Hoping for 'sparks' to fire up innovations

Dr Liu, a participant at the summit, is working to develop a new way to fix jaw injuries.
Dr Liu, a participant at the summit, is working to develop a new way to fix jaw injuries. ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

Repairing a broken, split jawline can be an arduous process. Currently, dental surgeons do so by grafting bone taken from a patient's leg into the gap left in the jawline.

It is a long, painful process that requires the patient to be hospitalised after the surgery for up to three weeks.

But Dr Liu Yuchun, 30, a research fellow at the National Dental Centre, is looking to end such surgery.

She is working alongside dental clinicians to develop a new way to repair jaw-related injuries, such as those which occur through trauma or jaw cancer, that cause the jawline to split into two, or more, separate pieces.

Her work centres on a titanium implant to bridge the gap in the jaw. Dr Liu hopes that this implant can be directly installed to repair such damage, which can cut the surgery time to just a few hours, and post-surgery care to only three days.

She is one of the 270 participants at this year's Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS), an international gathering of young researchers aged 35 and below, who are given the chance to interact with and learn from top scientists.

Dr Liu got her PhD in 2012 for her research in bone tissue engineering, after completing her engineering degree at the National University of Singapore four years earlier.

Coming up with such innovations, she said, requires not just knowledge of materials, but also how they react with bone and cell tissue inside the bone.

And this is work that touches on both her interests: science and entrepreneurship. Dr Liu is not content with research with no applications - she wants to see her inventions being put to good use.

A six-month Singapore-Stanford Biodesign programme, a highly competitive course designed to train medical technology innovators, she attended shortly after she got her PhD was what made her excited about scientific innovation.

"That was where I realised that it was important to focus on clinical needs and balance it with technology," she said.

Science may be one passion, but the bubbly Dr Liu has another: public speaking.

She heads the Toa Payoh chapter of the local Toastmasters Club here and has been honing her communication skills for the past five years.

"When I first attended its meetings, I was so shy I would just sit in and listen. But one day, I decided that learning how to communicate efficiently and clearly was important, so I signed up," she said.

She is very keen not to just listen to as many lectures as she can over the five days of GYSS, but also to make new friends from all over the world who may spark off new ideas for her work.

"I'm looking forward to hearing the inspirational speeches from the different Nobel laureates and other recognised scientific leaders. Even though most of them are from very different fields from what I'm doing... I'm hoping for some spark, some cross-pollination of ideas, that may lead to a new invention," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Hoping for 'sparks' to fire up innovations'. Print Edition | Subscribe