Week 2: Uphill Incline

When everything seem to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

Henry Ford

20 January 2020
Today is my first day at the Endofotonics Woodlands office, here under Sys-Mac Automation Engineering Pte Ltd. It is my first time here at Woodlands Spectrum, and I am amazed at the number of manufacturing buildings here, alongside food manufacturing sites as well.

I was introduced to the optics and engineering laboratory, where the products were being tested. Although my role is more on the clinical side, it is important for me to understand the engineering side of the company, particularly how the technology works.

22 January 2020– Wicked Wednesdays
This week was an ideation sharing by Dylan Teo, co-founder of Kiasu Foodies– popular food deals platform, and Huang Tao of Protégé Ventures– a student run VC. I have several key take-aways from the sharing:

  1. It is important to understand what a VC is looking out for, not just for you to better be able to pitch to them what they want to hear but to find the right match for your start-up.
  2. Product-market-fit (PMF) requires intuition alongside hard metrics. You will know if it is something people want but at the same time it is good to back it up with data.
  3. Look at the number of people who can’t live without your product or service– your super-fans. Find out their persona and what is the value they are getting out of it.
  4. Focus on one idea at a time. This is an age old advice. Don’t spread yourself too thin. As much as it may hurt to think that sometimes ideas do fail, and “there goes all that time spent on it”, working on too many ideas at once might be an even worse off way of spending that time. If you focus on one idea, a really good one, you will be a lot more in-tune with the product and the market.

24 January 2020
This week was a shorter week due to the Chinese New Year (CNY) long weekend, and yet it was still an uphill battle for me. My supervisor was not around this week as she was away visiting family for CNY, so based on the feedback from last presentation, I was tasked to further delve into understanding the epidemiology and clinical guidelines of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). I still get lost in the amount of information that is out there, but I feel myself being able to read faster and filter through information more precisely than the previous week. After reading through so many research papers, there is a real fatigue I feel after a day of “information saturation”. On the bright side, I really do enjoy reading and learning more about such a complex disease. There is always more to learn, but hopefully it will be enough to prepare for my updated presentation next week.

Week 1: Full of Firsts

19 January 2020

‘Firsts’ always fill me with anticipation. My first week of work for NCSG was no exception to that. Never had I even stepped foot into the office before my first day, so I truly had a blank canvas for expectations.

I was assigned to shadow the Clinical Manager, and work closely with her for all things related to clinical affairs. I only had a vague impression of what clinical affairs would entail, but I was excited to understand more about the responsibilities of this department. As part of my goals, I wanted to have a better understanding of the execution of clinical trials and to better understand a product development cycle in a start-up.

Right away, I sat in a meeting for the discussion of the timeline and tasks for clinical affairs and China business development. The COO, ran the meeting very systematically. I felt he was a very organized and meticulous man from the way he gave detailed comments to clarify each task that was presented, all down to the why, when, what, who and how. He gave comments at the appropriate breaks in the presentation, to avoid interrupting the speaker too many times. Lastly, he required that everyone standardize the way that the tasks were presented, such that we were all looking at a similar picture.

The tasks were organized in Gantt charts to illustrate the project schedule. I had never seen or used such a method before. Each main task had smaller specific tasks categorized under it, basically using decomposition, breaking down a complex problem into smaller problems– something I learnt in computational thinking. This way, tasks would not feel as overwhelming, could be completed in an organized manner.

My task for the week was to work on a clinical background presentation for a new area the company wished to expand into. Thankfully, my life science background had proven useful for my research. I gave the presentation at the end of our company retreat, which happened from Wednesday to Friday. I was glad to be able to get to know my entire team better through the retreat and the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) workshop. It had been a few years since I had last taken the test, but my reported type remained as an INFP.

To end off the week, I had received news that I was chosen as a winner in an essay competition to travel to Shanghai to meet with Jane Sun– CEO of China’s largest online hotel and travel agency group. I was exhilarated to be able to meet such an impressive woman in business.

Week 11: Mastering the Art of Meat

This week focused on the biotechnology behind cultured meat. Unbeknownst to me, projects on in-vitro meat for food consumption had begun as early as the 2000s and only recently are we seeing the commercialisation of such cultured meat, with quite a breakthrough success. However, the success of this technology did not come without a shortage of challenges.

