Published 25 June 2018 by Ulrike Böhm
Women in Research at #LINO18: Jeerapond Leelawattanachai from Thailand
This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO18 young scientist Jeerapond Leelawattanachai, 33, from Thailand, is a young researcher at the National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC), National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), Thailand.
She is currently working on the development of affordable diagnostic tools for developing countries. She is working on a wide range of diagnostic techniques and diseases. However, the one she is mostly focusing on is tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis. Since TB incidences are comparatively high in developing countries, especially Thailand, her home country, this situation highlights the need for a more convenient and affordable alternative diagnostics for tuberculosis and making them available throughout the nation is necessary. Besides, this project could prospectively draw public attention and encourage the research interest about tuberculosis in Thailand, which closely follows the Thailand’s national TB programme of 2017 aiming to promote tuberculosis research in the country.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
My interest in science goes back to when I was in middle school when students are required to learn several subjects – the one that captivated me the most was science. With this enchantment, I read a vast array of books related to science. To learn more about it, I decided to apply for Mahidol Wittayanusorn School, which was the only special science school in Thailand. At that time, I was also fortunate to be selected to participate in POSN-1st Biology Camp (POSN: The Promotion of Academic Olympiad and Development of Science Education Foundation). In the science-oriented environment, I spent a lot of time surrounded by scientific materials, and I found myself intrigued by the process of conducting experiments. I believe it subconsciously cultivated me to be a researcher. Since then, I have had strong desires to earn a Ph.D. and to be an expert in my chosen field. That was the starting point for me to consider research as a career. Apart from that, what inspired me and pushed me to overcome challenges are the beauty of science itself and the great benefit of scientific discovery that could transform many people’s lives. Knowing that I could utilise my knowledge and contribute back to society through research is very fulfilling and rewarding to me.
Who are your role models?
First, I am thankful to my parents who are also my role models. Without their support, I would not to have been where I am today. Since I can remember, they both have been working hard to overcome many difficult circumstances. Their personal stories taught me that with determination, devotion and commitment everything is possible. Even now in their 70’s, they still work more than eight hours a day, six days a week in hope that they could make other lives better. I wholeheartedly admire them for that.
Second, on a professional level, I have many role models. To name a few who have had great impact on me personally, these are Prof. Wannapong Triampo and Prof. Tararaj Dharakul. Prof. Triampo supported me greatly during my Ph.D. education abroad. Under his guidance, I could be able to publish my first research journal as a first author during my undergraduate study. He also inspires me to contribute to child education and STEM activity. Prof. Dharakul is my role model for women in science. She has great passion for science and teaching. As a mentor, she always encourages me to think about and discuss numerous academic ideas. She constantly puts in extra effort and is willing to make time for her students even after working hours. I feel greatly appreciative to both for believing in me and spending a good deal of their time on me. Their attention and supports play a pivotal role in my career development.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
Upon my high school graduation, I was awarded the Rian Di Wittayasat Scholarship, the excellence in science scholarship, to study at Faculty of Science, Mahidol University, where I chose physics major. To understand how biological system works, I joined a biophysics research group and I found much of my research training in the group to be extremely rewarding. As a member of this group, I conducted a research project called Modeling of Signal Transduction via Dynamics of G-Protein-Coupled Receptors: Internalization Consideration. This project was motivated by experimental data and a mathematical model to explain the agonist potency and efficacy of drugs. I extended this model to take into account trafficking events of the receptors to obtain a more realistic model. This modified model provides further mechanistic understanding in signal transduction that is difficult to detect by experimental observation alone. My senior project was categorised as theoretical and computational work. I wished to continue this project, making it more tangible by applying the knowledge into products. Thanks to the Royal Thai Government scholarship for graduate study in the United States, I was able to continue my education in Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University, where I worked on protein engineering, nanoparticle formulation, tumour targeting and in vivo animal studies. In addition, I also gained valuable opportunities of research training in the New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the University of Rochester Medical Center. After finishing my Ph.D., I returned to Thailand and have worked as a researcher at the National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC) since then.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I love all the projects I have worked on. Therefore, it is quite hard to decide which one is the coolest. However, I would like to talk more about my current work on developing a diagnostic test for latent tuberculosis infection using microneedle technology. I am excited about this project for many reasons. First, tuberculosis incidences are comparatively high in developing countries, especially in Thailand. This situation highlights the need for more convenient and affordable diagnostics, which can be easily distributed throughout the nation. Second, this project could prospectively draw public attention and encourage more research about tuberculosis in Thailand, which closely follows the Thailand’s national TB programme of 2017. Lastly, this project is multidisciplinary, which allows me to utilise my background in physics and gives me the opportunities to meet and discuss research ideas with several experts from various fields which I tremendously enjoy.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
I am proud of myself that I could come to where I am today. I have learned a lot every time I passed through challenges and have seen myself grow constantly. To me, every single step in life when I achieved some great things that I have been working hard on makes me very proud. All the scholarships, awards, publications, patents, valuable opportunities or even skill sets that I have acquired throughout the training make me proud. Looking back, I could never have imagined that I can come this far, it makes me feel so fortunate that I am not in a position where I can do what I love and contribute back to society.
