News: Clinician-scientists graduate from LKCMedicine PhD programme amid pandemic


By Kimberley Wang, Manager, Media and Publications, Communications and Outreach

LKCMedicine PhD graduates Dr Barnaby Young (left) and Dr Yew Yik Weng 

At this year’s Convocation, two clinicians from the National Healthcare Group (NHG), LKCMedicine’s primary clinical training partner, celebrated their graduation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Barnaby Young and Dr Yew Yik Weng are among the first NHG clinicians to graduate from the LKCMedicine PhD by Research Programme. In all, 16 PhD graduates received their Doctoral degrees at the ceremony held in the NTU Nanyang Auditorium on 23 July.

Launched in January 2016, the LKCMedicine PhD by Research Programme admits students from a variety of backgrounds, including natural science, medicine, social science, and engineering, and provides exposure to a range of topics and disciplines. 

The programme equips students with essential skills that will enable them to conduct cutting-edge research in one of five domains: Lifespan Medicine, Population Medicine, Medical Biology, Medical Engineering and Medical Education Research. On completion, graduates will have a deep knowledge and appreciation of both translatable and translational medical research methods.

Earning his PhD on the frontlines of battling COVID-19

Pursuing his PhD was certainly no walk in the park for Dr Young, who is Head of the Singapore Infectious Disease Clinical Research Network at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).

Dr Young earned his PhD as an NHG-LKCMedicine Clinician-Scientist fellow while helping the nation battle COVID-19. He is part of the COVID-19 Research Workgroup (RWG) that received the National Clinical Excellence Team Award 2021 for their instrumental contributions and significant achievements in COVID-19 research, and management of the pandemic response in Singapore and globally.

He said, “The first year of COVID-19 pandemic was an exceptionally intense period of work. At the time the research for my PhD was pretty much completed, and my thesis drafted, but I had no choice but to put it aside and not think about it for a year.” 

Convened on 22 January 2020, the RWG is aimed at conducting studies to better understand COVID-19 and its transmission in Singapore. It has made significant research contributions in the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn led to improved standards of care, diagnosis, health outcomes, and management of COVID-19 patients both locally and globally.

These research findings have been translated and incorporated into investigation of outbreaks, infection control measures, and public health policies on quarantine and isolation, as well as the development of diagnosis and treatment methods benefitting patients and the wider community, both locally and internationally. 

For Dr Young, it felt like a natural choice to pursue his PhD at LKCMedicine given the many connections he had with the School. His research project focused on influenza in the tropics and the best vaccination strategy for the year-round infections in Singapore. He was attracted to this topic as he has a strong interest in infection and immunology.

Travelling to the WHO influenza reference centre in Melbourne, Australia to do lab work was one of the most memorable experiences for him. He said, “It gave me the opportunity to meet and work with some fantastic influenza researchers. It has led to an ongoing collaboration and a clinical trial of a new recombinant influenza vaccine that we will start enrolling for in a few months.” 

Moving forward, Dr Young is applying for funding for a new research project that will build on his PhD work with a study of controlled human infection with COVID-19. 

“This is something I am very excited about doing as it can speed the development of new vaccines and treatment, which are sorely needed to help us exit this pandemic. Without the training and connections built during my PhD I would not be in a position to pursue this,” he said.

Pressing on despite COVID disruptions 

Like Dr Young, Dr Yew, a Consultant Dermatologist at the National Skin Centre (NSC), encountered his fair share of challenges as a PhD student. He completed the second half of his PhD during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Looking back on the disruptions caused by the pandemic, he said, “The situation then on the ground was uncertain. There were clinical duties on top of my PhD studies. We were also covering for our colleagues who were deployed to work in the dormitories or community care facilities. Labs were closed for a period of time.”

Dr Yew was attracted to the PhD programme as he was interested in epidemiology research and noticed that LKCMedicine had set up a large-scale population cohort study – the Health for Life in Singapore (HELIOS) Study. 

“I was given the opportunity to play a part in the design of the skin domain of the cohort study under the leadership of Professor John Chambers, an eminent clinician researcher in epidemiology. It made natural sense to further my structured training in epidemiology under his mentorship,” he shared.

As a senior consultant dermatologist in charge of the adult eczema clinic in NSC, Dr Yew’s clinical and scientific interests are mainly in atopic dermatitis (eczema), a chronic skin condition with a huge disease burden. His PhD research project investigated the relationship of atopic dermatitis with obesity in an adult general population cohort, in the hopes of shedding light on the pathophysiology mechanisms of atopic dermatitis. 

Dr Yew recalled performing a bioinformatics analysis of the microbiome experiment of his research project during the circuit breaker.

“My co-supervisor Assistant Professor Marie Loh could only discuss and guide me remotely via messages and calls. It was a lot of hard work but the learning experience was very memorable and fun. I worked hard with my supervisor till late hours and felt a great sense of accomplishment, and acquired an entire new skillset of using supercomputers and python programming. It was a great sense of accomplishment for a clinician like me,” he said. 

Reflecting on his experience, Dr Yew credits the PhD programme for providing the structured training required for him to think scientifically. He added, “It enabled me to understand the rationale and challenges faced by scientists and act as a bridge between clinicians and scientists. The rigour in the training enabled me to approach any problem gaps in a more systematic and scientific manner.” 

Expressing his thanks to the supportive community at the School, he said, “They have often assisted and facilitated students, especially clinicians like myself, during the programme. As we need to take into account our routine clinical schedule, it can be challenging to juggle some of the PhD requirements.

“Overall, there are good mentors with diverse backgrounds and interests and the school administrative support is robust. I would strongly recommend to my peers and juniors to consider the LKCMedicine PhD by Research Programme.”