Leading the charge in the fight against breast cancer

Dr Li Jingmei
Senior Research Scientist, Genome Institute of Singapore, A*STAR

Alumna, NUS Science

Dr Li Jingmei has got her parents to thank for igniting her abiding passion in science.

Drawn to the allure of a colourful encyclopedia box set as a precocious five-year-old, she dived into the wonderful world of science and engineering, and never looked back.

Thirty years later, 36-year-old Jingmei is a senior research scientist who studies mammograms for a living at A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS).

In her quest to study and reduce the genetic risks of contracting breast cancer, Jingmei spends her days knee-deep in breast cancer prevention research (as opposed to just finding a cure), with hopes of creating awareness that early detection can better save lives.

Jingmei (second from left) with colleagues from GIS.

“Globally, 14 million cancers are diagnosed every year and one-third of them can be prevented. For breast cancer, the two risk factors that you can take control of are mammographic density and Body Mass Index (BMI). Mammographic density measures the density of the tissue components of the breast, as seen from a mammogram, and can predict whether you have a higher or lower risk of getting cancer in the future."

“However, there are ways to reduce mammographic density (such as through changes in lifestyle and diet), and you can choose to go for screenings more often as a secondary prevention method,” she said.

According to Jingmei, if every woman in Singapore has low mammographic density and low BMI, about 50 per cent of breast cancers can be avoided. Many lives will be saved if cancers can be prevented from occurring in the first place, she emphasised.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Science alumna’s dedication to making a difference is palpable.

It’s no surprise then that her trailblazing research has won her several prestigious accolades, such as the UNESCO-L’Oréal International For Women In Science Fellowship (2014) and the Singapore National Research Foundation Fellowship (2017), among others.

Jingmei with her GIS colleagues in 2018.

But perhaps the most inspiring thing about Jingmei is the genuine, infectious enthusiasm with which she talks about her passion for science – something she credits her memorable time in NUS for.

From tending to greenhouse plants (or “living my sci-fi dreams à la Little Shop of Horrors”, as she calls it) and caring for cockroaches in S2’s fascinating insectary, to building a Tesla coil with “disastrous repercussions”, Jingmei’s varied experiences gave her the chance to venture outside her comfort zone and expand her horizons.

“NUS really introduced me to a lot of different things. For example, in the Faculty of Science, the Level 4000 modules made you discuss topics like marine conservation, where you’d have debates on how to manage shrimp farming, what the alternatives are, and so on.”

“It was quite an enriching style of learning; it’s not like writing an individual term paper. You get exposed to different topics and pick up skills, like how to conduct presentations, how to sell a point of view, etc,” she reminisced.

Counting herself lucky to have been part of both the NUS Overseas College (NOC) programme and the University Scholars Programme (USP), Jingmei regards the former as having taught her important skills for her career.

Jingmei with the Students Association of Singapore during her Student Exchange Programme in Melbourne.

“USP and NOC offer different experiences. At USP, we learnt creative writing, and got to try out courses at other faculties. I took some engineering modules, and had fun building things such as motors that run on static electricity from TVs.”

“But for NOC, I learnt things like how to manage a team, and how to market my science. I find that very useful when writing grants – how I can sell my work and get people to be interested in it. So, I think the NOC programme has been very important to my science career.”

Crucial in guiding her along as well were several inspirational professors who were part of Jingmei’s learning journey.

In fact, she unabashedly admitted that when she was picking her PhD supervisor, she looked for a professor who made science fun, who was “cutest in terms of personality”, and whose enthusiasm would rub off.

“The people who inspire me are those who are really passionate in what they do, and you can see that they like what they’re doing. Some of my shining examples of women in science are Assoc Prof Ho Shuit Hung and the late Dr Ong Bee Lian (NUS), and Prof Kamila Czene at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, where I did my postgraduate research,” she recounted.

However, it was during her time in USP that Jingmei met Assoc Prof Albert Teo, whose lessons she will remember for the rest of her life.

Jingmei (centre) at her NUS Commencement Ceremony in 2006.

“One of the experiments we had to do for a term group project was on human behaviour. For example, we made people face the other way in lifts (instead of facing the doors) and observed the reactions of those who entered. We also left a controversial magazine at a bus stop, and then noted if people would pick it up or walk away.”

“In that course, we not only studied the concepts of human behaviour from the textbook, but also used them to observe people in real life. I think that’s very important for transferring knowledge. It is not just studying for the sake of exams, but actually applying them.”

Despite having graduated from NUS for a while now, she still recalls her years there with fondness, and is quick to encourage prospective students to take the time to explore the “buffet of different experiences” available, such as internships, new scholarships for start-ups, plenty more NOCs, and student exchange programmes.

Sounding very much like she’s still a youthful, earnest student herself, Jingmei’s drive and commitment to science is as much a result of her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, as it is a joy that comes from doing work that she loves.

Jingmei attended the Breast Cancer Consortium (BCAC) Edinburgh Meeting in June 2018.

In her continuing fight against breast cancer, Jingmei is looking forward to seeing great strides made in research to help cancer patients live longer. It’s what motivates her to push on in her work to better identify women’s breast cancer risks.

“Back in the 1970s, the average cancer patient lived one year after diagnosis. Now, it’s five years after diagnosis, on average. For breast cancer, the average survival rate is about 10 years. We are making advances, and we are doing some good, but it is not something that we can expect the next day. Science is a very long journey, but we’ve come so far in identifying the different risk and survival markers. Even if cancer may not be ‘cured’ in my lifetime, I’m certainly hopeful of seeing amazing progress.”