Getting Work-Life Balance Down to a Science

Left: Jiang Sizun | Right: Tan Wui Siew

Contrary to the misconception that scientists spend long hours in their laboratories and hardly have time to pursue other interests, A*STAR scholars Dr Tan Wui Siew and Jiang Sizun demonstrate that it’s possible to be part of a world-class research organisation and still keep a good work-life balance.

By Renee Seow

When Dr Tan Wui Siew is not pushing the boundaries of materials science, the trim and tanned 28-year-old research scientist indulges in sports and occasionally travels to neighbouring countries to immerse in nature.

Her fellow compatriot, Jiang Sizun, is also a researcher, albeit in the field of structural biology and biochemistry. However, away from the microscope, the bespectacled 23-year-old enjoys running half marathons.

Besides their similar active lifestyles, both Wui Siew and Sizun are also recipients of one of Singapore’s most reputed science scholarships, the National Science Scholarship under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).

Tell us what you do in A*STAR.
Wui Siew: I conduct research on printable plastic materials at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). Patterning of plastic materials at the nanoscale is important in controlling various surface properties including optical reflection, wetting, protein resistance, fogging, and many others. I’ve just joined the team and am still learning about various projects. IMRE gives a lot of space and flexibility to its scientists, allowing me to seek out areas where I can best contribute.

Sizun: I’m currently on a 1-year research attachment as a Research Officer at the Genome Institute of Singapore. My research project revolves around transcription factors which are proteins that are like master switches, controlling the ON/OFF switch of our genes. My work requires me to be mostly independent – designing experiments and finding ways to work towards a goal set by the principal investigator. It’s important to understand the big picture, especially why you’re doing these experiments and how you can do it better to achieve your goal, and that takes a lot of creativity and independence.

Apart from a love for science and research, what else spurs you on?
Wui Siew: One of the reasons why I applied for the scholarship was because I really enjoy science. I love finding better solutions to existing problems and this interest has lasted till today. What keeps me going is that science and research let us push the boundaries of knowledge to discover something new or understand something better. For instance during my PhD studies, I came up with temperature-responsive coatings and I also worked on designing an anti-reflective coating for a NASA space lens.

Sizun: I really enjoy research and it has become a big part of my life. Research is not a 9-to-5 job; cells don't take breaks. (Laughs) I might have a Sunday but cells don’t, so if I put in the extra time and plan my experiments properly, I will be able to make a difference faster. Also, failure is quite common in research, even for Nobel Laureates! But, the good thing about science is that you’ll still learn something new whenever you fail and then you can apply that to bring you a step closer to success.

Repeating experiments, interpreting data, and writing reports can be very time-consuming. Do you find time to pursue other interests?
Wui Siew: I enjoy nature, hiking and playing sports such as badminton and Ultimate (Frisbee). Back in USA, I used to dance Salsa and Lindy Hop socially. I really love the latter because it’s a happy and creative dance!

Sizun: I used to ski and run half marathons while juggling research and studies in the States and I’m trying to take up the latter again. You need the personal time outside of the lab as an avenue to take your mind off the project. Sometimes, a novel idea might strike when you are not thinking about it.

What was studying overseas like?
Wui Siew: As someone who enjoys new experiences, studying abroad for eight years allowed me to learn inside and outside of the classroom. I learned about different educational and political systems, people, cultures, and lifestyles. I also learned how to cope with the initial loneliness of staying in a foreign environment and how to respond to being surrounded by people completely different from me. If you keep an open and positive mind, studying overseas can be a very rewarding experience.

Sizun: I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a fantastic research-intensive public school in the States. I was exposed to a diverse group of professors, experts in every single field that you can think of (think African Storytelling, Shamanism), which definitely broadened my thinking. The US school system gave me a lot of freedom over the choice of classes I took, and often I could enrol into a graduate level course after talking to the professor. This allowed me to eventually graduate within three years with an Honours degree! Being out of my comfort zone meant I befriended people from all walks of life and learned how to live independently. I even spent a week living on a farm!

What are some lessons you’ve gleaned from your journey in science and research?
Wui Siew: The best thing I have learned is resilience. Experiments often fail but there is usually something to learn every time. Often “failed experiments” can also lead to something unexpectedly good. Research attachments during my schooling days have taught me that there are inherent problems in any research area. It’s important to expose yourself to different projects, so that you can explore their limitations and then decide whether you think that’s the best area for you to work in..

Sizun: The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is on how to write a good research grant proposal. Writing a grant is asking someone to give you money for a research project. It’s about selling a big idea and explaining how it will benefit the community. I’m lucky to have this ‘training’ slightly earlier than most people, as it requires an intimate understanding of what your project is, and why you are doing it.

What do you hope to achieve in 5 years’ time?
Wui Siew: I hope to have a team of people working with me on new ideas. As a graduate student, you may have many ideas but with only two hands, you often cannot pursue all of them. If I can have a research group, I could try out many ideas at the same time!

Sizun: Graduate from graduate school! The great thing about this scholarship is that it helps to plan your route, so you know exactly where you’ll be at any point of time. You complete your undergraduate studies and then work for a year at a research institute when you come back, which lets you gain more research training experience and think about what you would like to specialise in before choosing the graduate programme that suits you more.

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