November 11, 2021

May – June 2021

May and June of this year was exam season, which I spent researching and writing my final exams of my undergraduate degree! Due to COVID the exams were not done in person, and were instead a series of take-home essays for each module. Though I’ve written plenty of scientific essays throughout my schooling years, completing 12 fully-referenced essays within the 28 day exam period was still a challenging endeavour! Despite the hard work it was still an enjoyable experience consolidating my learning over the year and delving into the recent literature to build up my writing. I'm elated to report having scored High 1st (88%) marks in several essays, such as "Experimental strategies for obtaining rare antimicrobial compounds" and discussing in-vitro experiments used to identify essential components for protein import and translocation to the endoplasmic reticulum.


BGC example

One of the many diagrams I'd created for use in my exam essays - this one describes the general workflow of using synbio approaches to biosynthesise useful compounds.


Following exam submissions, I then got started on my final year research/dissertation project! As I have mentioned before on this blog, my assigned project was mainly based in deep-learning, a field I had minimal exposure to at the time. The project period was just about a month, so it was a whirlwind of attempting to learn enough about the field, generating sufficient data and eventually writing a (hopefully) engaging and well-researched report. Under the wonderful supervision of Dr. Munehiro Asally, I trained a StarDist 2D network on progressively increasing amounts of self-generated cell segmentation data, before testing and analysing its performance versus that of a human (me) or on pre-trained StarDist models.


Some screenshots from my report, which hopefully give some visual explanation to what I was up to for that month!

stardist

Figure explaining the benefit of using the StarDist object detection model rather than the typical bounding boxes used in most object detection programmes.


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A simple example illustrating how model performance is evaluated - basically, the more overlap between the model's prediction and the human-annotated "answer," the better.


example data

Examples of cell segmentation predictions produced by the models I had trained.


Having worked with microscopes in previous internships, it was exciting to learn first-hand its applications for bacterial cell imaging, compared to the fruit fly brains I was more used to! The most satisfying part of the process for me was the successful creation of multiple pre-trained models, which could then be downloaded and utilised by members of the Asally lab to hopefully speed up and semi-automate their own microscopy cell segmentation tasks in their own projects. The overall experience was an excellent way to learn “on the job,” as the Asally lab members kindly provided real data from their projects for me to train and test my deep-learning models with. Despite the relatively short project period of just under a month, I felt it was a great way to end off my last-ever piece of undergraduate work, as it allowed me to gain great insight and initial experience with computing-based approaches to bioimage analysis - an extremely important aspect of basically any biological field that involves visual data. Even though I aim to pursue further research based more in Neuroscience rather than Microbiology, the knowledge and skills I'd gained during this project have definite transferable applications to other experiments I may undertake.


April 22, 2021

Jan – Apr 2021 (Part 2)

Plans for the rest of the year:

As I write this, I am in the middle of my final exam season of my undergraduate degree!

(Although it’s technically the Easter holidays at the moment, some rescheduling had to be done by the Department in order to give us time to complete our dissertations before the end of the year.)

As almost all my exams are essay based, it’s also been a great way for me to consolidate all the learning I’ve done this year in some very interesting modules, ranging from Biological Clocks to System Dynamics.

After exams, I will undertake my dissertation in “Deep-Learning Microscopy Data Analysis” and then embark on a very interesting Summer research project!

As the wet-lab research component of my internship last year was sadly cancelled, I was set on seeking a lab-based internship for this Summer in order to gain further hands-on experience for my intended career in research. Thankfully, I was able to find a Professor at Life Sciences willing to supervise my application for a £1000 research grant from the University, which I am glad to announce was successful!

As such, later this year I will be exploring whether human mutations of Connexin32 (a protein that forms plasma membrane channels between cells) affect its sensitivity to CO2. This in the context of understanding the biological cause of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a hereditable motor-sensory neurological disorder that progressively reduces quality of life, with symptoms such as numbness of limbs and muscle weakness. Although this disease is not directly life-threatening, it can severely reduce mobility and independence of patients and does not yet have a cure. A major challenge in the development of therapies/cures for this disease is that it comes in many different forms, all with different genetic causes. As such, I hope to add to its current genetic understanding with my project, in order to support the approach towards current and future treatment.

Additionally, I am currently mentoring the new Warwick iGEM team and will continue to do so over the Summer, until the Competition near the end of this year. As my cohort was the first batch having to work through COVID, I would like to help them make a smoother transition to virtual teamworking and biological research!

Volunteering:

Due to schools in the UK being closed for lockdown, we were unfortunately unable to do as much volunteering in BioSoc as originally planned. Societies were made to cancel all in-person activites, and it would have been unsafe for us to travel into schools or carry out hands-on experiments during this time. Doing virtual volunteering was also a difficult task to coordinate as our teacher liaisons reported difficulties finishing the assigned teaching syllabi, let alone putting aside time for us to teach external material to students.

However, in February I was contacted by a member of staff asking for help with the then-upcoming Women in Science Day programme at Warwick as another team of volunteers had pulled out of the project at late notice. As such, we had less than a week’s time to come up with a topic and teaching resources for Year 11 students to explore biology at home.

After deciding to take on the challenge, I recruited a friend on the BioSoc exec to brainstorm and churn out the material over the weekend. We decided to base the activity off fermentation, as we wanted to engage the students through something we all do (eat food) as well as only require materials that are easily found in the home. I created an instruction and tracking sheet teaching students how to make their own sourdough bread starter, which only requires water, flour and time to make. In case they had a teacher running through the programme with them, I also created a short slideshow presentation explaining the science behind fermentation and the creation of sourdough bread.

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Afterwards, we were left scratching our heads trying to figure out how to keep a group of 14/15 year olds interested in our activity through online learning. My friend Jerry came up with the amazing idea to create an Among Us-themed quiz, as Among Us was a incredibly popular game at the time. I once again fell back on my Visual Arts training to design and draw Among Us characters with different foods, much like how the characters have customisable hats in the actual game.

