ISTS Asks: Woman for Women

7 min read

“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” – Simone de Beauvoir 

When that happens, is entirely up to you. And even then, being a woman is never all we really are. We can also be scientists, writers, pilots, mothers, engineers – really, anything we want to be. However, some of these opportunities were previously not open to women. Today we celebrate women who have fought the fight (and are still fighting!) to ensure women are represented and given equal opportunities and rewards. We celebrate women of different status, identity, orientation, and abilities, and by doing so, hope to empower and inspire women everywhere. 

In this article, we celebrate Dr. Li Jingmei, local scientist and researcher in breast cancer, for her accomplishments and work that can help every woman. 

1) Could you explain your work and research?

I am a Group Leader at A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), and a woman in science doing science for women. My days with GIS started off in 2006 as an intern, then a PhD student, then a postdoc, then a hiatus at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden as a postdoc, and subsequently an Assistant Professor. Now I am back on the same floor, at the same place, and have become the very same person I aspired to be many years ago in GIS!

I spent 15 years walking down a pink brick road of research. My breast cancer work in the early days was basic. I began as a genomic hunter scouring our DNA for red flags in breast cancer, and moved on to teach computer software to read X-ray images for breast cancer at a fraction of the time it takes a human to perform the same task. The information derived from the latter, mammographic density, is one of the strongest risk factors for breast cancer that most people have ever heard of. The significance of mammographic density to the disease is similar to that of what smoking is to lung cancer, and then some. The humble mammogram can also predict how patients respond to certain breast cancer treatments.

Relocating back to Singapore after my days in Sweden, I applied a lot of what I learnt on setting up cohort studies to the local setting, and established a genetic database for the Singapore Breast Cancer Cohort (SGBCC). SGBCC is the brainchild of Associate Professor Mikael Hartman, who also happens to be my academic brother (we did graduate school at the same department at Karolinska Institutet). With him as the lead Principal Investigator, and me as the co-lead, we have created one of the largest and most well-characterised resources of breast cancer patients in Asia. The aim was to study breast cancer in Asians for the benefit of Asians.

With the maturation of SGBCC, we are ready to take precision health to the next level— implementation. Using what we know about how genetic and non-genetic risk factors are relevant to breast cancer, we are generating breast cancer risk profiles for individual women in a pilot risk-based breast cancer screening study—BREAst Screening Tailored for HEr (BREATHE). While the science behind breast cancer risk prediction has advanced by leaps and bounds in the past forty years, breast cancer screening guidelines have remained largely unchanged. The system is currently age-based, which means breast cancers in young women before screening age would be missed by the early detection programme. In BREATHE, breast cancer risk is predicted for each participant, and individuals flagged as high risk are offered consultations with breast specialists on how they can manage their breast health. To engage and to empower women is what we hope to accomplish.

2) Has it always been your dream to be where you are today?

Has it always been my dream to be where I am today? I’m not sure. What I do remember is that Science Centre Singapore certainly played a big role! I remember the good times spent on projects to earn Young Scientist badges, and I am proud to say I earned all of them available during my time! One memorable task was to write a poem about animals. In Primary School, all I could come up with was something like (updated version):

Birds chirping,
Cats meowing,
Dogs howling,
Chickens clucking.

Birds flying,
Cats chasing,
Dogs running,
Chickens scratching.

I remember reading the Science Centre’s A Guide to [Everything] of Singapore as morning/afternoon/bedtime stories. One I particularly liked was the Singapore Guide to Wildflowers of Singapore. I remember collecting wild flowers and pressing them between books. I remember having fun!

It feels like a dream to be where I am today, doing what I do, for the patients I care about. There are over a thousand reasons why this research is important. Every year, over 2000 new breast cancers are diagnosed. Every diagnosis is a reason for me to carry on my work.  

It feels like a dream when the public shares the same belief that my work is important. A reader of a feature on a work shared afterwards that:

The science that Jingmei Li is leading is strategic.

The science that Jingmei Li is pursuing is personal.

The science Jingmei Li is thinking about is empathetic.

Full text:

Did I dream to be a researcher? Maybe. Am I living my dream as a researcher? Most certainly!

3) Did you have any role models pursuing your career?

It takes a village to nurture a scientist. In my case, everyone I’ve met in my journey has left deep impressions on me. Everyone is a role model. Take for example, my PhD supervisor, Professor Per Hall, a radiation oncologist who chose science over clinical practice because he wanted to save more than one patient at a time. Professor Kamila Czene is a shining example of a brilliant scientist, whose generosity with her time and mentorship, and help to all students touches me deeply to this day. She inspires with her astute and precise scientific acumen, yet she also motivates by bringing out the best in students. Professor Liu Jian Jun, whose predictions about what nascent scientific developments can do in the future come true every time. These people impacted me during the early stage of my scientific career, but the list of individuals goes on!

That being said, the environment plays a big part in being a system of individuals which inspired and motivated me over all these years. The National University of Singapore, University Scholars Programme, NUS Overseas Programme, Karolinska Institutet, Genome Institute of Singapore, A*STAR, among others, formed the proverbial primordial soup that gave birth to the scientist in me!

4) Have you faced any challenges in your field as a woman? If yes, could you please elaborate on these challenges?

I face multiple challenges every day, as a woman, and as a scientist. I can tell you a new story every day! However, in the lab, I am first a scientist, then a woman. The scientist dwells not on the problem, but how to solve it. My job as a scientist is to solve problems, big and small, every day. The woman in me celebrates each victory over every challenge conquered!

5) Do you have any tips or messages for other women out there who are in this field or aspiring to be in this field? 

What does one do if one has a fitness goal? Certainly not just leave it as a goal and not act on it. Don’t think. Just do. If you want something, work for it! Get it done already! Not sure if a career in science is for you? Go on a trial and do a no-strings attached internship. Bring along fresh perspectives and your own points of view to on-going scientific research. Read widely to connect the dots between why experiments are done and what purpose they serve to achieve the aims of the project, and to society as a whole. The greatest of all aspirations pales in comparison to the simple action in taking the first step!

Interviewed by Lydia Konig
Illustrations by Lee Ai Cing


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