By Shobana Kesava
In less than a fortnight, Dr Lisa Ng turns 35 but she will not look a day over 26.
When this was pointed out to her, the award-winning scientist said with characteristic modesty: 'Naivete keeps us looking younger than our age, we have to be eternal optimists to stay scientists.'
Dr Ng, who is with the Singapore Immunology Network (SiGN), under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, won the eighth Asean Young Scientist and Technologist Award last week.
She is the first Singaporean and the first woman to clinch the honour. The award recognises her work in preparing infectious disease laboratories in the region for any possible epidemic.
It is not her first award. In March last year, she received the Biovisions Next Fellows award in France, and in 2005, she was voted Singapore's most inspiring woman in science and technology.
There are many more accolades, but they have not gone to her head. Everyone who speaks of her has nothing but kind words. 'Humble', 'generous' and the ubiquitous 'nice' are the usual adjectives that crop up. Even 'patriot' and 'leader'.
She is a respected colleague at SiGN, one with whom other lead researchers would be happy to share a laboratory - for her reputation for being capable and hardworking.
To Dr Ng, such praise gives an even greater sense of responsibility.
Petite and slim, she has clear skin and bright eyes and it is hard to guess that she suffers from insomnia because her mind is constantly wandering back to her science: how can she perfect a technique, find a solution, or do Singapore proud?
Of her Asean award, she says: 'I didn't want to win. I just thought everyone must see Singapore's dedication to good science and to Asean.'
Her former mentor, Professor Edison Liu, executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore, said of her: 'She is a shining example of how willpower and commitment are often more important for success than achievement through examination scores.'
Dr Ng never aspired to have a string of awards, sit on infectious disease advisory committees, or have high praise bestowed upon her.
'I didn't even know I wanted to be a scientist when I was a kid. I just wanted to do what I liked best,' said the soft-spoken woman.
What she liked best was science. Even as a child, she would attempt to reconstruct experiments she had seen on television and would not give up easily.
The elder of two girls, she was the more introverted. Now semi-retired, her parents - her father is a contractor and her mother a teacher - impressed upon both girls the importance of education, but the quieter child seemed to rebel.
After completing her GCE O levels at Marymount Convent in 1989, she announced her decision to take up a bio-technology course at the Singapore Polytechnic.
She was ahead of her time in wanting to pursue a course that was interesting to her, rather than choosing the tried-and-tested path of junior college and then university, which her sister would eventually take to one day become an editor with a lifestyle magazine.
'I really had trouble convincing them it was the right step for me because it was the only course offering scientific research right away,' she recalled. 'They even had an aunt call me to tell me not to do it as polytechnic was considered second-rate and I would not get into university easily.'
But she insisted on taking the road less travelled and eventually found that her family was right: She was unable to get a place at the National University of Singapore after she had finished her polytechnic studies, even though her grades were good.
Her parents were committed to her further education though, and provided her the funds to study at the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology in Britain. Her growing up really began there.
'It taught me to be independent, which I always thought I had been,' she said.
The first time she walked into a supermarket in Manchester, she had no clue what to buy. She ended up with so many shopping bags, she needed help carting them all back to the university hall.
The times that she went with her mother to the supermarket when she was younger, 'I'd always be lost in thought when I pushed the trolley around', she said.
After completing her biochemistry course, she chose to return to Singapore to be with her family and out of financial consideration to her family. Also, at the time, the biomedical sector had just taken off here. She won a PhD fellowship to join the Institute of Molecular and Agro-Biology, and completing her doctorate in 2002.
She worked hard, juggling her time between her engineer boyfriend and the laboratory. A five-year courtship led to marriage. She was 27. But it was not meant to last.
As she grew more engrossed in unravelling the mysteries of science, the relationship began to feel a strain. 'We realised we wanted different things,' she said. 'Women change a lot in their 20s.' She worked longer and longer hours and would return to her laboratory to check on experiments over the weekend if she was needed.
Her husband preferred that they had their weekends free, but she wanted to make sure her work was done well, even if it meant working odd hours.
'I wouldn't work weekends at first but my passion for science grew as I went deeper into it,' she said.
In the meantime, a little-studied chicken-infecting corona virus she had been asked to investigate for her doctorate at the institute suddenly became the talk of the town - and in fact the world - when it mutated and began to attack humans.
The condition it caused was called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or Sars.
She was thrown into work with hospitals and the Health Ministry, work which saw them racing against time to develop a diagnostic kit for this mysterious and deadly illness.
By then, her marriage had ended. Asked how she handled the emotional turmoil, she said simply: 'I just had to focus on what needed to be done.'
Perhaps it is the scientist in her that has kept her positive.
'A scientist has to be an optimist by nature because we have to face failure every day, sometimes for months, as we test our theories, before we see a glimpse of success,' she said.
Even as she acknowledges that it is harder for women in science to have it all, she is open to future possibilities.
'Most partners who understand our work tend to be in the same line,' she noted.
More crucial to her right now are the answers she seeks to the puzzles of infectious diseases which keep her up at night. She gets at most five hours of sleep a night.
'My mind just goes back to the work, but my body catches up eventually, and there are days I'm forced to slow down and I go home at 6pm and I have to sleep,' she said.
She has been working with the Health Ministry for the last two years, travelling to laboratories in Indonesia and Vietnam to help them develop their capability to understand and deal with infectious diseases like influenza.
The evidence that her work can change people's lives has fired her imagination and desire to do much more for immunology in Asia.
Today, she studies how the body fights against infectious diseases, looking at the little-understood chikungunya virus that is carried by the Aedes mosquito, the same insect that transmits dengue. Few cases have been detected in Singapore, but the country is a prime location for more infections.
Her dreams go beyond curing illness to developing international standards of practice.
'A dream come true would be to have Asia set its own standards of health care that are at a high enough level to be on a par with the World Health Organisation, or even to advise it on what is the best course of action to take in an infectious disease crisis,' she said.
She quips that it may just be her naivete at work once again, but this scientist believes it is achievable in her lifetime.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on July 13, 2008.