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Jerry the editing whiz did some video-making magic, creating an interactive “choose your adventure” style set of videos for the students to click through. Clicking on the wrong answers would bring them to the game’s end screen, while successful completion of the short quiz would show the game’s Victory screen. After recording further videos explaining how to use the resource pack, we sent it off to the University, hopefully for the young students to enjoy.

Staying at Home:

The heavy snow back in January gave us a welcome excuse to have some fun outside, as my housemates and I spent hours in the garden building my first ever snowman!

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For Christmas and Chinese New Year, we also had cozy celebration dinners in our shared kitchen.

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Overall, despite it being an incredibly busy time, I’ve greatly enjoyed my last year at Warwick so far and will be reluctant to officially leave when graduation comes! Thanks to all the fulfilling endeavours I've been able to carry out this year, I’ve had a good time in the past two terms despite the limitations of lockdown 😁


Jan – Apr 2021 (Part 1)

(This term's entry separated into 2 parts due to character limits)

Term 2 was a true test of my time management skills, as on top of gearing up for the final exams of my degree I was also applying to internships and postgraduate courses, planning Society events for the BioSoc, and also launching my self-founded Society – the brand new Warwick Knitting and Crochet Society!

KnitSoc:

Knitting has always been one of my favourite hobbies for years. In the past two years of my time at Warwick, I frequently saw online talk about starting a KnitSoc and signed their interest forms, however perhaps due to not having enough student numbers they were not launched. Now in my third year, I decided to take the plunge and try my luck with collecting sufficient signatures of interest, writing up a proposal, and pitching it to the Societies’ Committee of the Students’ Union.

I was overjoyed when I heard back from the SU that KnitSoc was approved, and set off asking around for other students to join the pioneering executive committee of the Society.

The main goals I wished to achieve with founding this Society were to:

1) Provide a community for total beginners to advanced members to hone their craft, virtually socialise during lockdown and pursue a hobby that is calming, fulfilling and a great way to de-stress.

2) Teach knitting/crochet as a fun and creative skill through educational sessions and mentoring.

3) Support vulnerable persons through volunteering projects such as donations of useful items to homeless shelters or “preemies,” and charity auctions of handmade items.

To give us the best chance of success of fulfilling these goals, I created specialised roles such as Education Officers and a Charities Officer, on top of the usual roles such as Social Secretaries and a Treasurer.

While advertising the Society virtually through social media, I was initially worried that there again wouldn’t be sufficient interest for what I assumed was a niche hobby, especially for the average university age group. However I was pleasantly surprised as I received an overwhelming response of people asking to join the Committee and the Society in general! As such, our Society was able to start off with a strong Exec of 13, and over 80+ members joined our chat group within a matter of weeks.

In order to give members a way to socialise over lockdown, we planned casual weekly sessions every Friday evening for people to just get together on a video call and talk about our projects, troubleshoot difficult pieces or just chat about how the week had gone. I am very proud to announce that our first ever session was a great success with almost 30 attendees! I continued to host these sessions throughout the 10 weeks of term, and even received heartwarming feedback that people looked forward to our sessions to end off their week of school work. Our Society group chat was also incredibly active with members sharing their work or recommendations for tools and patterns. So far, my only regret is not applying to start this Society earlier, as I won’t be able to dedicate as much time to it after graduating!

A couple of pieces I completed over the course of the term:

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Navigating psychopathology:

On the academic side, I was wrapping up one of my favourite modules, Navigating Psychopathology which is taught by Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL). I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity this year to take modules outside of my home Department, as this class allowed me to experience the learning of other subjects (ranging from psychology and neuroscience to film and literature) with classmates from many other Departments.

We were also given great flexibility in our final assessment – a reflective essay compiling the 10 weeks of learning/discussion as well as a final essay on a topic of our choice. I chose to explore the DSM-based system of diagnosing mental disorders, writing about the increasing evidence against using it for the diagnosis of psychiatric conditions.

This included an overview of its rather chequered past, to the harmful consequences to Medicine of dependence on a rigidly categorised form of diagnosis. I then analysed the sociocultural changes towards mental health and psychiatry, especially as a consequence of changes to the manual over its editions – for example, the decision made by its editorial committee to change the maximum age of ADHD diagnosis criteria.

Despite this, I made sure to weigh the benefits of having such a manual, such as for the purposes of administration, legislation and medical record-keeping for patients.

The research and thinking that I carried out for this essay was a period of great learning and introspection, as it allowed me to consider how my degree/field of Biology is applied in the “real world.”

Overall, undertaking this module gave me an increased appreciation of interdisciplinarity across seemingly unconnected subjects, and also opened my eyes to my great interest in this field as a potential pathway for integrating scientific and humanistic research.


March 20, 2021

Year 2 Summer holidays

Preparing for exams was a unique challenge this year for both students and staff as they had to be open book this year! Despite the stressful experience I was glad to be back home in Singapore with family, with plenty of outlets to de-stress ranging from brushing up on my knitting, showing off the cooking skills I picked up while feeding myself in the UK, or tending to the plants I can't grow in British weather. Due to COVID restrictions I also spent some time video calling with friends, including Chandra, Iffah and Hayati to lament about final examinations or catch up on postgraduate life.

dumplings

Ironically, my cooking skills in Asian food in particular were honed primarily during my time in the UK.

portulaca

Portulaca flowers - one of my favourite plants to grow which unfortunately requires the bright sun and warmth of Singapore.

I also took advantage of many summer school programmes becoming free and virtual this year, allowing me to attend a wide range of programmes to diversify my skills.

One of my favourites was the Centre for the Physics of Biological Function's Biophysics Summer School, hosted by Princeton University. Through the weekly lectures and insightful discussions, I was able to study Biology from the perspective of Physicists, giving me a whole new appreciation for my subject and reinforcing my goals of pursuing interdisciplinary Biological learning and work in the future.

CPBF Summer School

Example lecture from the CPBF Summer School on wrinkling - such as on our fingertips when submerged in water or of our brains. Previously I had learned of the biological basis behind such phenomena, but exploring the physical triggers and processes occuring "behind the scenes" gave me a deeper appreciation.

