CNC Illustration by Paige Siyao Lim (@thewaferpaper)

Bernie Lee is a Singaporean chemist who has invaded the computer lab and turned it into a chemistry lab! As a PhD student at the University of Oxford, she uses computer simulations and modelling software to investigate how proteins form chemical bonds with other molecules.

She shares with us first-hand about her work and her journey in science.

What are you up to in Oxford?

I’m currently working towards a PhD in chemistry. Actually, I’m just getting started. My full PhD project began in October 2020, and I’m doing a project that is joint between two research groups.

In my current project, I’ve been exploring the chemical bonding between two proteins from a computational perspective. It is a mix of chemistry, biology and computation.

I’m hoping to start looking at the bonding between my protein of interest and small molecules soon, with the aim of designing a molecule that binds specifically to the protein. This will help us to learn more about the protein’s function.

What exactly do you do as a scientist in your project?

There’s actually a number of different things that I do!

I spend a lot of time at the computer, rather than at the lab bench. And my day tends to involve a mixture of running experiments (on the computer) and analysing data. I also read research papers, as it is important to be aware of recent findings in my area of work. There’s also some writing involved, as we have to submit reports on our work every few months.

Bernie Lee uses a programme to visualise the chemical bonds (dotted lines) between different parts of a protein (white and yellow strings)

Which aspect of your work do you find the most exciting?

The interdisciplinary nature of my work is what I find most exciting — I like being able to interact with people from different scientific backgrounds! People think about problems differently, depending on their research experience, so it’s nice to get multiple perspectives on the same problem, and I get to learn a lot as a result.

Most of us find it tough to even understand the textbook. How did you come up with your research topic and hypotheses?

This is something I find challenging too, especially since I’m at the start of a new project.

My PhD supervisors helped me get started on my project, and they suggested some initial areas to investigate. I usually find it easier to think of new things to explore once I’ve gotten started on a project, and talking to my supervisors and lab mates really helps. 

Have you proven any old theories wrong?

Not yet! But I have more than 2 years left to try…

The science you do is quite cheem. How do you communicate your findings to the general public?

Science communication is very important, especially for research work that is being translated from the lab into the real world (e.g. COVID vaccines). In these cases, it’s so easy for fake news about the work to spread. Putting out clear and concise explanations of what we do is important in combating these issues. It also helps to build trust in science if we are open and honest about the strengths and limitations of our work. 

I’m currently working on basic research problems and I’m very early on in my project, so there’s not much for me to share with others at this point! I would definitely like to do some outreach work in the future, e.g. giving talks about my research at outreach events hosted by my university.

What was your journey to becoming a scientist like? Were you already good in science in secondary school?

I enjoyed science in secondary school, especially chemistry. And yes, science also happened to be my best subject.

That being said, I did have some doubts, because I found maths quite difficult (and still do!). But I decided that I wouldn’t let that put me off studying science. Being able to take up research attachments during JC also gave me a feel for research work, and this helped me decide to continue with science at the university level.

The last experiment Bernie Lee did in the chemistry lab before it was shut down during the COVID-19 lockdown, and incidentally, before she delved into the computational work on protein.

So you knew you wanted to do chemistry all along?

While I knew I wanted to stay in science, I moved between different areas of science over the past few years.

When I started my undergraduate studies in Natural Sciences, I intended to specialise in cancer biology. But we had to take courses in chemistry and maths in the first year, which made me realise that I enjoyed chemistry very much. Luckily, the course was very flexible, and I was able to specialise in organic chemistry and chemical biology.

More recently, I have been exploring computational work, and now my PhD project involves a mix of chemistry, biology and computation!

Another big part of my journey towards becoming a scientist has been working with A*STAR. They funded my undergraduate studies and are currently funding my PhD studies. I’ve had opportunities to work in different research institutes and explore different areas of research, and this has helped me to grow as a researcher. The community of A*STAR scholars has also been very supportive and helpful. The older scholars are very happy to give advice, and this has helped me through my studies. 

What would you say to students who want to go into research but find school practicals challenging?

I had plenty of trouble with practicals in school and during my undergraduate studies, so it’s definitely ok to have such failures! In my first two years at university, I made many messes during chemistry labs, and I still went on to do my final year project in synthetic chemistry.

Ultimately, it’s a learning process, and there’s plenty of failure in research work. At the PhD level, there are often more failed experiments than successes, and it’s a perfectly normal part of the whole process.

The school lab, where legends are made

Most big names in our syllabus are men. How does it feel being a woman in chemistry?

I’ve been very lucky in this respect. In both groups that I work with, there’s a pretty good gender balance, and my computational supervisor is female. In addition, I had very supportive mentors during my undergraduate studies, so I felt that I had the same opportunities as my (male) peers.

That being said, I am aware that chemistry, and science as a whole, still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality (more broadly, we need to do better at inclusion and diversity in general). But there are plenty of people who are trying to make a difference, to make chemistry a more welcoming field for everyone, and I hope to contribute to that during my PhD!