Firstly there is the technical aspect of engineering the cultured meat to be as close as possible in terms of taste and texture to real meat. A lot of specialised infrastructures is required to allow the cells to grow in a 3D physiology, to come close to its animal counterparts. As shared by ShiokMeats, there is limited infrastructure available in Singapore to be able to support a large scale production. And more infrastructure tends to mean more cost, which can really affect the P&L (profit and loss) of a company trying to commercialise their cultured meat. It then becomes a challenge of reducing the production cost by optimizing engineering processes, so that they can reasonably compete with existing meat alternatives in the market.

Another interesting point to note is that the timing of market penetration of cultured meat was crucial to its commercialisation too. Overcoming the technical aspect of biological engineering is one thing, but whether the market is ready to embrace the product is another thing. I think that the recent shift towards consumer awareness around sustainability around 2018 really played a big role in allowing companies like ShiokMeats and Impossible Foods to penetrate the food industry. People at this time are more accepting of clean meat alternatives and are also more willing to spend on it.

Lastly, countries like Singapore that have a limited locally produced food supply would really benefit the most from this biotechnology. It is quite encouraging to hear that the Singapore government is very supportive in this area, putting us one step closer to the goal of being self-sustainable.

I find that the biggest hurdle for this technology would be finding ways to significantly reduce the cost for it to be available to the masses. Right now only large to medium F&B chains are able to afford to put alternative meats into their menu. While the majority of other local F&B restauranteurs and even hawkers would not be as receptive, in order to keep prices low. This will always create a barrier for penetration if the prices of in-vitro meat remain as it is.

5 things to do in an interview (BD/Marketing)

Hello reader! The weekend is coming to an end, and unfortunately the pile of work I have left to do is not doing the same…but I thought this would be a good time to consolidate my thoughts about last week’s company interview.

In general, I really enjoyed the interview even though I think my composure said otherwise (insert nervous laughter)! I was extremely nervous and I felt like I was not able to portray my usual self. Maybe it was the different style of interview that threw me off, or maybe I just wasn’t as familiar in this area compared to others. Trust me when I say I felt like my person was kicked out of my body and my monkey brain had to take over. It was definitely not my finest hour. I was especially nervous during a role-playing segment, which I won’t go into too much detail about, but I will say that it was a lot more different and interactive than most interviews I’ve been for. The questions felt were a lot more dynamic and I had to try to shift my brain from A to B quite a bit (partly because I was interviewing for different positions).

But I’m sure you, lovely reader, came for more than a melodrama of an unprepared millennial so here’s my brown bag of 5 things to do in an interview, particularly for business development (BD) and/or marketing role:

  1. Keep calm and breathe on: As my mom would say in Filipino (Tagalog): cool lang. I think I’ve said this before in the previous interview post but I think it’s something that can be easily forgotten once you are in the midst of the interview. The first step is to realise that you are getting nervous (if you aren’t already), then you will be able to catch yourself early and try to remedy the situation before it snowballs. Next time you get nervous, maybe take note of your “nervous tell-signs”:
    1. How do you feel physically? (sweaty palms? cold shivers?)
    2. What goes on in your head? (mind blank? thoughts are everywhere?)
    3. How’s your speech? (stuttering? more fillers? talking incoherently?)
  2. Positive, negative, positive: Whenever presenting a point about yourself, you can try to apply this sandwich method. I find this method especially useful when answering questions like strengths/weaknesses or questions that would highlight your negative qualities. Start with something positive, then segway to the negative/weaknesses, but cushion these points with another positive point. I made a mistake of making my interviewer think I didn’t want to be there or this interview was not my first choice by starting off with a negative reason. Please don’t do that, I was being brutally honest.
  3. Get straight to the point, seal the deal: Now for more BD related tips, being direct and to the point is a real skill that can win you your deal. Despite having no experience at BD/sales, it was heartening that they let me try again with some feedback after my meltdown of a first try. Understanding the situation of the user is one thing, but if you are long-winded, he’s going to lose interest. Try to remember the goal of the task if you notice yourself talking too much.
  4. Ask questions: Your interviewers are likely to ask you this at the very end of the interview, “Do you have any questions for us?”, but I think that it is important that you ask some questions in between too. Firstly, it shows genuine interest on your part. Secondly, if you need clarification on a question, it is very important that you know what you are answering! You don’t want to waste your energy answering something completely different, then to embarrassingly retract your answer!
  5. Generate ideas: I think this is particularly important for a creative/marketing role where idea generation is part of your job description. Come to the interview having thought through a few ideas for possible campaigns or content you would execute for the company. This not only helps yourself to be more familiar with what you share during the interview (because they are bound to ask you about your ideas), but it allows you to flesh out more comprehensive ideas for your interviewers to asses you based on. I know some of you might think that I’m pretty good at thinking on the spot and my ideas are great! Sure you are, but why not give yourself the extra time to work on those brilliant ideas?

