Every year in CoS, dozens of PhD students defend their thesis and earn their doctorate, the highest university degree. In this series, we catch up with some new doctors to find out about their experience of doing a PhD in CoS, what made them embark on the intense four year journey and what plans they have for the future.
Dr Tan Hui Foon grew up in Johor, Malaysia, and first encountered her interest in biology in secondary school. Placing the foot of a living frog under a microscope, she was fascinated to observe the pulsing blood flow, which sparked her passion for science.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in medical science from the University of New South Wales, Australia, she worked in a local biotechnology company for one and a half years. She then found herself working at Associate Professor Tan Suet Mien’s lab in NTU for two and half years. The exciting and promising findings there were the final push for her to embark on her PhD in the same lab. In January this year, she successfully defended her thesis titled Investigating the functions and signalling properties of kindlins. Now a research fellow in SBS, we caught up with Dr Tan.
You are a biologist. What does a biologist do?
A biologist studies living organisms to gain a better understanding of how nature and the body works, and how organisms are affected by external factors. Using different experimental methods, biologists collate data and explain their findings by applying theories on organism functioning.
What is your research field, in brief, and its applications?
I am currently working on cell adhesion and migration. My research focuses on understanding how a family of proteins, known as kindlins, regulates cell division in addition to their primary role as an integrins regulator. Studies show that kindlins are involved in different cancers. We just published a paper in the Journal of Biology Chemistry, identifying that kindlin-2 can regulate the stability of the mitotic spindles in cells (1). By understanding the mechanisms behind its function, it will help us to identify molecular targets for therapeutic purposes.
How do you find working in the field of cancer biology?
Cancer research is especially competitive and challenging. Cancer treatments can be used to either treat and cure patients in the early stages or manage the symptoms and prolong life for patients who are in the late stages. Nonetheless, I am grateful and honored to be able to work in the cancer biology field to understand and discover potential targets for cancer therapy. I hope that our lab’s research findings can lead to new discoveries and improvements in the current cancer treatments.
Why did you pursue a career in science?
A career in science was my first choice. When my nephew was first diagnosed with cancer, my family and I were shocked and felt completely helpless. For one and a half years, it was distressing to see him suffer and endure the pain of his cancer treatment. I wish I could have discovered a “superdrug” to relieve him of his pain and to help him recover from the illness. This is what motivated me to move ahead in my science career.
How was your PhD defense?
The PhD defense went smoothly. I was excited because it was a day that I had always looked forward to, and it was finally here. My four years of hard work for the PhD finally paid off when my work was acknowledged by professionals in the field.
What are the most important things you have learnt from your PhD days?
I learnt to be a determined and self-motivated individual. I do not give up easily as I know that the journey will never be smooth sailing and there will always be bumps along the way. I have also learnt to create a research environment that is suitable for me, which allowed me to really enjoy my time spent on research work. I picked up troubleshooting skills and techniques to solve experimental problems with better solutions, improving my critical thinking and creativity. My PhD taught me to be more proficient in time-management and multi-tasking. Even under tough circumstances, I deliver consistent results on time. Lastly, I have learnt to be grateful to people who have guided and helped me throughout the journey.
Are you starting up completely new research projects or does your current work follow naturally upon your PhD work?
My current research projects are a continuation of my PhD work. I will also explore other research fields related to our lab’s interests.
How is your work done?
I conduct and design the lab experiments together with my supervisor. Then, I perform data analysis and summarize the results, explaining the collective work for publications.
You now work as a research fellow with SBS. What do you see yourself doing in 10 years’ time and where?
My primary interest is to pursue cancer-related research in the pharmaceutical industry or in a hospital. I strive to gain more experience and skills in this field to improve myself while contributing to science and society. I hope that in 10 years, I would be able to apply my skills and knowledge to improve cancer treatments and formulate solutions for cancer-related issues that we face today.
Do you have any advice for prospective or new PhD students?
Graduate school is quite different from undergraduate education. There will be more independent and creative laboratory tasks involved than in formal coursework. If you are passionate about science, I encourage you to continue with graduate school. Follow your dream and believe in yourself!
1. Tan, H.F. and Tan, S.M. (2020) The focal adhesion protein kindlin-2 controls mitotic spindle assembly by inhibiting histone deacetylase 6 and maintaining α-tubulin acetylation. Journal of Biological Chemistry. p. jbc.RA120.012954