Special Programme in Science (SPS)

Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Prize AY2017/18

The Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Prize is awarded to a maximum of 15 students each year across the university to recognise their excellent performance in research. We are proud to have two recipients this year. They are Nicole Ann Gunn Li Lin and Shawn Ng Voon Hwee of SPS 2014.

Nicole Ann Gunn Li Lin

"I am deeply humbled and honoured to be a recipient of this year’s prestigious Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Prize. This achievement would not have been possible without the many challenges and insightful learning opportunities that NUS and the Special Programme in Science has provided me throughout my undergraduate years. As a freshman entering NUS, I was definitely excited and buzzing about the research opportunities that NUS and the Faculty of Science had to offer. In SPS, I was afforded first-hand experience in developing my own research proposal where I got to explore several science disciplines, even engineering ones! There were times where I thought my idea would be too wacky or unfeasible, but imagine my first surprise, where I realised that no idea was too "wacky" and I wasn’t the only one with a “funky” idea! Looking back, even my senior mentors did not flinch an eyebrow when I told them about my proposal, but instead considered its feasibility and nuances with encouragement and interest.

Upon reflection, SPS most definitely provided me with an environment that fosters your creativity and curiosity while ensuring that you remain grounded on the right track. Moreover, we had the opportunity to pick up essential skills in writing a literature review, programming, and we even got to undertake an independent research project as a group. It was through these opportunities that I could dive into a completely new field such as cancer immunology in my first year, even though I had initial reservations about delving into more advanced concepts early on without sufficient background and preparation. Nonetheless, my initial worries were for naught, as helpful mentorship and encouragement from fellow peers and senior mentors in SPS ensured that I could always find it within me and through teamwork to find the solution, given some calibration, and this is definitely an invaluable key takeaway. To this effect, I would also like to credit one of my senior graduate mentors in SPS, Ms. Png Yi Tian, for exposing me to the field of cancer immunology in Year 1, teaching me the ropes of research techniques and methods in Year 2, and finally to always offering a listening ear, advice, mentorship, time and patient guidance when I encountered several “road bumps” in my final year project. She has been instrumental in developing my passion within my current research interest, and it has been a privilege to have been mentored by her as well as other mentors who crossed the path of this once aspiring but inexperienced scientist! I am most definitely grateful to have benefitted from the peer learning and mentorship in SPS that the programme has afforded me, as well as the skills, values, ethics and lessons that the programme has inculcated within me!

I decided to continue working with my supervisors from my SP3172 (Integrated Science Project) module, Professor Dario Campana and Dr. Noriko Shimasaki, for my final year research project as I have been inspired by their passion, insights and foresights to push the frontier of cancer immunotherapies and human health. Compelling results from recent clinical trials demonstrates the capacity of immune cells to effectively kill multi-drug resistant cancer cells, working where conventional cancer treatments have failed. One of the immune cell subtypes, natural killer (NK) cells, has demonstrated potential in eliciting clinical remissions. We devised a novel method that empowers NK cells to kill cancer cells with greater specificity and efficiency using an antibody-like protein. When secreted, this protein recognises a host of virus-derived proteins and proteins expressed on several cancer types, endowing NK cells to specifically home in and target cancer cells to increase their killing capacity. This method therefore represents a new form of immunotherapy that expands the range of targetable cancers.

Behind this achievement of earning the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Prize, I have to stress that there were many challenges and failures at the start and throughout the course of my final year project. I feel that the topic of failure hasn’t been discussed enough in scientific research, and I would like to bring light to this issue in the hopes of providing some pieces of wisdom and re-assurance to aspiring future scientists! The key takeaway I would like people to have is that failure by itself can be extremely common and frustrating when you reach an extended period of impasse, but the silver lining is that failure can only prompt you to push the envelope and improve from then on. I would advise students to keep pressing on and constantly seek and review new perspectives with optimism and confidence, and sure enough the solution will eventually present itself to you. As the saying goes, experience is a very tough teacher, for it gives the test first and the lesson afterwards. There is no other way to get experience other than to try, so I encourage students to keep going at it with grit and grind, and at the end you will most definitely emerge a much more resilient person for the better! On the other side, experience also tempers expectations from idealism, and it pushes me to continue working hard to pursue my long-term goals and research ambitions with humility and effort. In summary, I hope that serves as a form of encouragement and pick-me-up to all my fellow peers and juniors to continue pursuing their own ambitions and to learn how to overcome adversity with resilience, passion and confidence."

