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NRF Investigatorship 2019 Awardees

The NRF Investigatorship was established by the National Research Foundation to enable established researchers to pursue innovative, high-risk research. 

Four NUS researchers are amongst the recipients of the 2019 National Research Foundation (NRF) Investigatorship.

Matthew Chang

Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, and NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI)

Associate Professor Matthew Chang will focus on developing genetic and cellular platforms that can be programmed to precisely modulate the microbiome in response to specific disease states.

Many microbes, such as bacteria, live in a symbiotic relationship with us, either inside or on the surface of our bodies. This is most notable in the gut, where several types of bacteria work towards maintaining gut health and assist in the digestion of food. They also guide the immune response to the presence of harmful pathogens.

It is not uncommon for the balance between a microbe population, and its environment, to be lost. Indeed the loss of microbe homeostasis has been associated with medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, obesity and depression.

Maintaining microbe homeostasis is imperative to maintaining health. With the NRF Investigatorship award, Associate Professor Chang will work towards genetically reprogramming microbes to detect signals that indicate the health of their environment, and in response, initiate biological functions that impact the composition and function of the microbiome within that environment. In this way, the natural relationship bacteria share with their hosts will provide a therapeutic platform for the maintenance and restoration of health.

Liu Xiaogang

Professor, Department of Chemistry

Prof Liu Xiaogang will investigate the optical properties of luminescent nanocrystals towards their application in biomedical optical imaging.  

Non-invasive imaging methods that allow clinicians to look inside the body and assess the health and function of organs and tissues are becoming increasingly powerful. However, current technology is limited. Conventional fluorescent probes and optogenetic tools are, for example, limited by poor light penetration, and this prevents their effectiveness in deep tissues.

Luminescent nanocrystals developed in the lab of Prof Liu have shown to be potentially useful in medical imaging applications. With the 2019 NRF Investigatorship, Prof Liu will assess methods of photon management that enable energy conversion within newly designed nanocrystal-based materials, for applications in medical imaging, diagnostics and optogenetic-based therapies.

Enhanced energy conversion methods will be defined to enable single-molecule tracking and ultrasensitive optical imaging even deep within tissues. By focusing on the development of nanoparticals that are activated by low levels of near-infrared light, applications in deep-tissue optogenetics will be sought

These interdisciplinary studies will ultimately pave the way for the next generation of luminescent materials and imaging techniques.

Antónia Monteiro

Associate Professor, Department of Biological Sciences

Associate Professor Antónia Monteiro will investigate the origins of a novel complex trait in butterflies: the eyespot colour patterns on their wings.

The physical properties of all living creatures are determined by their genes. In some instances, observable traits are determined by a single gene. In most cases, however, physical traits result from the expression and interaction of multiple genes, which are in turn influenced by environmental factors as well as the process of development. These traits, known as ‘complex traits’, produce physical characteristics that can vary greatly between individuals of the same species and also across species. 

Understanding how complex traits evolve is a major question being sought by evolutionary biologists. It is this question that will be tackled by Associate Professor Monteiro as she explores the origins of a complex trait in butterflies that produces a distinctive colour pattern on their wings known as eyespots.

The expression of specific genes in particular locations in the developing wing is key to the development of eyespots. Some of these genes belong to gene networks that are believed to have existed for more than 500 million years, but are now integral to the development of eyespots found throughout the butterfly world today. The origins of these genes date merely to 80 million years ago. With the 2019 NRF Investigatorship award, Associate Professor Monteiro aims to investigate how gene networks get recruited to produce novel traits in bodies and to identify the genetic mutations that promote such recruitments. She will continue to describe the genomic architecture and evolution of complex traits, and provide new knowledge on eyespot origins and their development. 

Wu Jishan

Professor, Department of Chemistry

Professor Wu Jishan is working towards the discovery and characterisation of carbon-based magnets.

The discovery and application of molecule-based magnets is a major goal in materials science. Metal-free magnets made from carbon-based compounds and nanostructures could overcome the limitations of current nickel and iron-based magnets, which are intrinsically heavy and environmentally unfriendly.

To date, carbon-based magnets have been elusive. Nonetheless, recent progress in the field has shown room-temperature magnetisation in specific carbon-based nanostructures, and this has renewed interest in the search for carbon-based magnets.

With the 2019 NRF Investigatorship award, Prof Wu will design and synthesise well-defined nanocarbons and carbon-centered radicals to produce magnetic materials. Such materials, which could be affordably produced, display physical and chemical stability, and could exhibit magnetisation at room temperature. As such, these materials make ideal candidates for numerous applications, including as components in data storage devices, batteries, and in the study of spintronics.

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