The science of effective communication

The Singapore Youth Award (SYA) is Singapore’s highest accolade for youth, conferred on inspirational individuals who have displayed courage, resilience, leadership and a spirit of service, making a positive difference in the community around them. This five-part retrospective revisits previous recipients of the Award, and how they continue to change lives and touch hearts.

Dr Juliana Chan (right) at an event with Sir David Lane, chief scientist of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. PHOTO: WILDTYPE MEDIA GROUP
Dr Juliana Chan (right) at an event with Sir David Lane, chief scientist of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research. PHOTO: WILDTYPE MEDIA GROUP

Dr Juliana Chan is one of Singapore’s up-and-coming biomedical scientists, with a list of awards as impressive as her academic achievements.

The holder of bachelor’s and master’s degrees with first class honours in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the recipient of the Singapore Youth Award, Singapore’s highest accolade for youth, in 2013.
The honours kept coming. In 2015, she was made a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, giving her the opportunity to meet and collaborate with fellow researchers and changemakers from all over the world. 

So it comes as a surprise when one discovers that she is now the owner of a media business.

“It wasn’t easy,” she says, attributing the motivation to switch careers to a longstanding passion for writing. 

This passion, she says, stems from her childhood, when she used to make her own “magazines” with her sister — collections of scraps of poetry and drawings, stapled together for a readership of three people in the household. 

Dr Chan was made a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2015. PHOTO: SIKARIN FON THANACHAIARY/WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

Her parents had other plans for her — they wanted her to eventually take the Hippocratic Oath. But a two-week stint at Changi General Hospital during her junior college days showed her that medicine was not for her. 

Nonetheless, an affinity for biology led her to successfully apply for the inaugural A*Star Scholarship in 2002. She headed to the University of Cambridge for her undergraduate education. 

However, during her studies at MIT eight years ago, she noticed a worrying trend: While there was no shortage of Western-focused commercial science magazines to disseminate research from the US and UK around the world, there was a wealth of valuable research being done in Asia that simply went unnoticed due to the lack of Asian-focused science magazines. 

To plug this gap, she started Asian Scientist Magazine in 2011, a personal blog to document the research of scientists based in Asia, with the intention of making science more accessible to the layperson. The blog swiftly gained traction among her colleagues and undergraduate students, several of whom signed on as contributors.

Asian Scientist Magazine continued to flourish even after her return to Singapore, convincing her that it had the potential to go even further. 

She received a six-figure sum from World Scientific Publishing for a print edition — a vital shot in the arm for her business.

But it was only when the print edition began circulation in 2014 that she realised how little she knew about the publishing industry. 

Dr Chan (far right) with fellow Singapore Youth Award winners. PHOTO: NATIONAL YOUTH COUNCIL

Having been an academic all her life, taking the plunge into this new field was nothing short of daunting — with a six-week-old daughter in tow. 

“I was vetting proofs, pitching to advertisers, and writing articles in my tiny office, all when I was nine months pregnant,” she recalls. 

She kept at it for four years — an impressive feat given that she was not only editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine, but also an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, and the School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering. 

With a child to raise, a rapidly growing editorial staff, and having to get up-to-speed on the publishing process, something had to give. In February this year, she left NTU to commit full-time to her publishing business. 

With changes in her life came changes in the business — Asian Scientist Publishing took on a new life as Wildtype Media Group in May. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Wildtype’s publications snagged six awards at the Media Publishers Association of Singapore Awards last year. Today, it publishes six magazines, including Asian Scientist Magazine and Supercomputing Asia. 

But Wildtype is no one-trick pony. It also specialises in public outreach events, such as a masterclass with Dr Jorge Cham, author and illustrator of the wildly popular webcomic PHD Comics, as well as a seminar on the dangers of microplastics with scientists Dr Neo Mei Lin and Professor Chou Loke Ming. 

Through Wildtype, Dr Chan (far right) has hosted events featuring prominent speakers like Dr Tiah Ling, and Singapore Youth Award winners Dr Isaac Liu and Dr Kumaran Rasappan. PHOTO: CYRIL NG

Other events under its belt this year include a talk at private club 1880 with Nobel laureate Sir Richard Roberts and a pre-med seminar, for which the 300 available places were snapped up almost immediately. 

“This goes to show that there’s a huge demand for events that take science mainstream, and we believe we can be that bridge between scientists and society,” says Dr Chan.

To make these events accessible to the public, Wildtype tries to keep the price of admission as low as possible — most are free, and others are priced to cover the cost of venue rental and refreshments.

The reason for doing so, she says, is because “the scientific community in Asia is growing rapidly and possesses a wealth of knowledge that can benefit everyone”. 

Institutions like Cambridge have over 500 years of heritage behind it, she points out, while the research and development community in Singapore has had just 15 to 20 years to grow to its current stage. 

“Getting the public involved is important,” she says. “Making people aware of the fact that such groundbreaking work is being done here in Singapore is the first step to rallying them behind our scientists.”

And with Dr Chan and Wildtype Media Group spearheading the charge, the future for scientists in Asia has never been brighter.