Published on 29 Feb 2024

Teacher Work Attachment Experience @ the Plant Systems Biology and Evolution Lab of SBS NTU

Justin Heng | Hwa Chong Institution (College), Biology Lecturer

As a teacher, I am often on the instructional end of a lesson. Thus, the Teacher Work Attachment (TWA+) program has been a rare opportunity to relive the experiences of being a student again. For three weeks from 8 to 26 January 2024, I was attached to the Plant Systems Biology and Evolution Lab at the NTU School of Biological Sciences (SBS) led by Assoc Prof Marek Mutwil, where I had the opportunity to observe their in-depth workings. Through various conversations, I gained better understanding of the lab's philosophy and the meticulous approach its members take towards their work.

Justin Heng (left) with Plant Systems Biology and Evolution Lab members from SBS NTU.

Data-Driven Approach

As a molecular biologist trained in traditional techniques such as cloning and confocal microscopy, I consciously opted to join a lab that would give me a new perspective on how science is being conducted in the world today. From the first day, it was a culture shock, and I initially struggled to understand the nature of data-driven research. Unlike the hypothesis-driven approach, where, for example, a specific protein was identified for further testing and investigation, a data-driven approach entailed collecting vast amounts of data and performing computational analysis before identifying trends. Assoc Prof Marek Mutwil and the lab members have since kindly helped me crystallise the lab’s focus as being focused on “hypothesis generation,” which, to me, was a thoroughly paradigm-shifting way to approach science. Much has progressed since I took my last bioinformatics class in university when we simply learned how to conduct a BLAST query for an unknown gene sequence or retrieve information from various databases!

Diverse Learning Opportunities

One standout feature of the lab to me was the diverse nature of experiments being conducted. Unlike my sterile experiences with manipulated cell lines that were simply frozen and thawed as needed, members of the lab were skilled in obtaining samples from various sources. I got the opportunity to visit the Singapore Botanic Gardens to collect fresh samples on my first day. This was a unique experience, to say the least, traversing the Gardens  and identifying plants (which all looked the same to my untrained eye) for collection. Struggling to simply find the specimen, difficulty in obtaining sufficient samples, and carrying a heavy liquid nitrogen tank for hours highlighted the difficulty of this task.

Dissected sample of a flower in the lab, Bag with nitrogen tank for preservation of samples collected in Singapore Botanic Gardens.

 Back in the lab, I was also exposed to various plant culture methods and got to see the various incubators and their mind-boggling permutations of plants and conditions. I found some respite when observing experiments involving classical molecular techniques such as RNA extraction and gel electrophoresis, which were in a domain I was largely familiar with. Still, I got to learn about Illumina Sequencing, which was a necessary and timely update of my knowledge on how large-scale DNA/RNA sequencing and analysis has progressed. Much has changed since my days as a student where the shiny, cutting-edge DNA microarrays promised to be a game-changer for high-throughput research.

The business end of the lab, though, was the computational element. In my short time there, I was exposed to staff and students poring over multiple screens of code, teasing information out from vast amounts of transcriptome or metabolite data to generate a Jaccard Index plot or to assemble a co-expression profile necessary to create a database. Also very pervasive was the ease at which everyone utilised AI as a multiplier, using it for analysis or to learn how to generate a string of code for a novel analysis they wished to perform. It was both intimidating and awe-inspiring to know that in the right hands, computers would feature so much in the future of science.

Plant incubator used to culture plants under various conditions.


Reflections from my TWA+ Experience

When the schedule permitted, I also took the opportunity to sit in on several lectures, which allowed me to update my experience as a student in this age of ChatGPT. As I went to lectures having no idea what was taught in the preceding week or having sat through prerequisite modules, I quickly found myself at the deep end of Year 3 and 4 modules. While some content was familiar to me from my days as an undergraduate, some of the content was new (Hello details of the E1/E2/E3 ubiquitination pathway) or in such great detail that I had forgotten the specific pathways. Having no acquaintances to turn to, I quickly fell back on ChatGPT and used it to query information or details of enzymes I had heard just two minutes prior, quickly getting up to speed. This, coupled with my rudimentary knowledge of the workings of the lab, provided important demonstrations to me on how critical coding know-how is now an essential skill, and that AI is set to be a disruptive technology in the very near future that should be harnessed.

Another major takeaway from this experience is a renewed sense of optimism and excitement for the world of science. The opportunity to surround myself with lab members enthusiastic to eat, sleep, and breathe science is a refreshing break from the routines of teaching. My longtime friend from our undergraduate days, Eugene, who also happens to be a postdoc in the lab, espouses these qualities well. Generally excitable about anything that piques his interest, we found multiple opportunities to discuss a host of topics ranging from those relating to science and the impact of publications on the scientific fraternity, relevance of coding and AI in his work as well as his desire to move out of his comfort zone into computational biology to grow as a researcher. I found this excitability to be true for other members in the lab as well. Through our daily lunches or via sessions when I sat down with individuals to learn more about their work, I have found myself transported back to an era when I was a student and science was all-consuming with everyone wanting to discuss their little snippet of research. It is encouraging to see that the positive culture within the lab has helped everyone focus on getting better at what they did, while simultaneously work toward a common cause. This has certainly rubbed off on me and I am now, more so than ever, keen to learn coding and will certainly want to visit the lab again for a longer stint.

Thank you, Assoc Prof Marek Mutwil, and members of the Plant Systems Biology and Evolution Lab! It has certainly been an eye-opening experience, and I will certainly value the time I spent with you all.