CPBF cert

It was also an interesting experience celebrating my 21st birthday during COVID restrictions - I was happy to take a day off exam preparations and relaxing at home with my family, however my wonderful friends coordinated a birthday surprise for me from across the UK and Singapore! It was times like this that really made me grateful for the technology we have to connect with others even while unable to meet in person.

birthday call

Video calls will never be the same as meeting friends in-person, however the surprise cake delivery and gifts were more than I could have asked for! It was also great being able to celebrate with my friends from both Singapore and the UK at the same time via video call.

Aside from all this, most of my Summer holidays were spent working on the Warwick iGEM project, which I spoke about in my last blog post. Though it was disappointing not being able to carry out our project in the lab like initially planned, I still learned valuable skills in the "dry" aspects of scientific research which I'm sure will be very useful in my future.

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One great aspect of doing iGEM was learning how to do science in a more hands-on manner - such as studying and rewriting genetic coding sequences rather than simply learning the theory of it in lectures.

In the BioSoc realm, myself and the rest of the exec focused greatly on engagement and welcoming of the new freshers who would join us in October, as the amazing experience of beginning university life was unfortunately derailed. Finding myself with more free time while staying in at home, I decided to give website creation a try and initiated the brand-new BioSoc website, hoping to create an integrated resource for new students to navigate University virtually.

Wishing to give an idea of "normal" first year for incoming freshers, I collated blog posts from current students about their experiences on each of the Life Science courses, before getting a bit carried away and creating a 43-page pdf document as a Guide to Life (Sciences) with information ranging from structing lab reports to choosing where to rent off-campus housing after first year. As always, I was grateful for a supportive BioSoc exec who were willing to help out and feedback on my ideas, despite my piling on of more work for them!

BioSoc Blog

Fresher

We also focused stronger than in previous years on fostering connections between current and incoming BioSoc members, hoping to at least slightly overcome the barrier of virtual interaction. I was able to dust off my training from SOTA to create some promotional/publicity material for the Society, such as these visuals for introduction posts of exec members:

exec pics 1exec pics 2exec pics 3

BioSoc quiz

Engagement with students also included various virtual social events, such as a start of year Quiz hosted in collaboration with the Department of Life Sciences who kindly sponsored prizes for quiz winners.

Singapore Society also got in touch to ask me to design their new Society hoodie, which I gladly took up and worked on over the holidays:

SingSoc hoodie

SingSoc hoodie

I also "engaged" with other prospective Warwick students via some work I did for the British Council's Study UK!

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This was once again an interesting challenge as I'm not great in front of cameras... something which I've definitely had to get over in the past year doing online learning, meetings and seminars! Still, I enjoyed the opportunity to promote the benefits for other Singaporeans to consider studying in the UK - I especially wanted to acknowledge the work of Warwick Life Sciences Department in particular, as they've been incredibly supportive and understanding towards students throughout the pandemic, despite the uncertainty and unpredictabiliity of the global pandemic.

As I looked towards the beginning of my final year in October, it was definitely a bittersweet feeling knowing that I'd be soon moving on to the next stage of my life. My time living and learning in Warwick has given me many memories I'll treasure for life.

Hope that all are doing well despite the pandemic, and I will report back on how Term 1 went in the next update!


Gold medal!

After a gruelling 9 months of work, I am happy to announce that the 2020 Warwick iGEM team has been awarded a Gold medal at the recent, virtually held, iGEM Jamboree! Despite a lack of lab access throughout March to November and having to work across various timezones, we developed a colibactin derivative biosensor that would ideally aid in the speedy and non-invasive detection of colorectal cancer.

Unfortunately due to COVID, most of the iGEM process was done entirely at my bedroom desk... so there are not as many interesting pictures in this blog post as I would have liked.

Though without lab access we were unable to create a physical prototype of our biosensor, we were able to utilise in silico protein modelling software to create a theoretically functional receptor. In a wet lab, this could be converted into sequences to grow in bacterial cultures to produce our biosensor. Afterwards, we would have tested our biosensor's accuracy and activity e.g. false positives, using different ligand concentrations in cell-free systems. Following a few more refinement and design cycles, we may create an even more sensitive biosensor.

The proposed implementation of our biosensor would be as a complementary test kit, initially in conjunction with current tests carried out in the UK and many other countries - such as the FIT or Fecal Immunochemical Test. After further testing of its accuracy and usefulness to benefit healthcare, our big-picture goal would be for our test kit to be used on its own to pre-emptively measure risk of developing colorectal cancer, therefore allowing earlier treatment and improved patient outcomes.

I am incredibly grateful to have had the chance to represent Warwick at this international competition, which I had known about since my IB years at SOTA. Back then, I read about the amazing projects the teams were getting up to with awe, never imagining that I would be able to do the same!

At the iGEM Jamboree, the first-ever virtual one (where in normal years the team would fly over to Boston, Massachusetts to present and defend our project in front of a live audience and judging panel, as well as take part in a multitude of workshops and poster presentations) we created a 20-minute video, presented for 20-minutes for a judging panel, and created a wiki from scratch outlining all aspects of our project. As the Jamboree occurred in November 2020, I was still working on the iGEM project during the first half of Term 1 of my final year at University. I had to juggle lectures, assignment deadlines and Society responsibilities along with plenty of iGEM work, in the hopes of earning us a Gold medal. Additionally, as we were a relatively small team of 9 this year I was tackling entire branches of the project on my own. Thankfully my effort (and lack of sleep) paid off, as the two areas of the project that I did, Human Practices and Education, were the two criteria that qualified us for the Gold medal! In fact, several members of the Judging panel specifically commended Human Practices in their judging feedback, which was incredibly rewarding to read after all the stress and hard work.

