyh Yong, father Hwa Jen, brother-in-law Ujval Singh Sidhu-Brar, brother Wei-An and sisters Yue-Yi and Hui-En.

For seasoned travellers like Hwa Shi-Hsia, life’s next step can be just a suitcase away. “My father is a retired Methodist pastor – when I was growing up, we never lived anywhere for more than four years at a time. My parents are both Penangites and now they’re retired and have settled back there, so it’s home as much as anything,” says Hwa, 35.

After completing her SPM, Hwa headed to the US on a university scholarship and completed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Wisconsin. “In between, I worked for a year at the National Wildlife Health Institute in a lab that studied plague and the monkeypox virus. That was my introduction to working in Biosafety Level 3, which is the level of containment that you see in some science-fiction movies with scientists in hoods and white hazmat suits,” she says, only half-jokingly.

Hwa soon moved back to South-east Asia after completing her degrees, this time to Singapore where she worked in a start-up company developing vaccines for Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD) and dengue – two pressing health concerns in the region.

“It was a good experience and I learned a lot, but near the end of the five years I worked there, I started getting itchy feet. I felt like my lab knowledge was plateauing. I saw an ad for a PhD programme that sounded interesting, and applied,” she says.

And just like that, Hwa packed up her life and Lina, her cat, and moved to South Africa. She is currently a PhD student at the Africa Health Research Institute, formerly known as the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for TB and HIV.

Studying blood and tissue samples from TB patients, Hwa compares them to healthy donors to see if any immune cells can be identified that can generate antibodies that suppress the bacteria. “This could help us understand what characteristics would make a better vaccine to stimulate the immune system. BCG is only partially effective. As this is a relatively new area of research, I have to DIY a lot of the methods I’m using, which can be pretty tedious and frustrating. Any small breakthrough is definitely cause for celebration,” she says.

Hwa’s research also goes deeper than a general interest in the subject. Her father contracted TB as a young child and barely survived, giving Hwa a personal connection to her current work.

While enjoying her life in Durban, on Africa’s southern tip, Hwa observes some parallels in the country compared with home, both in positive trends and otherwise. “Depressingly, the impact of apartheid is still very clear. There is very high black unemployment and poverty, and the controversial policy called BEE, which was partly modelled after Malaysia’s NEP, does not seem to be making much of a dent in it,” she says, adding that the second-class treatment a number of black employees suffer reminds her of how many migrant workers are treated here in Malaysia.

On food, outdoor cooking reigns supreme, much like the street food that has put Malaysia on the world map. “Shisa nyama (roast meat) and potjiekos (stew cooked in a cast iron pot on coals) are much tastier than the average restaurant meal. And stay away from ‘Chinese’ food here!”

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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