This interview was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by the Association of Muslim Professionals (AMP), October 2018, Volume 13, Issue 4.
Many people imagine the stereotyped image of a scientist as someone dressed in a white lab coat performing experiments alone in the lab, deep in thought and surrounded by racks of test tubes. While most of that may be true, being a scientist encompasses much more than that.
Scientists spend most of their time conducting research and studies with the eventual aim of developing a deeper knowledge of the subject. They delve into the untouched areas of life and give us a better understanding of the world we live in. Their job includes designing and conducting experiments, writing applications for research funding, working on scientific papers to report their research findings, and presenting their scientific discoveries in conferences.
Scientists work in every field imaginable and in many places. For instance, companies hire them to work on products, and universities recruit them to conduct research or to teach. Regardless of the route the scientist chooses, the ultimate goal is to expand knowledge and provide insights to the larger community, as well as to help ignite new discoveries for the future.
At first glance, a career in science may seem intimidating and intense. But for those who are willing to take the plunge, they find a stimulating, rewarding, and varied work life that extends far beyond research and education. More importantly, a career in science is a social endeavour, fueled by a passion for research and a drive to extend the frontiers of knowledge.
But what does a career in academic science really entail?
To find out, the Karyawan team interviewed Dr Farhan Ali, a Singaporean who is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine in the United States. He is currently a trainee scientist currently researching on how the brain functions in normal and diseased conditions, particularly in those afflicted by schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Q: Could you tell us more about yourself?
Dr Farhan: I am the second child in a family of four boys. My parents held blue-collared jobs. Growing up, I went to Bendemeer Secondary School then to Nanyang Junior College. I pursued my bachelor’s degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS) followed by a PhD in Biology at Harvard University. I am now a Postdoctoral Researcher at Yale University. I didn’t have much of a career outside of research before joining Yale University. I went from an undergraduate, straight to PhD at Harvard, then to Yale. I’ve been in an academic research environment since my undergraduate days. My wife and I have 3 young children, two of whom go to school. So, there is not much work-life balance beyond Netflix.
Q: Why did you become a scientist? What attracted you to the career?
Dr Farhan: Growing up, I looked up to various scientists including Muslim ones such as Abdus Salam and Ahmed Zewail.
Q: What’s a typical working day like?
Dr Farhan: I perform experiments on mice. This includes imaging their brain and testing them with certain drugs. I also supervise students, analyse data and write papers.
Q: Why did you choose to work overseas? And why the United States (US)?
Dr Farhan: The US has the best environment to get trained in cutting-edge science.
Q: What’s your area of research? And why did you choose this field?
Dr Farhan: My current area of research looks at how the brain functions normally and in diseased brains, particularly in schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. I use mice to model these neuropsychiatric diseases. I was attracted to the field because neuropsychiatric disorders have imposed and will continue to impose enormous personal, financial and societal burdens. Finding treatments and cures can help alleviate those burdens.
Q: Can you share some of your interesting findings with us?
Dr Farhan: I have broad interests in brain and behaviour. During my PhD, I sought to understand the learning of motor skills. From speaking to writing to music to sports, a lot of aspects of human culture are enabled by dexterous movements of muscles, fingers and body parts. I used the zebra finch, a bird that learns to sing a complex song to better understand how motor skills are learned. I found that complex motor skills are learned by distinct modules in the brain, one involving the cortex and the other implicating the basal ganglia, an important brain area just below the cortex.
In my current postdoctoral research, I use mice with mutations related to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease to better understand the pathologies associated with these neuropsychiatric disorders. My results suggest that these disorders involve an imbalance between excitation and inhibition in the brain, leading to dysfunctional neuronal circuits.
Q: What are the best parts of your job? What are the challenges?
Dr Farhan: The best part about my job is that I get to conduct new experiments that no one else in the world has done. The challenge, however, is that not all experiments work, and even if they do, the data may not support your hypothesis.
Q: What are the major issues or myths around your role?
Dr Farhan: There is no grand “eureka” moment of discovery or a cure. Science moves slowly and incrementally.
Q: What is the highlight of your career thus far?
Dr Farhan: The highlight of my career would be publishing my PhD project in a major research journal. The paper has been cited many times and has influenced the field in multiple ways.
Q: How hard is it to become a research scientist like you?
Dr Farhan: It requires a very long training process, well over 10 years after a bachelor’s degree.
Q: Any qualifications or professional development that has helped you develop in your role?
Dr Farhan: Being immersed in research early during my undergraduate definitely helped me. Like any career, early exposure by way of experience or role models definitely helps.
Q: If you were to summarise the main skills/attributes or qualities for your role into 3 words, what would they be?
Dr Farhan: Someone in my role needs to be analytical, self-motivated and a risk-taker.
Q: What contributions do you feel your job offers to society as a whole?
Dr Farhan: Beyond specific treatments and cures for particular diseases, science as a whole is extremely valuable to society. Science as an enterprise that is data-driven and evidence-based is what advances society’s knowledge about the world.
Q: Do you think science is communicated well to the Malay / Muslim community or the non-scientists?
Dr Farhan: I have not been back to Singapore in ten years. However, I co-edited a book published by Young AMP when I was still in Singapore, titled “Igniting Thought, Unleashing Youth”, and I had a chapter on the lack of Malay representation in the sciences back then. I feel that things have improved slightly since, but not much.
Q: Do you know many Malay / Muslim scientists in Singapore?
Dr Farhan: I personally feel that there are not many of them in the field. In my opinion, Malay/Muslims scientists in Singapore are significantly underrepresented.
Q: What are your plans after this?
Dr Farhan: I hope to continue pursuing research, possibly in Singapore.
Q: Do you have any helpful advice for the Malay / Muslim youths who are aspiring to enter and succeed in this field?
Dr Farhan: Being interested in science is very important (learn to build things, run experiments, analyse data, code programmes), but to pursue it as a career requires years of training with no guarantee of a high-paying job at the end. They have to be ready for a risky investment.
You can read more about Dr Farhan Ali and his research work at bit.ly/drfarhanali
Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.
Photo Credit: Karyawan/Dr Farhan Ali