It was also a great experience to be able to work in a multi-disciplinary team in an academic setting, as our team had members from Life Sciences as well as the departments of Mathematics, Computer Science and Economics. This required us to work extremely collaboratively and make sure that we never got too lost in the technical jargon of our respective fields in order to function as a group, which I felt was very useful in preparing me for work after graduation - even though I aim to pursue a career in biological sciences, "Biology" is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary both in the directions of hard sciences like Math and Physics as well as the social sciences like Economics and Psychology.

Having to work on the project virtually was another challenge - admittedly our team had some initial issues making sure that everyone was on the same page early in our project, problems exacerbated by us living in a range of different time-zones. Due to other responsibilities some team members had taken up during lockdown it was also incredibly difficult to get everyone to meet with video calls to keep up with progress on our project. I eventually figured out a shared spreadsheet for all members, writing down a list of actionable steps for every member of the team along with suggested deadlines, which appeared to work for the most part. Though it was quite technologically complicated and awkward leading the team in this way, it was still a useful idea for virtual working which I was able to gradually refine over the months of the project, and will likely be utilising for future group projects as we are still working from home in the UK.

As I am interested in pursuing further study/research in Neuroscience, I actually applied to join the iGEM team hoping to be able to create a neuroscience-related project, though of course I knew it wouldn't be guaranteed and would have to be a subject agreed on by the whole team. During the interview, we were actually asked to come up with and briefly research a potential synthetic biology project on the spot, and complete a short presentation on our idea within 20 minutes! In the mad rush that ensued we created an idea for a colour-changing sticker that could detect levels of lactic acid (a waste product of the bacteria that cause milk to spoil) and tell the consumer whether the milk had actually gone bad and could no longer be used. The goal of it was to reduce food waste and reassure consumers, as currently all we have to go by is the "best before" dates printed on the carton.

This project then evolved into another food project - we broke into subteams and created presentations for a range of potential projects: from microplastic pollution, to a vegan and ethical synthetic egg substitute for baking, to a probiotic food supplement that could "re-balance" the gut microbiome and improve overall health. Funnily enough, it was the smallest idea that didn't have a presentation that eventually became out final project - which was to engineer a colorectal cancer detection system.

As part of the Education and Science Communication efforts of the project, I was able to interact with iGEM teams from all over the world via virtual meetups. It was a great experience to see how other teams worked on their chosen projects, and it gave us the chance to share science casually in a way that we would have if COVID did not put a stop to the usual in-person iGEM Jamboree! Though virtual meetings simply cannot replace the immersion of the normal iGEM Jamboree it did allow us to take part in and host even more international events throughout the Summer, without needing to spend money.

UK iGEM meetup

Presenting our project to the other UK iGEM teams at a meetup hosted by the University of St. Andrew's team

diagnostics track meetup

Warwick-hosted meetup with other iGEM teams in the Diagnostics track.

I was also able to present our project to incoming students at the Department of Life Sciences as part of the Fresher's orientation week events on student research. Hopefully it got the new students excited about the amazing opportunities they can try out for in their time at Warwick!
freshers week presentation

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My favourite work done for the project was definitely the Human Practices. I enjoyed it immensely as it gave me a taste of what "real" science would actually be. Although I enjoy my laboratory modules in my degree and they definitely contribute very much to my learning, the experiments done are largely planned for us in the syllabus and have been repeated across the years as they are effective for teaching us students foundational techniques and knowledge. However, if I were to successfully go into higher education and research in Biology, I will no longer have the privilege to have my projects nicely planned out and curated for me!

Tackling the iGEM project's human practices gave me insight to more of the full process of science, including seeking and applying for funding with a self-proposed idea, considering the social, ethical, safety and legal implications, developing the idea (including deciding which softwares to use, which stakeholders and organisations to interview) and doing market research in order to find out how our final test kit could be best implemented. I delved into legal documents and policies, economic and business analyses, and sociological and psychological papers that were all relevant to the issue of cancer testing kits despite their seemingly disconnected fields of study. One aspect I found particularly interesting was researching why large numbers of at-risk individuals refuse to or avoid taking the current FIT kit, which is already non-invasive and relatively speedy. As I usually read scientific papers for my modules but enjoyed doing the Humanities back in IB, making sense of social science research papers was an exciting challenge.

Another challenge I faced was the building of our wiki - as I was not well-versed (i.e. a complete beginner) at HTML code and website building, it was tricky attempting to put my pages together! Luckily I had friends who were coding experts who were able to help me out, and I eventually started getting the hang of the basics.

To wrap up all the information I had gleaned from the entire Human Practices branch of the project, I created various reports and comparisons, as well as an overview timeline of our process, all of which can be seen on my wiki page here: https://2020.igem.org/Team:Warwick/Human_Practices . As we weren't able to test our product in a lab due to COVID, I hope that by making all this information available (and hopefully clearly written) on our wiki, future teams that are pursuing projects in similar areas can speed up their own research process and benefit from my work!


July 01, 2020

Year 2 Term 3: Feb – May 2020 (reupload)

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(This post has been reuploaded at a later date due to some issues with order and publishing)

Just an update from me to follow up from the January post!


The iGEM (international Genetically Engineering Machine) project

Though iGEM is a summer project the team has already begun ideation and discussion, as we need to apply to funding and do preliminary research before the Summer holidays begin. After about a month of research, deliberation and presentations we've decided to do a project on bowel cancer detection. Recent papers have raised that there's a possible link between E. coli (a common gut bacterium) and the development of bowel cancer, of which there are 42000 new cases per year in the UK alone. Bowel cancer is also being diagnosed in an increasing number of persons under 50, with the highest rising group being people in their 20s! Lab-grown replicas of the human gut were used to test this and our team aims to utilise synthetic biology further to uncovering more knowledge about this topic.

Outreach activities

I've also been quite busy with volunteering as I near the end of my time as BioSoc's Outreach Officer. Last week, myself and 3 members of the BioSoc volunteering team headed out to Edgewick Community Primary School, a Widening Participation school in Coventry, to carry out a very hands on workshop meant to teach the children about the digestive tract. This was our first trip out for the Warwick WP Bright Stars programme, the Life Sciences “branch” of which I started during my time as Outreach Officer. We created handmade materials and planned activities for a “Lesson in a Box,” which means that even if students are not free to deliver the workshops, the activities should be easy and accessible to carry out by the teachers themselves as long as our box is sent out to them!