Photograph of Nicole Ann Gunn Li Lin (first row, second from left)

Shawn Ng Voon Hwee

"Thank you for offering to feature this piece of great news on the SPS page, I am honoured and elated to have been awarded the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Prize this year. Perhaps in a rather romanticised sense, this could be seen as a culmination of the undergraduate research experience that the Faculty of Science offers. The Faculty of Science provides many opportunities for undergraduates to explore their interests and develop as aspiring researchers, these include dedicated programmes like UROP and overseas research attachments, and the modular system which enables curriculum flexibility. My undergraduate research experience started with SPS.

SPS provides several opportunities for freshmen and sophomores to get involved in undergraduate research. These include opportunities to exercise academic writing and scientific communication, to critique the work of peers and to embark on a short semester-long research project, all set in an inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary backdrop. My chemistry batchmates have constantly astounded me with their incredible work ethic and enthusiasm for chemistry. As many would expect, and many students who have been through the programme could attest to, the Special Programme in Science has many positive aspects and initiatives that provide a nurturing environment for students interested in research, including its strong advocacy of student mentorship. However, it is the multi-disciplinary backdrop of the programme that I appreciate the most. SPS brings together undergraduates of varied temperaments and from varied disciplines, deep-seated — and very often subtle — fractures in such rich social fabric inevitably occur and serve as timely reminders of the importance of modesty and of respecting social, professional and ethical boundaries. Perhaps John Gourley explains it better in “Easy Tiger” — a song I’d very much like to dedicate to everyone from the programme — better than I ever could.

I strongly believe that the adventive exposure to research in SPS encourages and prepares many students to undertake further research projects during their undergraduate career. Many of my batchmates who are incredibly motivated and talented, deserve recognition for their research efforts as well. Xujun and Han Wen have been involved in impressive synthetic projects for both UROP and Honours year. They provided me brilliant advice regarding organic synthesis on many occasions in the past four years. I was fortunate to be involved in the UROP initiative offered in the Department of Chemistry in Year 3, where I explored the enhanced optical properties of coupled metal nanoparticles under the guidance of my former advisor Associate Professor Xu Qinghua. I would like to thank him for providing a holistic experience through which I learnt to work independently and developed practical, analytical, and scientific writing skills.

This OURP entry is titled “Practical Kinetic Resolution of Biaryl Amino Alcohols via Atroposelective N-alkylation Catalysed by a Commercial Chiral Amine” and is a project I worked on under the supervision of Associate Professor Zhao Yu and mentorship of Dr Lu Shenci during Honours year. I had a wonderful time working in the Zhao Research Group. Besides developing practical and analytical skills related to organic synthesis, I was able to experience the process of transforming written ideas into reality. Furthermore, the collaborative environment enabled me to learn much about new developments in asymmetric catalysis. I would like to thank my advisor, mentor, and all members of the Zhao Research Group for providing this brilliant experience.

My cumulative research experience in NUS has been positively enriching, and I have learnt much about myself in the process. However, I still have much to learn and wish to pursue further studies in Chemistry in the near future."

About the Project

Axially chiral amino alcohols belong to a class of important structures which can be used as organocatalysts or ligands to catalyse many important enantioselective reactions. While their importance has been widely recognised by the synthetic community, they have not been investigated or used widely due to their challenging synthesis. In this work, we developed a simple and practical methodology in conjunction with the Kürti Group from Rice University to prepare axially chiral amino alcohols. This development will encourage greater exploration and discovery of these compounds in various applications, in particular, asymmetric catalysis.

Photograph of Shawn Ng Voon Hwee