Ever wanted to be a scientist who solves world problems? Read more to find out how this amazing woman does it.
1. How does one end up being interested in stem cell research? How did this all start?
As a child, I was always very interested in the ‘how’ of how things worked, as opposed to why things are a certain way.
I was always intrigued by the human body and how it worked. How are we able to breathe? How do we fall sick?
I knew I wanted to do something that could help people, animals, and the earth. I entered the science field with the hopes of creating a drug or a vaccine. That is what I spent 13 years of my life doing, ever since I was an undergraduate at university.
Things changed when I was introduced to stem cells, during an internship in India. I was fascinated! Stem cells are the birth cell of any tissue/organ and certain types of stem cells can form any cell or any organ – how exciting is that? So I decided to pursue my research and interest on these amazing stem cells from different organs and different animals through my studies and research.
I knew then I wanted to do something that could help people in my lifetime(laughs). Looking at the issues of the world, I was drawn to solving problems with regards to food.
The thing about food is, it shouldn’t be causing diseases. Food should be nourishing you. And after looking into the industry, I saw too many issues with the food that we eat. Factory farming of animals for dairy and meat; large scale fish farms being setup to supply for the increasing demand and over-fishing are some of the problems that I saw through my studies.
The more problems I learned about, the more I thought to myself — I am a scientist; so I should try to come up with a solution.
2. And now you have come up with a great solution. You grow shrimp in a clean, safe way, in the lab. Can you share the basics of how this works?
We take stem cells from a live shrimp and grow it in a nutrient ‘soup’ of sorts. It’s very similar to what the shrimp itself would eat in the wild, but since the cells don’t have a digestive system, we have to give it to the cells in the form that they can absorb.
We cultivate the cells in the right condition, and after a few weeks, we have shrimp meat, ready to cook and eat.
The meat is real meat. It tastes and smells the same!
3. Quick question: What do you say to people who might have reservations about eating cell-based meat?
In this production process, you know exactly where the meat comes from, what goes into it, and how it is made.
Cultured meats are grown in an optimum, controlled condition much like growing plants, fruits and vegetables inside of a greenhouse.
It is still real meat, just that there is no need to set up large-scale farms, rear animals, or slaughter.
4. Okay, now that we’ve covered the basic, let’s deep dive into your story! Can you share some challenges or breakthrough moments you experienced?
Sure. Back when we first started in 2018, we really needed access to a lab. We were a startup, and we didn’t have much money. In Asia, there are plenty of office spaces for rent, but there areno bio-hacker spaces where you could just rent a lab bench for a month and do whatever exploratory experiments you want.
I asked so many people for help, but nobody was willing to support us. But then, I thought of a researcher I met at an event long ago. I shot her a message, and she said we could rent a lab atthe Marine Institute in St. John’s island.
So picture me and my team, taking a little boat every morning from Marina South Pier to St. John’s, just so we could isolate stem cells from shrimp. We couldn’t afford to miss the evening boat back to mainland Singapore either, because then you would be stranded on St. John’s.
Shiok Meats would never have started if we didn’t find this solution. If I learned anything from this experience, it’s to never take no for an answer. Choose what you want to do, and make it happen. Try to convert the ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ or a ‘maybe’ at least, and then work on it from there.
5. You have been through many different roles throughout your journey. You started as purely a scientist, hoping to go into vaccines or drugs, then you pivoted to starting a science blog and made a business out of it. Then you realised you wanted to be a science-preneur and took a leap of faith. Now you’re a CEO of a business you’re proud of. There’s no instruction manual for something like this, so how would you advise women who are also interested in STEM and want to figure out their own unique path?
There is definitely no instruction manual and if there was one, I would have miserably failed as I am more of a think, plan and action kind of person. I like paving my own path – have always been an over-ambitious and an over-achiever with a huge vision for what I want to do in life and my career.
For me, science and biology were always my life – there wasn’t anything else that I thought about. Within STEM, I have dabbled in many things as you mentioned, and each experience made me what I am today, and I believe in the fact that we need to try something before we say we do not like or want it.
So, it has been a journey and I enjoy every up and down, and in fact learn so much from every down that I have had — which has been more than the ups!
I don’t think it’s ever too late for anyone, but there is a right time and right place for everything, and we need to jump on an opportunity if we are ever presented with one.
When you were figuring out the different areas you were interested in, in your career, it wasn’t easy. You were juggling a full-time job at A*STAR, you were writing your blog(s) and you had a family life to juggle with a child as well. How did you have your cake and eat it too?
I have always been clear as to what is priority in my life and that has been work and career – so I made sure to build a good support system for the rest of it. My husband and son are extremely understanding, and they are one of the main reasons I stay motivated.
You’ve come such a long way, and your journey has had many different turning points… Are you happy or satisfied with where you are at? Would you have done anything differently?
I am definitely happy. I know there is a long journey ahead to a wonderful destination and I am working towards it with the best conscience that I have as I take my team on this journey. I am never satisfied, but I am happy with where I am — where we are as a company and a business.
I wouldn’t do anything differently, as I cherish every experience, be it small or big.