Bright stars box

The box with our hand-drawn and handmade materials. It felt good to use my art training from SOTA again!

Everyone appeared to be having a blast, and we hope we’ve left a great impression on biology as a subject to the kids. Unfortunately photos taken during the activity will have to wait, as schools in the UK shut down quite suddenly on Friday and the teachers who took them are unable to send them over for now.


First Aid and AED training

In February, I also undertook a CPR and AED (Automated External Defibrillator) course at the Warwick Medical School. I’m glad to say I’ve passed the exam and now am officially certified as a Basic Life Skills provider. On top of basic first aid and CPR (for adults, young children and babies,) we also learned how to use the AED, how to apply tourniquets for catastrophic bleeding, proper procedure for choking as well as managing drowning situations. I'm currently undergoing selection to teach this course in the next academic year, though those plans have been put on hold due to the uncertainty of the virus situation here.

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Us modelling the choking training apparatus - you practice doing the Heimlich maneuver on this and when you do it correctly and with enough force to dislodge blocks in the airway, a foam piece will shoot out of the tube at the top.

After the incredible success of the SingSoc production I had watched in my first year of University, I had considered taking up a part in the 2020 production which was of a play written by a member of the SingSoc. Sadly, the final exam of my first aid course coincidentally clashed with the day of the play, and as such I was unable to even attend the showing, let alone participate in it. After my exam ended at the Medical School I rushed over to the Students' Union where the play was being wrapped up and was able to catch the actors right in time!

singsoc production

Many of the actors were members of my orientation group at the SingSoc Orientation camp in 2019!


2020 BioSoc Ball

Also in February was the BioSoc Ball, which the 2019/20 exec worked really hard on organising. As none of us had organised a Ball before it was a rather hectic scramble as we had to get everything from venue, entertainment, decor and transport in place. As always with big events, best laid plans will fall through but I'm proud of us for pulling through despite a range of issues such as last-minute cancellations by services we hired.

The event was a wonderful way to wrap up our time in the exec as election results for the 2020/21 exec were just released two days before. I’m happy to report that I’ve been elected as the Vice-President of the BioSoc for the next academic year and have plenty of big plans for the society!

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The BioSoc exec of 2019/20: The first exec committee I joined back in first year!

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One of my closest friends from SOTA who's currently studying in London was also able to join us at the ball 💕

COVID changes in plans

I was planning to stay in my off-campus accommodation to revise for Term 3 examinations, planning wellbeing events for BioSoc members in preparation for the revision and exam term, as well as gradually handing over all the projects I’ve juggled as Outreach Officer to next year’s Officers. I also had a 6 credit weighted biology field course in Wales to prepare for - though now it’s been cancelled as Warwick is stopping all face-to-face assessment and teaching in Term 3. As the Singaporean MFA issued a recommendation for students overseas to return to Singapore, I decided to fly home to be with family in the uncertain situation. As London was slated to go into lockdown over the weekend before my flight, I had to pack up my entire life in the UK very quickly! I was lucky to have a close friend from SOTA studying in London who was able to let me stay in her flat while waiting for our flight, and we flew home together in late March.

It's been really unique living through and seeing the development of the COVID-19 pandemic as a Biology student. Though all students at the department of Life Sciences study virology and epidemiology, before COVID such outbreaks appeared so distant from anything we'd have ever experienced. Things in the UK were business as usual into mid-March, before panic buying and stockpiling began showing a sombre change in mood and perceptions of the virus. Masks were in short supply at the time and it was also WHO/government advice for civilians to not rush to buy them anyway, as healthcare workers required them more urgently as cases began to rise.

It was so strange to see an almost-deserted Changi Airport after landing in Singapore - In all my years, I had never seen it so empty! The swab test after touchdown was incredibly painful, leaving the back of my nose sore for a couple of days, but I was still very grateful for the fact that there were even tests available for us to take. The whole experience was efficient and professional and I was very proud of Singapore for pulling together such an impressive response with such short notice.

After serving my mandatory 2 week Stay-Home Notice (while gradually recovering from the inevitable jetlag), I began preparing for my final exams which were due to be scheduled for May - June 2020. At the same time, I had several lab reports and Society responsibilities to finish as I wrapped up my year as the Outreach Officer of BioSoc. It was quite the challenge trying to keep up with virtual meetings while in Singapore's timezone, though I eventually got used to staying up at night to attend revision sessions, exam briefings and my weekly mentoring responsibilities at BioCafe!


Jan 2020 (reupload)

(This post has been reuploaded at a later date due to some issues with order and publishing!)

It's been a frantic couple of weeks back at uni - a flurry of academic work along with society responsibilities, and now the added panic of applying to Summer internships.

Thankfully, I recently found out that I've made it into Warwick's iGEM team for 2020!

The iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition is a worldwide synthetic biology (or SynBio) competition with thousands of participants from hundreds of universities. I'm incredibly excited for this - not only because I'll get to work in a lab over the Summer at Warwick, making use of the amazing lab equipment and facilities that the School of Life Sciences has, but I'll also get to represent Warwick in the annual iGEM Jamboree conference/competition in Boston at the end of Summer! It will be my first time in the US and I'm feeling the same excitement at theprospect to explore a whole new place, as I did in the weeks leading up to starting first year at university in Warwick.

Most importantly however, I hope to utilise my role both in the wet lab and human practices, outreach and engagement, to do my part in preventing the misconception that genetic engineering is inherently bad. Though genetic engineering may seem "unnatural" to some, this is very much an exaggeration and unnecessary worry in most cases: genetic modification has been carried out for thousands of years - ancient farmers choosing to collect/breed seeds from the stronger crops for the next harvest is also a form of genetic modification! Even for more "serious" genetic modification such as those done in food labs and bigger farms, we would not have much of the produce that we have the luxury of buying in grocery stores today, and even more underprivileged people in this world would be living in poverty and malnutrition.

