Who would’ve thought that an episode of sci-fi series Star Trek would unlock the secrets of biotechnology in the medical world? Dr Tan for one did.
“In Star Trek, there is a clinic on board the Starship Enterprise with a scanner that detects all kinds of diseases in humans and it can tell you why you’re sick,” she explains.
“I thought if they could have one on the show, why couldn’t we have one in real life? As a biologist, I knew I had to get a team together and create it in real life because I wanted to take it to places it had never been before.”
Thus, came the birth of Veredus Labs, which has been thrust into the global spotlight with its latest “lab-on-chip” test kit that can detect seven major tropical diseases, including Zika and dengue, from just a drop of blood.
“Zika is now becoming very famous in Singapore due to the outbreak in recent years, but we developed this chip in 2015 and it can also detect different species of malaria, serotypes of dengue, chikungunya and other flaviviruses,” said Dr Rosemary.
It takes about two to three hours to identify the exact pathogen, which used to take days or weeks to learn. Besides the Zika kit, the Singapore-based medical diagnostics company also has a kit that in 2009 became the first that could detect the H1N1 flu virus, and a chip that can determine if food has been contaminated with salmonella, E.coli and other agents.
Veredus has since sold the kits to international corporations and government agencies that use them in places like airports and immigration checkpoints. The kits were even recently used at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where it was used for surveillance.
“We’re at the cutting edge of technology. We have shrunk an entire lab onto a chip that’s the size of a fingernail,” she explains. “As long as a specimen contains DNA, we can tell you what pathogens are contained in it.”
Not bad for a woman who almost didn’t want to pursue the sciences as a line of work. “When I was younger I had a lot of interests. One of them was the science, the other was humanities. The knowledge of different cultures and history really fascinated me,” she explains.
“I did equally well in both areas in school. So I had a dilemma when it came to choosing the science stream or arts stream. How I wish I could do both!”
Being the practical woman that she is, Dr Rosemary ultimately chose to do the former, as in her words “science was seen as a more prestigious area of study during my generation.” She couldn’t leave behind her love for languages, however, and decided to marry the two by pursuing her PhD at a Japanese university to get around it.
Her ability to enjoy the best of both worlds has served her well in her job as woman in the sciences, where the fairer sex remains woefully underrepresented.
“While I do believe the decisions men and women have to make to shape their futures are different, I don’t like to emphasise on the things that distance us from each other,” she confesses. “To me, whether you’re a man or a woman, you need similar criteria to be a good scientist: Discipline, focus and passion. If you believe in your capabilities as a scientists, then you will achieve your goals.”
Words to live by: “Find joy in the work that you do and listen to your gut, it will lead you to the truth.”
Next up: “I want to continue to grow Veredus and make it more successful and global by putting our products in every corner of the Earth. We’re extremely ambitious and we want to provide the best products possible to tackle the growing threat of pandemics.”
The Great Women Of Our Time 2017 is proudly presented by Lancôme.