PETALING JAYA — At 25, Lam Shu Jie made one of the most significant discoveries in science.
The Batu Pahat-born made headlines after she developed a new class of antimicrobial agents able to kill superbugs.
In short, her medical discovery is a possible alternative to antibiotics.
The PhD candidate at University of Melbourne was the primary researcher for the 11-member Polymer Science Group. It was Lam who developed a chain of unique tiny star-shaped polymer structures made from short protein chains that were able to destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria without hurting good cells.
She remains humble over the fanfare.
“I’m flattered by the media attention we received. It is all very humbling,” she told Sunday Mail.
“It’s good to know our work is relevant to the public and will probably give people a clearer understanding of what researchers do. I credit the success to God and my loved ones.”
She said a large number of bacteria cannot be destroyed by antibiotics.
“These are what we call superbugs. The compounds developed are unique, star-shapped tiny structures made from short protein chains.”
She and her team learnt the star polymers worked differently from regular antibiotics and did not harm healthy body cells.
“Antibiotics tend to kill bacteria in a very specific way, whereas the star polymers we made kill bacteria in multiple ways. One of the ways is by ripping the bacteria wall apart.
“We think that’s probably why they are able to kill bacteria that can’t be killed by antibiotics. The star polymers worked on mice with superbug infection and are relatively non-toxic to healthy cells in the body.”
Working on this research project required her to be in the laboratory at odd times, sometimes as early as 4am.
“As I was dealing with living organisms, I had to follow ‘their’ timing instead of mine and that meant going to the lab at 4am.
“During peak period I worked seven days straight but it was usually from about 8am to maybe 6pm or 7pm.
“I try to watch television and go to the movies when I have the time,” she said.
Lam spent the last three-and-a-half years on the project and is barely half way through before the agent can be clinically tested.
“It’s still a long journey, perhaps another five years before we can get it clinically tested. Research is a long process.
“I was estatic when the preliminary tests showed it works in killing bacteria, which happened about two years ago” she said.
“I spent the next two years doing more tests, which had its fair share of ups and downs, and making sure the results were complete and valid for publication.”
She admitted there were doubts whether the project would be a success.
“To be honest, it was quite a challenging journey. It started as an idea from our team but we didn’t know whether it would work.
“We had to make polymers from scratch and conduct the testing. It was challenging but rewarding at the same time.”
She sees this as her way of contributing to society.
The apple does not fall very far from the tree as her father Dr Lam Pan Nam, who died last year, was a paediatrician.
Growing up, she dreamt of being a doctor, possibly influenced by her dad. During her days in SMK(P) Temenggong Ibrahim, she developed a strong interest in chemistry.
After secondary school, she did her pre-university foundation at the University of Melbourne and pursued her Bachelor of Engineering in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. She graduated in 2012.
The following year, she began her PhD in engineering and was scheduled to submit her thesis in November.
“My father has always provided plenty of support and encouragement for me to pursue my dreams and interests, and motivated me to persevere,” she said.
“So, when I came to Melbourne for my pre-university foundation, I decided on chemical engineering because I was attracted by the possibility of using my chemistry knowledge to solve real-world problems.”
So what’s next for Lam?
“I would prefer to continue working in research and do what I’m doing right now … medical research.
“My primary goal is to work in an area that would help solve problems faced by the public.”
She said she would be in Australia for the next year or two but would love to return to Malaysia if a good opportunity arises.
“I’m still a Malaysian,” she said.
For those who want to follow in her footsteps, Lam said: “Try get as much exposure as you can and always keep an open mind.
“Talk to people from different backgrounds and explore different opportunities because this will really help in identifying your interest or passion in life or career-wise.”