This is an issue still very fresh in my mind as I write this, as I've recently submitted a Genetics & Genomics laboratory report on beans and how modern plant genetics could help smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa breed efficient, productive and money-earning varieties of beans to feed themselves, their families and their countrymen. I truly appreciate how my degree in Biology isn't just consuming and repeating straight scientific facts, but there is also so much thought on the socioeconomic and practical aspects of all this biological data and knowledge. Though I am not personally interested in pursuing plant sciences in my research career, I had a blast researching and writing this report as it forced me to consider not only the complex genetic inheritance of traits like bean seed coat colour, but also how advancements in crop science would affect the livelihoods of farmers in a totally different continent.

genomics lab

A photo I took during a second year genomics lab session

It made me aware of many caveats I would have probably never thought of on my own, such as how the mostly female smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (who also are tasked with tending to the crops, sorting the produce and selling them, as well as household matters like child care, fuel collection, cleaning and cooking) consider a shorter cooking time of beans to be a desirable trait. Phytohemagglutinin (PHA) is a toxic compound present in many common bean varieties that causes poisoning in monogastric animals such as humans. PHA is only deactivated after long enough cooking times, usually at least of several hours. Such cooking times are a rather inefficient use of fuel and time, and modern plant genetics could aid these multitasking farmers in potentially reducing or eliminating PHA in new breeds of beans, or at least reducing the cooking times needed to degrade this compound.

During the iGEM interview, the candidates and interviewers had some quite interesting discussions about the public perception of genetic engineering, especially that that affects our food crops. Part of my interest in joining the iGEM team stemmed from such mislead public perception (I've heard plenty of people complain about "GMO food" despite not even truly understanding what it means and what life would be like if humans had never done any genetic modification of our food.) The iGEM foundation's emphasis on clearing up such misinformation and gaining public trust in our projects, which are truly developed in an effort to improve the world in various ways, is something I personally related very much to as someone wishing to pursue neuroscience. Misconceptions about all the sciences are rampant but for neuroscience especially people seem uncomfortable to talk about their brains and that of others, to quote Ed Boyden (the founder of optogenetics).


Baking for the WAC Asian Food Fair

I made Milo flavoured cream puffs for SingSoc's fundraising! I chose to make these as I felt they'd be both a welcome reminder of home for Singaporeans while a very unintimidating introduction to Singaporean food and culture to any non-Asian students visiting the food fair. Morning on the day of the fair was quite frantic as I had received 63 orders!

puff


They proved very popular at the food fair, as it turns out even the extra batches I had made weren't enough to keep up with demand! I also took the chance to catch up with my SingSoc friends, particularly those that I met all the way back in July 2018, before even setting foot in the UK for the first time. As always, they proved to be a comforting and welcoming community that I could rely on to share our uniquely Singaporean experiences since we'd last met.


As part of my responsibilities as the Outreach Officer for the Biology Society, I'm in charge of coordinating our volunteering team. I held my first volunteer meeting in Week 2 to discuss topics and resources needed for Warwick's Bright Stars programme, where students interested in attending certain subjects in higher education will have the chance to explore what it's like to be a university student in that subject. Later this month is the compulsory safeguarding training for my volunteers, and afterwards we can really get into the volunteer work that we've been gearing up for! As I've mentioned many times on this blog, this is a very exciting prospect as all my volunteering roles before this were largely limited to small groups, but with the Bright Stars programme we'll be able to (hopefully) make a huge impact on many groups of children from different schools in Coventry and Leamington, many of which are considered "Widening Participation" schools and thus have many students on financial aid, free school meals or are otherwise disadvantaged when it comes to applying to university. I also wish to emphasise and encourage more potential first-generation students into my subject, obviously fitting into this demographic myself and currently having the time of my life in university.

In order to refresh myself on the safeguarding training I did in first year, I attended another 2h session with UniAssist (a program in which I am a mentor) and was reminded of all the intricacies of spoken and body language, and its importance in interacion especially with young persons. Thankfully I can draw on my experience of teaching back at Presbyterian High School before coming to university, even though at the time I never really thought more about how my experiences back in 2017 could affect me even 2 years later. It's a timely reminder to appreciate any and all experiences that I can take part in.

On the fundraising side, I've recently held another bake sale for BioSoc to raise funds for BBC Children in Need as well as for our upcoming BioSoc Ball! I'm nearing the end of my time as the Outreach Officer for BioSoc and despite the challenges you'd expect, the time spent working on my outreach projects has been ultimately an amazing learning experience.

bake donuts


March 26, 2020

My first year Summer Internship!

I'm taking this chance to think back to my internship in prepartion for my upcoming one working on the Warwick team for the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM). Over the holidays after first year (from July to September 2019), I had the wonderful opportunity to undergo a neuroscience research internship at the Claridge-Chang Lab, a joint lab with A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Duke-NUS Medical School.

During my time in the lab, I mainly assisted the postdoc researchers with neuroanatomy - which in a nutshell involves genetically crossing fruit flies, running experiments with them, before knocking them out with ice and then dissecting them.

Prepare yourselves for some overexcited biology talk...

In order to do any experiments on fruit flies, we have to breed them first. The flies are bred according to your experimental purposes - there's plenty of variety that can occur in the little things! Genetic crosses are made by selecting parents with specific traits/genes that you want in your experimental fly, and this takes loads of planning and sorting of the flies. First you have to separate your 2 parental breeds and separate them by sex. In order for the experiment to be reliable we can only change one variable at a time, so one of the parents must be the "generic" type, usually UAS-Stinger in this lab. The UAS flies have genetic sequences that drive expression of GFPs or green florescent proteins (more on this later).

