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From leading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic to tackling climate change, scientists today are at the forefront of important discoveries, technologies and solutions for everyday life, helping humans understand the great mysteries of the universe.

And the global health crisis was the latest reminder that development in science has huge societal and economic impacts and contributes to humanity’s progress.

A notable trend over the past decade has been the growth of research and development investment in Asian science. The total R&D growth between 2000 and 2017 in East, Southeast and South Asia — including China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan — increased their combined global share from 25% to 42%, with the region exceeding the respective U.S. and EU R&D shares.

The Japan Times met five promising Asian researchers who are contributing to the advancement of knowledge across biology, physics, chemistry, engineering and medical sciences.

Spread around the globe, these early and mid-career scientists are addressing food shortages, obesity levels and improving medical treatments, and exploring technologies for the early detection of earthquakes.

Kayla Nguyen

A postdoctoral scholar on materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Nguyen is dedicated to taking pictures of the smallest building block in the universe — the atom — using the electron microscope.

She won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2018 for the invention she co-created, an electron microscopy pixel array detector (EMPAD). It is a special camera designed to detect and display electrons at a much greater level of detail than existing versions, and is now used by institutions worldwide.

“The more we look to find the smallest imaginable object, the more we learn about the tiny universes that surround us,” notes Nguyen. “Electron microscopy is a way for us to probe these worlds.”

Kayla Nguyen is dedicated to taking pictures of the smallest building block in the universe — the atom — using the electron microscope. | COURTESY OF KAYLA NGUYEN
Kayla Nguyen is dedicated to taking pictures of the smallest building block in the universe — the atom — using the electron microscope. | COURTESY OF KAYLA NGUYEN

Through taking detailed, higher resolution images of atoms, Nguyen’s research has the potential to improve medicine and technology with new treatments for cancer and possible cures for Alzheimer’s. It can enhance drug delivery systems, make fuel-cell cars more accessible and quicken computer processing, among other things.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be an astronaut because I loved the idea of space,” says Nguyen, who was inspired to become a scientist after watching a talk by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. “(But) I realized it was just as important to turn a telescope toward space as it is to turn it in the opposite direction, toward ourselves.”

Born in Vietnam, her family immigrated as refugees to California when she was four. Despite struggling with social, economic and language barriers, Nguyen’s parents stressed the importance of education and encouraged her to study science. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University.

Nguyen hopes to uncover new physics in quantum materials and is determined to push the imaging resolution of electromagnetic fields and molecular structures.

Christine Cheung

Cheung, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, hopes her laboratory’s scientific efforts will help uncover human vascular disease biology that could have a profound impact on healthy aging.

Christine Cheung uses stem cell technology to study blood vessels in ways that could mitigate heart attacks and strokes. | COURTESY OF CHRISTINE CHEUNG
Christine Cheung uses stem cell technology to study blood vessels in ways that could mitigate heart attacks and strokes. | COURTESY OF CHRISTINE CHEUNG

The provost’s chair in medicine at the university uses stem cell technology to study blood vessels in ways that could mitigate heart attacks and strokes.

“Our team invents methods to re-create patients’ own blood vessels in the laboratory,” says Cheung. “From this, we can derive biological insights to restore blood vessel health and regenerative therapies.”

Her pioneering approach to create organ-specific blood vessels has led to notable acclaim from the World Economic Forum and winning the 2018 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science national fellowship.

“Blood vessel problems underlie the crux of many health conditions,” says Cheung, who received a Ph.D. in cardiovascular and stem cell medicine from the University of Cambridge.

“We develop biomarkers to predict the risk of vascular complications such as heart attacks and strokes. This helps to identify high-risk individuals for close monitoring, and we can slow down disease progression if we intervene early.”

The Hong Kong-born researcher was awarded the prestigious Human Frontier Science Program research grant in 2019 to further advance her work.

Zhongwen Zhan

“It’s amazing to figure out something about the Earth, earthquakes or other natural processes just by listening to the Earth’s vibrations,” says Zhan, an assistant professor of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The seismologist, who hails from China’s Jinzhai County, uses a sensitive technology known as distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) to map out and distinguish seismic sources.