What is a “day in the life” of Jeerapond like?
To me each day is quite different. It depends on what needs to be done at that specific moment. Usually, I plan what I have to do ahead of time and stick to it with space for flexibility. My daily life involves setting up experiments, doing literature reviews and writing proposals or research articles. I regularly attend meetings which could be about research collaboration, special seminars related to my research or administrative work. Sometimes I travel to other institutes or even different country to form collaboration and use some specific research equipment. I am also involved in outreach activities, and I am an advisory judge for a student science project in “Sirindhorn Science Home”, a unified learning center, which is next to the NANOTEC research building, to teach science and technology skills to the youth of Thailand. In summer, I usually teach and coach undergrads during their internship.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I have two goals that I want to accomplish in my career. First, I want to do high-quality research which can benefit humanity and improves the well-being of people. It is my ambition to contribute to scientific progress that could translate into medical products. Seeing my developed diagnostic tools become widely accessible throughout the nation, or perhaps the globe, and affordable enough for everyone is my ultimate career goal. Throughout my career, I have seen many people who could not afford medical services that they need. Thus, I want to help filling that gap or at least alleviate the inequality of access to health care, especially in developing countries. Second, I want to get to the position where I can share my experience and knowledge to improve science and technology education in Thailand. I believe that providing our youth with opportunities to develop their science skills will help them become a future driving force for improving the country’s economy and offering a better quality of life to the population of Thailand.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I am personally eager to learn new things. I believe that I can grow as a person by developing my knowledge base and taking in new experiences. If opportunities arise, I like to travel out of town to several provinces in Thailand or to other countries around the world. I love to explore new activities like flying an airplane, sailing, learning equestrian, Thai boxing, western cooking, taking pottery class and 10-day silent mediation retreats. I also like playing instruments and I recently have learnt to play harp and ukulele. Other than that, I am especially fond of working with kids as it reminds me of myself when I started to love science. Therefore, I have participated in several volunteer activities and outreach projects.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
For women who are interested in science and still not certain whether pursuing this career will be the right way, I suggest talking to several people in different disciplines. Science is a broad field and there are many ways you can participate. Women should not underestimate themselves and run the risk of narrowing their choices in life before finding out how far they could have gone. It might also be beneficial to look for specific internships that you find interesting and give it a try. For women who already work in the field, I believe it is important to find what you love to do, work hard and build your personal identity from it. Have the courage to follow your dreams and you will find each small step forward very rewarding. Also, spend extra effort to get to know people in the field and do not be afraid to ask about what you don’t know.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
It is quite difficult to specify one as there are many worthy challenges in science and medicine. For me, I think that a novel method to prevent infectious disease will be the next great breakthrough. We live in a world with continuously mutated viruses, multidrug resistant bacteria and pathogenic organisms with complex latent stage. Developing technology and tools to fight against these diseases and identify emerging deadly diseases is challenging. We are now getting better at vaccines and rapid diagnosis on the known diseases, but we also need to prepare ourselves to rapidly identify emerging diseases and coordinate a respond to prevent epidemics. Besides the breakthrough in infectious diseases, I also would like to see a breakthrough in precision medicine for cancer treatment as well as a breakthrough in the study of social and behavioural science for mental illnesses like depression.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
While we are now getting better at closing the gender gap, many cultural influences still promote gender stereotypes that drives women away from science careers. This includes gender bias in the workplace and the potential career-stalling effect on women of having children. The underrepresentation of female role models in science can also be discouraging for female students and postdocs who are still deciding whether to pursue career in science. Despite these facts, we are still responsible for creating an optimal working environment for all research scientists. In my opinion, we should consider taking the following actions. First, alleviating the maternity burden. In science careers where each project might take a long time to finish, maternity breaks can stall the tenure track or promotion which force many women to delay having children. In this case, re-evaluating rules and processes for tenure and promotion to accommodate maternity and parental leave is necessary. It is very helpful to develop explicit, clear and written policies for tenure and promotion to be adjusted proportionally to the part-time employment and leave periods (including maternity leave and parental leave) and make them available to all faculty. Moreover, the transparent employment and promotion system will also make sure that women with well-developed skills are being steered toward scientific professions. It might be helpful to provide grants which the mother can use to safeguard her research activities or talented personals.
Another suggestion includes providing extra supports for childcare to enable work related business, like conference visits or collaborative meeting abroad. For example, providing additional travel support for an accompanying babysitter or other support programmes or facilities to help reconcile work and family life. The second action would be to offer mentoring programmes to each specific target group, for example, female Ph.D. students, young female scientists or female tenure trackers. This programme would 1) increase the network of the female researchers, 2) raise the visibility of women in the field and 3) provide role models of successful female scientists who managed to balance work and family-life. These actions aim at encouraging structural and political changes in scientific work environments, to improve the representation of female professionals in STEM fields, and to create a more inclusive workplace within and outside academia where everyone can be successful.