There's also lots of trial and error involved. Sometimes the flies simply refuse to breed, or the larvae die before hatching into adults. Due to their tiny size, there's also the chance that while you were creating the crosses and physically sweeping a certain number of male and female flies into the tubes they're stored in, a stray fly that escape from another tube may have ended up in your cross and will therefore totally skew the phenotypes and genotype of your offspring. Such is the nature of Biology though, so you eventually learn to make multiple sets of the same cross as well as to keep live and healthy backups of your different flies so that such setbacks don't affect your work too much.

tubes

All these tubes consisted of only maybe 30 - 40% of my entire fly "zoo" at its peak!

The tissue paper that's visible in some of the tubes is provided as extra surface area for breeding and growth, while the light brown stuff at the bottom of the tube is the fly food.

So you've succesfully bred your flies... now what?

Insert carbon dioxide into tube via a needle-like tube to anaesthetise them, dump them out onto a carbon dioxide-diffusing surface, and use a paintbrush to sort through them again. This is to check whether the offspring are of the correct breed by observing their physical (phenotypic) characteristics, such as the number of hairs on their "shoulders," whether the wings are straight or curled, or eye colour.

flies

Additionally, marvel at how gross and somehow still weirdly cute they are?

Once I was satisfied with the crosses I needed, the postdocs would use these flies and run behavioural tests. My main mentor in the lab was studying the neural circuits behind foraging and feeding behaviour, so these tests were usually food related. For example, putting the flies we were studying in an arena of sorts, with a choice of two different sugary food sources. A camera setup and computer program is then used to record the flies and count how many times they fed on either food source, and this data would be subject to calculations and statistcal analysis afterwards.

comp

Once a certain behaviour was observed and identified, we then embarked on searching for whether there was any consistent neuronal basis, which is where the neuroanatomy comes in.

Under some pretty powerful microscopes, I used forceps to slowly peel away exoskeleton and other tissue of Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies, leaving their brains and ventral nerve cords, their version of a spinal cord.

flyu

Close up of the humble fruit fly under my microscope. Words almost cannot describe how useful they are in scientific research, from cell biology to neuroscience to even NASA's space missions.

brain

One of my dissected brain and ventral nerve cords (VNC). It took about 2 weeks of all-day practice with me hunched over a microscope trying to dissect such tiny and fragile structures.

me

brain

For a size reference at the real-life scale, the fly brain is that tiny white dot inside the Eppendorf tube!

After dissection of the brains, they are then subjected to washing in various chemicals as well as a formaldehyde mixture for preservation. They are then stained with various antibodies in a processed called immunohistochemistry protocols. I won't go into too much detail about how this works as that would take ages, but basically if a certain brain chemical (serotonin and dopamine are two relatively well-known ones that I worked on) is present in these brains, the antibodies will stain the cells that have this chemical. They will then fluoresce, thus the name of Fluorescent Proteins, when viewed under a scanning confocal laser microscope. As such when you are looking for the presence of a certain chemical that you suspect is correlated to the behaviour of the fly, you can use these antibodies to test whether they're there by staining them and seeing if the areas that glow are present where you expect them to be.

The confocal microscope also does a 3 dimensional scan of the brains, by taking z-axis slices across the height of the brain after you measure and input said height.

confocal 1

confocal 2

I had an absolute blast during the entire internship, as hands-on experience is truly something that words and pictures just can't do justice to. The scientists who work full-time in the lab were incredibly helpful! My mentor was not only approachable and an amazing teacher but also really cared about my experience and development as a temporary "researcher." She always gave me space and freedom to experiment and learn on my own instead of just giving me a long list of instructions or menial tasks. The other interns in the lab were also so fun to hang out with. We had meals together pretty much every single day and I personally found it really helpful to bounce off ideas and troubleshooting tips with each other during our breaks. Everybody, even the Principal Investigator (i.e. the head of the lab, an accomplished scientist and an Assistant Professor at Duke-NUS Medical School) was so open about the workings of his lab with us interns, letting us sit in on official lab meetings, seminars hosted by A*STAR, as well as having us go for lunch breaks as an entire lab every week to have honest discussions about the scientific and non-scientific aspects of a research career.

For all this I am incredibly grateful to all the people at the ACC Lab. The things I learned during this internship are incredibly valuable to me, especially since "working" in a lab is so different from being in university labs. The entire experience is one that I will look back on fondly for the rest of my life, and will never forget.

group photo


June 20, 2019

Summer Term 2019, Part 1

With the recent end of my last summer exam, I have officially completed my first year at Warwick. Cliché as it is, time really did fly – it feels as if I only just got back to campus after Easter break. Since I knew Term 3 would be a tough one, with many deadlines and obviously summer exams to do, I took the chance to go to Frankfurt over Easter to recharge from a pretty busy Term 2.

Sights we saw include the Palmengarten,

palmengarten

The Frankfurt Cathedral:

Frankfurt Cathedral


And the Museum of Architecture, with a particularly interesting exhibit examining the progression of the architecture of human civilisations over time:

caves 1

caves 2

Of course, a trip to Germany would not be complete without a chance to learn about its past, so we also went to the Historical Museum of Frankfurt:

Historical museum


hist museum 2


hist museum 3

With its obviously troubled history, I found it fascinating how Germany has so effectively come back from World War 2 with remorse and respect towards those that suffered under the Nazi regime, as well as looking towards a peaceful future. The top floor of the Historical Museum was dedicated to the future generations, with many meaningful art pieces that reflected the promise of the younger generations and their potential to affect the world.


hist museum 4

We also took a train to another small German town called Cochem to visit the Reichsburg:

train

The view on the train over

cochem castle

The Cochem Imperial castle in the distance

castle interior

Castle tour of the interior


cochem bridge

The Skagerrak bridge.