The promising method, which is shaking up geology and adjacent fields, could contribute to early warning systems for earthquakes, help study the structure of glaciers, monitor thunderstorms and peer into the deep ocean.

Part of Zhongwen Zhan's research aims to contribute to early warning systems for earthquakes. | COURTESY OF ZHONGWEN ZHAN
Part of Zhongwen Zhan’s research aims to contribute to early warning systems for earthquakes. | COURTESY OF ZHONGWEN ZHAN

“It’s difficult to provide continuous power and real-time cable data telemetry in the ocean, on a remote glacier or even on the moon,” says Zhan. “DAS is a new scalable and affordable way to improve observations.”

DAS turns pre-existing telecommunication fiber optic cables, which run beneath the ground and underwater, powering today’s phones and internet services, into dense arrays of seismic sensors.

“It works by monitoring the status of light traveling through fibers, because they can change due to vibrations on the ground,” says Zhan. “We can establish seismic arrays thousands of times denser than conventional networks and observe many new phenomena.”

Zhan’s seismology group has used the method to analyze the aftershocks following the 2019 Ridgecrest earthquakes in Southern California, as well as showing how interactions between ocean waves produce small earthquakes under the North Sea.

“The denser fiber seismic networks may one day provider faster and more accurate earthquake and tsunami early warnings,” he says.

Mika Nomoto

Japanese molecular biologist Mika Nomoto has been making great strides in recent years with her research on the immune systems of plants. She hopes her efforts to develop chemicals that can help reduce crop damage will play a big role in solving global food shortages.

Nomoto, an assistant professor at the Nagoya University Center for Gene Research, looks at the resistance of plants to both pathogens and pests.

Mika Nomoto is hoping to combat global food shortages with research into chemicals that can help reduce crop damage. | COURTESY OF MIKA NOMOTO
Mika Nomoto is hoping to combat global food shortages with research into chemicals that can help reduce crop damage. | COURTESY OF MIKA NOMOTO

“About 35% of the world’s major crops are lost to pests and plant disease,” says Nomoto. “To overcome this difficulty and to solve global food shortages, understanding the regulatory mechanism of plant disease resistance is an essential and urgent task.”

Her work on plant-specific immunity, which can be used to promote sustainable pest management, has seen Nomoto develop a unique artificial protein synthesis system for investigating immune responses. The technique, which reduces the time required for protein synthesis, was developed during her graduate studies alongside her academic adviser, professor Yasuomi Tada. It has had a big impact on the way many research laboratories synthesize proteins and led to a spin-off company, NUProtein Co.

“Because I grew up in the south of Japan in the town of Higashikushira (in Kagoshima Prefecture), richly endowed with nature, I simply loved plants and wanted to protect them from environmental threats,” she says. “Since then, I have been fascinated by the mechanisms by which plants survive under diverse environmental stresses.”

Kim Sung-yon

The Stanford-educated neuroscientist has big ambitions to improve the lives of billions of people worldwide. His research into the connection between stress and eating behavior has already had an impact in combating obesity.

The assistant professor at South Korea’s Seoul National University studies precisely how neural circuits interconnect and signal to each other to control basic emotional and need states, such as anxiety and appetite.

Kim Sung-yon's research into the connection between stress and eating behavior has already had an impact in combating obesity. | COURTESY OF KIM SUNG-YON
Kim Sung-yon’s research into the connection between stress and eating behavior has already had an impact in combating obesity. | COURTESY OF KIM SUNG-YON

Kim’s work has been published in the journal Nature and led to his international recognition by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) as a recipient of the Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience Prize in 2014. He further developed novel tools for extracting structural and molecular information from intact brains as a postdoctoral fellow.

His university laboratory “tackles simple, but fundamental and surprisingly unknown questions in neuroscience,” Kim says.

He hopes the pioneering discoveries from the Kim lab will support his vision to advance our understanding of innate behavior and integrative physiology, as well as provide novel treatment targets for associated metabolic, neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Kim was awarded the Scitech Korea Young Neuroscientist Award from the Korean Society for Brain and Neural Sciences last November for his outstanding achievements and contributions to Korean neuroscience. He was recognized the following month with the Minister Prize for advancing health technology by the Ministry of Health and Welfare of South Korea.

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