Super Bug Buster

By Goh Bee Lee

In an age where children, and even adults, are fascinated by superheroes, whether on screen or in real life, we now hear of superbugs. They too seem to want their place on the world stage. But what are superbugs? No, they are nothing super in size. In fact, they belong to the microscopic world. But do not underestimate their powers. For ‘normal’ down-to-earth beings like us who might never even get to peer into their world, let us consider Alexander the Great, the conqueror of empires, who was allegedly conquered by a mosquito!

Superbugs are bacteria that have survived man’s use, or rather, misuse of antibiotics on them. We hear more and more of people dying because they have lost the battle to these microbes. Medical and scientific fraternity has termed this growing health crisis as a “slow-motion tsunami”. Nicola Smith of The Telegraph, UK calls it “an impending Armageddon”.

Scientist at work.
(Drum rolls) Enters Malaysian ‘star scientist’ superheroine, superbug buster Dr Lam Shu Jie. 

Who could imagine that anyone so lovely, soft-spoken and gentle could wage war, even if it’s in the test tube? Her doctoral research at the University of Melbourne – that promises to wipe out superbugs without antibiotics – has been hailed as a significant breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine. She was recently among only 10 people who received China’s Ministry of Health’s prestigious Award for “Illustrious Young Overseas Chinese” for her development of SNAPPS.

Her baby, SNAPPS – structurally nano-engineered antimicrobial peptide polymers – directly destroys drug-resistant bacteria without harming healthy cells. She patiently explains that her creation of the star-shaped molecules, each with 16 or 32 arms, is like “putting together small blocks of Lego”. What a humble understatement of years of painstaking slogging in the laboratory!

CHRISTIAN JOURNEY

Shu Lam, as she is popularly known in international circles, was born in Batu Pahat, Johor, where her family used to worship at Gereja Grace Batu Pahat. She became a Christian in Sunday School when she was only 11. Shu Lam, 26, left home and country to study Chemical and Bio-molecular Engineering at the University of Melbourne. Due to work opportunities, Lam now lives in Sydney and worships at the Sydney Chinese Presbyterian Church, where she actively participates in a cell group and women’s ministry, serving the church within her capacity.

“I’m blessed to have parents with a strong faith who were constantly encouraging and praying for me to have a close walk with God,” shares Lam. Her dad, a paediatrician who passed away suddenly in 2015 just about a year short of seeing her success, would buy her Christian books and share lessons from his theological studies so that she would grow in her understanding of her faith.

“Mum is the prayer warrior in the family who constantly supports us in prayer even though we are apart. Both my parents were great testimonies of how God has transformed their lives. I look up to them as role models in terms of walking closely with God,” says Lam. She speaks of a time during her tertiary studies when she allowed study and work to become the focus of her life. “But God spoke to me and I now realise He should be the centre of my life. He leads and guides me every step of the way. Everything I do is for the glory of God.” That was exactly how she ended her acceptance speech in Beijing recently.

PAIN AND JOY

Her choice to work in research has led her down a path of struggles, sacrifice and perseverance. Her delicate work with polymers meant that she often had to be in the lab at 4 a.m., working diligently through long hours and often skipping meals. Weekends were like normal workdays. “I faced a real challenge in June 2015 when Dad passed away suddenly in Malaysia. I had to leave my work behind, so there was some anxiety about that. But I knew family had to come first.” Her beloved father, Dr Lam Pan Nam, had been her strong support and main source of motivation throughout her studies and research.

Lam went through a trying time. While work piled up in Australia, the filial daughter took a three-month break to help settle some family matters. At the end of the dark tunnel however, there was that light when in September last year, her research on her little ‘stars’ was published in the prestigious journal, Nature Microbiology. She took the scientific world by storm and was hailed as a bright new star herself.

A WONDERFUL SISTER

Shu Lam is the second of three daughters. Her elder sister, Harvard trained Xin Jie, now lives in Oslo. The sister remembers their childhood with fondness and pride. “Shu Jie is the best sister one can have. She is one of the kindest, most considerate and humble people I know. I can never forget how she would save for me her only packet of snack or tidbit from school, just because she knew it was my favourite. I am truly fortunate to have her as a sister and friend,” confides Xin Jie.

Both Xin Jie and their mother, Seet Poh Chou, a school-teacher-turned housewife, let us into the secret of Shu Lam’s success. “Since young, she has shown diligence, determination and focus far beyond her age.” These are the qualities which the world now knows that have kept her going despite all obstacles and challenges.

“Though she has not been the loudest or most vocal at church gatherings or youth fellowship events, Shu Jie’s faith in God has always been strong,” continues her sister.

At the “Illustrious Young Overseas Chinese” award ceremony in Beijing, China.

HUMBLE AND UNASSUMING

When asked how celebrity status has changed her life, the unassuming Lam says simply, “Besides having a couple more emails to reply to and engagements and interviews that I need to attend to, I do not think my life has been affected that much. I am still doing what I have always been doing, that is doing the best I can in the role I am in now. I wish though that Dad is around to share our joy.”

She instantly stands up and bows when the Chinese former Minister of Health, Gao Qiang, who calls himself her ‘fan’, pays tribute to her work. Not one to snatch the glory, she quickly shares it with her mentors, Professor Greg Qiao, Professor Neil O’ Brien Simpson and her team of researchers.

SCIENCE AND FAITH

Does she think there is a problem for a scientist to believe in God? 

In humility, she says, “No. The deeper I delve into research, the more I realise how great God and His creation are. I am amazed by the intricacies of His creation. And through a greater understanding of how things work, such as our anatomy, and why they are designed to work that way, I really marvel at God’s thought process behind His creation. It’s awesome how He has made us such that everything falls into place.

So, contrary to popular belief, I think the more I know about science, the greater is my connection with God.”

Does the fact that she is a believer make a difference?

“I know that I have God to rely on and that He will lead me through every step of the way. Without God, I wouldn’t have been able to battle the many challenges and circumstances I’ve faced in research and in life,” the scientist concedes.

STILL A MILLENNIAL

With such an old head on her young shoulders, she still identifies with the Y-generation. The whole world before her as her oyster, one wonders what this young, talented and successful person has to say to her generation. What does she think of the ‘curse of the age’ – modern social media? She does not scold or lecture the generation that is mostly bent over their electronic gadgets. On the contrary, she wisely accepts the fact that social media is now well-entrenched in the daily lives of modern society. One can almost imagine this young lover of good food might check out Facebook for the best eating places!

“I think a lot of the negative stigma is associated with how people misuse or over-rely on it. But I do think that when used appropriately, social media helps to connect and build relationships. It can also be a tool for business and thought leadership.” Wisdom indeed.

Shu Lam with her parents.
She is grateful for modern technology that has been crucial to the success of her research. Shu Lam believes that scientists in this age have been able to take advantage of cutting edge technologies to achieve more than what their counterparts could do in the past.

To the young and the brave, she has this to say: “Keep an open mind. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone. Embrace continuous learning and development. Very often, failure is part and parcel of our learning process. We can all contribute to help solve the many problems faced by mankind.” Salute.

We wish you well, Dr Lam Shu Jie. May you continue to reach for the stars. 

This article is reprinted by permission of Asian Beacon 49.1 (2017)

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