Yet another museum we visited was the Deutsches Filminstitut/Deutsches Filmmuseum, which had some early cameras as well as props and preparatory work/designs from famous movies.

kodak


nightmare before christmas


Star wars

We also walked around the European Central Bank,

euro bank

And visited a solo exhibition by the Iranian artist Tala Madani.

tala 1


After coming back from Frankfurt, I had a couple of lab reports and a research essay to complete, as well as the upcoming Summer exams to prepare for. Nearing the end of Easter I planned a trip to Oxford with a close friend from JC who’s studying in London, and after walking around the town for a little while we planted ourselves in the Oxford Botanical Gardens to work on our respective essays.

oxford


bot

Shortly after the start of Term 3 was my 20thbirthday, and I was planned a surprise party by my flatmates as well as friends from the Singaporean Society! As my exams were starting the week after and exam stress was obviously bound to be running high it felt wonderful to take a good break and spend meaningful time with my friends. As first year has ended I will miss all of them terribly over the summer and look forward to meeting them again at the start of the next academic year.

bday 1

I also attended the surprise birthday party of another Singaporean first year I met during the Warwick SingSoc Orientation Camp, along with others from our orientation group.

bday 3



Over the exam season, I made great effort to not let exam stress get the better of me by studying at the Life Sciences campus on Gibbet Hill instead of being cooped up in my room, meaning I had to walk through the Tocil Wood and Nature Reserve every day – spotting the adorable baby animals as Spring came into full force.

an1


an2

With exams finally over, I've also been able to focus more on my role in the exec of the Biology Society - over the summer I will be attempting to secure sponsorships, rehaul the mentoring programme between senior and junior students, come up with ideas to improve social media presence, get external speakers to come into SLS for talks, plan trips, try to improve the careers system currently in place, as well as handle volunteering by students in BioSoc. I have a lot on my plate to do before next year begins and I'm very excited and hopeful to see how everything turns out when the 2019/2020 academic year rolls around.


March 18, 2019

Spring Term 2019

20181211_132721_copy.jpg

And just like that, Term 2 is over. It still feels like I only just got back to campus from my travels over Christmas Break.

After wrapping up Term 1, I was faced with the quite daunting entirety of the rest of Europe to explore for the first time. I decided to jump into the deep end and went to Marrakesh and the Ouzoud Falls in Morrocco.

20181210_155741_copy.jpg

The view of the Marrakesh market from a coffeeshop.

20181211_131651_copy.jpg

We hiked around Ouzoud Falls in order to get the best view of the 110 meter drop.

ouzoud falls 2

20181210_183730_copy.jpg
The Old Medina Clock Tower

monkey

Made a new friend while on the hike around the Falls.

I also managed to plan a trip to Dublin with my flatmates, where we visited Trinity College and Howth Harbour amongst other places.

howth

howth 2

trinity college

Initially I was reluctant to leave the beauty of the places I had the opportunity to visit behind, but luckily it snowed shortly after we all got back to Warwick, extending the Christmas atmosphere well into February.

Winter

campus 2

Term 2 was even busier than the first, with just as many examinations along with more submissions and presentations. Keeping on top of work along with handling a whole new set of modules was as challenging as you'd expect, but I still thoroughly enjoyed learning new topics in Biology and the increased number of opportunities to apply what I'd learned with the coursework I had to do over this term. One of the bigger projects I had to do was creating a scientific poster with my tutorial group, and later presenting it in a formal event meant to resemble that of an international conference:

TB Poster

I've also done some very interesting lab experiments this term, as us first years are finally entrusted with more dangerous chemicals and equipment. This term involved more Biochemistry labs (while last Term focused more on Microbiology) and we studied aspects and characteristics of proteins. Unfortunately no photos since phones are strictly not allowed in the teaching labs, but I do have one from a virtual, simulated nerve lab we did recently. We're beginning to move onto into the realm of Physiology, exploring aspects of human beings like neurons and blood flow.

nerve lab

To think that while doing the IB, I could only imagine doing these experiments in real life.

Outside of straight coursework, another project in the School of Life Sciences I was involved in is UniAssist Mentoring. After a couple rounds of interviews I was chosen as a mentor for the programme, and have been assigned 2-3 students from Lyng Hall School and Finham Park School, whom I'm estatic to work with over the upcoming year. During the training session for the Mentoring, I found out that many of the other students participating as mentors as well as the founders of the programme were also beneficiaries of outreach programmes into STEM. It's so heartening to realise how all these wonderful people are set on giving back and continuing to spread the positive impact to as many students as possible.

UniAssist

Another event I attended was the fifth annual Warwick ASEAN Conference, with panel discussions on gender equality in ASEAN countries and a closing address by His Excellency Mr Pisanu Suvanajata, the Ambassador of Thailand to the United Kingdom. They also had a Southeast Asian food fair in the Piazza for the event, and I brought some of my British flatmates to go and try teh tarik, nasi lemak and chicken rendang for the first time!

ASEAN Conference

Abang Fuad

After being away from Singapore for 6 months, it was high time to hear some good old Singlish again. The annual SingSoc production thie year was Army Daze 2, and since practically my entire Singaporean social circle was involved in its production I just had to watch it, dragging my entire flat of non-Singaporeans with me. SingSoc put on an absolutely amazing show, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I was unable to participate in the production this year due to clashes with my lecture/exam schedule, but I'm hoping to be able to help out behind the scenes a bit more next year once I'm able to choose my modules.

Army Daze

As the term drew to a close I also made a short trip to London one weekend to watch a musical theatre production at Goldsmiths that a friend from SOTA was involved in. I had a great time catching up with old schoolmates and learning about their personal journeys acclimatizing to English weather and university life.

Spring Awakening

Goldsmiths

On the Societies front, it was election season recently and I decided to step up my involvement in a couple of my societies and run for exec. I'm glad to say that I've been voted as the new Outreach Officer of the Biology Society, and will be mainly responsible for coordinating volunteer projects and careers events for the students of Life Sciences in the upcoming year. One new aspect that I'm hoping to implement is the publication of a guide for prospective applicants to the School, as I remember wanting to learn more about what life as a student specifically in Biological Sciences would be like.

After Easter Break it's the exam term, which I'm expecting to be hectic but still fulfilling. Still, with less lectures (as I've completed lectures for quite a few of my modules) I'm planning to attend more society sessions that I couldn't before to de-stress from studying and coursework.


December 2021

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