Each interview seems to get harder, but I’m really grateful for the practice. Hopefully, I can remind myself to apply these tips too! Here’s to another week of interviews to come.

Week 10: Optimising the Development of Immunotherapy

This week we had a nice summary of immunotherapy by Dr Robert, of which included exciting class discussions that really got me thinking deeper. Much more research has to be done to better understand the immune system, especially because of the possible adverse events that may occur to each individual. At the same time, as much as I think that the idea of a universal CAR-T cell is ideal, I think that there is a chance the immune system may still consider the CAR-T cells as foreign and we are unsure of the effects of knocking out the endogenous T-cell receptor.

As for the future of immunotherapy, there is definitely a large market potential given that it could possibly the least immunogenic and more sustainable if it comes from the patient’s own immune cells. Unfortunately, I think that its application may be limited to single antigen associated diseases or tumour. We would require a better understanding of the available antigens on specific tumour to avoid any off-target effects and that’s where the biomarker libraries will play an important role.

Right now there is a huge gap in the patient information that we currently have about different kinds of diseases and cancers, so there has to be a continual effort to improve the database of real world data. I believe with a more comprehensive understanding of the disease population, we can more accurately carry out high throughput screenings to choose the right target antigens for our ideal CART cells! No wonder data solutions companies like IQVIA, are so important to clinical trials and therapeutics discovery today.

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Interview round 1, fight!

Hello, TGIF! Some updates, we have submitted our company rankings to Xander our programme manager and we are in the midst of arranging for interviews with our prospective companies. I’m not going to throw names just yet, but as of current, I have 3 of 5 companies who are interested to meet me.

Today, I had my first interview and in particular, it was for the company that I had ranked first on my list! (Our CVs are sent to all the companies we express interest in from the list of 4 to 5 that we are first given, but the ranking helps to tie-brake if more than one of us are vying for the same position.) I won’t lie, I was extremely nervous. I reached half an hour early thinking I could clear my jitters but my heart just wouldn’t stop banging on my chest. Maybe it was because I really wanted to get in? Nonetheless, the interviewer was quite intimidating with a very professional yet kind aura around him. It didn’t help that several of his questions really caught me off guard, and it exposed me as not as prepared as I should have been.

Looking forward, I am probably still going to be nervous for the next round of interviews but this first one taught me how exactly to better prepare myself. And I am very thankful for the interview practice, without much to lose really. Okay now for my takeaways: Lesson 1, come prepared with some domain knowledge of the company you are applying to. I think this might be common sense, but to you reader, take my advice and read up a bit more on not just the company but the current market and industry that your prospective company is in. I was betting on my general knowledge to help me but given that the niche of the company was pretty specific, I should’ve known to prepare a bit better. Lesson 2, if you aren’t sure. Just be honest. But turn your answer around in your favour. So like I mentioned, I was stumped for some of the industry-related questions but I turned it around by adding in my perspective and potential about the industry– that should be something at least you can think of on the spot. Don’t just say you aren’t sure. The interviewers are looking for confidence, but at the same time don’t try to fluff them if you really aren’t sure.

It’s the end of week 10 and there are still many things to do but I am definitely getting more and more excited for this NOC journey ahead.

Week 9: Beyond the lab, there is much more

I really enjoyed both the guest lecture by Chugai and particularly, our visit to EDDC. Since I am currently doing my internship at a biopharma, it was really enriching for me to be able to supplement my knowledge of drug development and clinical trials.

Firstly, I was surprised that the EDDC clinical operations team was so small. I had assumed that since EDDC is such a huge body, they would have more hands involved in the clinical trials given the number of projects they must be working on. But of course it was explained to me that they mostly outsource the work to a Contract Research Organisation (CRO) to manage the trials, and EDDC role was more of a Sponsor, or the overseeing organisation and also the one that conducts audits to ensure standards are met. Another important role that I learnt about was that EDDC was in charge of the Investigator’s Booklet (IB), an incredibly important document that helps to guide the doctors and nurses involved in human trials. I can imagine that different hospitals in Singapore might do certain procedures differently, all the more in a different country like the US where other trial sites may be.

