Finding joy in the ordinary

Finding joy in the ordinary
Dr Li Jingmei, with her mother Madam Foong Siew Nyok and her brother, Lee Jing Chong.

When Dr Li Jingmei's mother found out she received this year's Unesco-L'Oreal International For Women In Science Fellowship - one of only 15 women scientists around the world to do so - Madam Foong Siew Nyok just said: "Orh."

Dr Li's younger brother, network engineer Lee Jing Chong, 28, says: "We do not do celebrations. We're just happy that nothing goes wrong. Any good thing that comes along is a bonus."

Dr Li, 31, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Genome Institute of Singapore, received US$40,000 (S$50,700) for the award.

This allows her to spend two years at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, where she did her PhD in medical science on an A*Star scholarship, from next month.

She plans to tap Sweden's nationwide disease registries to find out if there are genetic risk factors for aggressive breast cancer.

From a young age, she excelled at her studies, scoring straight As at the A levels in the triple-science stream at Hwa Chong Institution and receiving an undergraduate scholarship for her faculty of science studies at the National University of Singapore, where she was valedictorian of her science cohort.

Her family live in a five-room flat in Pasir Ris, except for her 58-year-old father, who has been absent since she was about 10 years old.

Their mother Madam Foong says her husband "gradually" pulled away, spending less and less time with the family, although the couple never divorced. She reckons he lives "somewhere in Johor Baru" and stays in the flat only occasionally when he visits.

Says Madam Foong, 57, a seamstress: "He can come and stay here because it's his house. It was bought mostly with his money."

Dr Li, what is your relationship like with your father?

Dr Li: It's cordial but we have no in-depth conversations. He visits randomly.

Madam Foong: He asks about his children. I don't ask what he does. Ask for what? It's enough that I'm happy.

Dr Li, what kind of husband would you want?

Dr Li: I'm looking for an equal whom I can grow with mentally and in character. I do believe in fairy tales. There must be a bit of truth in them if they have the ability to last through ages.

Madam Foong: I'm okay with anyone she chooses as long as she's happy.

What was your childhood like?

Dr Li: I ran around catching spiders and guppies with my cousins. At the time, we lived in a four-storey terrace house in Geylang Lorong 4 with our father's extended family.

My cousins also kept doves and rabbits and my uncles kept birds. Our family moved to our current home in Pasir Ris when I was seven.

Madam Foong: My husband had his jewellery workshop at the Lorong 4 house before moving it to Johor Baru when Jingmei was around 10. There were so many people, we had four tables when everyone gathered for meals.

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