Singapore scientist, one of 15 women scientists around the world, wins top award

Dr Li with mammogram images, which she studies to see how breast density can be used to predict cancer risks.
Dr Li with mammogram images, which she studies to see how breast density can be used to predict cancer risks.PHOTO: L'OREAL SINGAPORE

A young researcher from Singapore will soon have the chance to get her hands on a trove of data that may shed light on breast cancer risks, thanks to a prestigious international science fellowship.

Dr Li Jingmei, 31, received this year's Unesco-L'Oreal International For Women In Science Fellowship, one of 15 women scientists around the world to do so.

Dr Li, a post-doctoral research fellow at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Genome Institute of Singapore, was picked from three Singaporean finalists. She will receive her award at a ceremony in Paris this month.

The Unesco-L'Oreal international fellowship was started in 2000 to encourage women scientists at the doctoral or post-doctoral level. Previous fellows include Dr Patricia Ng of A*Star's Singapore Immunology Network and Dr Marissa Teo of the National Cancer Centre Singapore.

With her US$40,000 (S$50,700) award, Dr Li will spend two years at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, where she previously did her doctorate in medical science in 2011.

There, she plans to use Sweden's nationwide disease registries to find out if there are genetic risk factors for aggressive breast cancer that leads to death within a few years.

"It's harder to do so in Singapore at this point," she said. "You need to approach all the different hospitals and get people to collaborate and share data."

The Swedish registries have decades of data on millions of women. In a previous project, Dr Li compared 50,000 cancer patients to 50,000 healthy control subjects, and found 40 or so tumour markers that signal a slightly higher risk of cancer.

"To find anything significant, you need huge numbers," she said.

Among women here, breast cancer is the most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths. Over a lifetime, one in 16 women here will develop breast cancer by age 75.

The daughter of a jewellery manufacturer, 58, and a housewife, 56, Dr Li was not too keen on biomedical sciences initially. "I wanted to do marine biology," she said. "But the Government was investing in the biomedical sciences at the time and there was a need to fill the gap." Now, she dives as a hobby instead.

caiwj@sph.com.sg