Secondly, the importance of safety was a pertinent point made by the speaker. Safety is everyone’s role and good practices are not just for one group, but for every group involved in drug development. One bad inspection can mean the end of years of work, and that must be devastating not just for the team but for the number of people the drug could have possibly helped. An interesting thought I had was about how they implement phamacovigilance, which is the safety practice around adverse events that may happen during the trials. It is hard to imagine how they try to teach everyone involved a standard set of procedures for an unimaginable number of possible scenarios.

Week 8: Welcome to the World of Antibodies

This week’s lecture focused on antibodies and nanobodies. Before this class, I have had a special interest in antibodies and their potential for personalized therapeutics so I was looking forward to going through into this week. The assigned readings helped me to understand more about the naturally occurring antibodies and chemically synthesized binders, which basically function in a similar way.

I think that antibodies have a lot of therapeutic potential particularly because of their ability to be very readily modified to enhance the functions even further. I’m not too sure how big the difference in stability for antibodies and nanobodies are but from what I have read it’s quite a substantial difference. Nanobodies are also supposedly easier to produce, I suppose this would be true for chemically synthesized antibodies versus nanobodies.

Antibodies are the highest if not one of the highest kinds of drugs that is being approved right now so the market for antibodies is very high valued. Personally, Id like to explore if there’s more ways to modify the antibody to improve delivery to its specific target site.

A Long Road Ahead

Going there feeds an appetite, but what you do with it is up to you.

– Sharon Chan, Deputy Director of NUS Overseas Colleges

Week 7 had proven to be a very trying week for me. With 3 mid-terms and 2 submissions, I was a little stressed out, to say the least. Not to mention I was still going to work, albeit leaving slightly earlier on Thursday to squeeze in more study time. “Isn’t it mid-terms week?”, a colleague of mine asked. I nodded back while rushing out a design, and she couldn’t conceal her dismay, or maybe it was a worry. Should I be spending more time to study?  More time would have been good, but going MIA from work just to study, didn’t sit comfortably with me, especially when this period is crunch time for the office too. Nonetheless, part of me felt guilty, while the other tried to be reassuring. That’s why you started revision early. You got this. With my hectic schedule this semester, time management has played a big role in keeping me sane. As cliche as it sounds, it’s true. We only have 24 hours in a day, and what we do with it is up to us. I’d be lying if I said I never thought about spending more time on studies, or how I’m spending less time than my peers but I feel like this is really how I wish to spend my time. So far, I have enjoyed my internship and I’m learning new things each day.

Which brings me to my next point: my current thoughts on NOC. Last Saturday was NOC connection– a gathering of the NOC alumni, out-going and prospective students. The day left me and my fellow NCSG 25 batchmates excited and anxious for what was to come. Crazy work hours, intense workload, and oh yes, you need to manage your academics too. I can’t even begin to fathom how it will be next semester, but I’m eager for it to come. I guess that might be part of the reason why I chose to step up as the batch representative. I really want to make the most of my experience, and that includes my batchmates and their experiences too. We’re going to be in the same boat for 6 months, hopefully, we can help each other swim to shore even if we hit rocky waters. In the weeks to come, I hope to share more about the placement process and hopefully some good news of my own placement too!

Week 7: Pushing CRISPR One Step Further

This week we heard each other’s presentations for the various CRISPR applications and I was most interested in the one presented by Sophia, whereby the paper investigated the use of hairpin secondary structures to improve accuracy. I feel like there would be a lot of potential if they are able to show more accurate evidence of its effectiveness because forming the hairpin structure itself appears quite simple and straightforward. However, being based on mathematical modelling, I had a tinge of doubt towards the accuracy of the results, more so when there were no previous studies or reasons sited for choosing their modelling software used. From this it made me question how easy it is for us to take for granted certain methodology, especially when it is either well-established or commonly used.

Personally, I thought it would be easier to analyse a short paper, but I was proven wrong. My own paper was theoretical in nature so, in terms of methodology and materials, I really struggled to find points to critique. But at the same time, the short article made me appreciate every line that was written, after having combed through each line over and over again. While critiquing the paper, I kept wondering, “Why didn’t they include this (or that)?”, and that is when I realised how important it is to accurately communicate information in a succinct manner. There are certain things that seem important but may not be relevant to the current proposition. The author has to re-evaluate the direction and focus of the paper and ascertain if the content is in line with the message to be conveyed.