Associate Professor Karen Crasta, 38, is a Scientist researching basic mechanisms of cancer. She is officially an Associate Prof at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine and Joint Principal Investigator at A*STAR Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. She heads a team researching mechanisms of cancer biology and therapy. She also teaches Medical and Biological Sciences undergraduates at NTU.
This initiative is part of our 101 Paths to Success series of interviews to gain insight into how successful people came to do what they are doing, and enlighten parents that there is a vast array of occupations for our children to discover. Hopefully it might spark an interest in our children and youths to start their journey of discerning their life’s path.
B.Sc (Honours) in Microbiology from NUS
PhD in Cell Cycle Regulation from NUS
Postdoctoral Training in Cancer Biology from Harvard Medical School, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
|Associate Professor Karen Crasta
Describe your job
I love my job! There is no typical day. It consists of training, guiding my team of postdoctoral fellows, Phd Students and research assistants. I hold weekly group meetings with the team members so we have discussions as a team on how to best solve problems and learn from one another. I may also have to review journal manuscripts and grant proposals. I occasionally teach and set student assignments and examination questions, and mark them. And of course, there are plenty of meetings to keep me busy!
As I am a National Research Foundation Fellow, my focus is more on the research aspect although I do find the teaching aspect gratifying. I try to find time to carry out my own research at the bench and make time everyday to read journal articles to keep up with the latest discoveries in the field.
Tell us about your career path
I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a scientist. However over time, it became apparent that my favourite topic was Biology. Additionally, my parents were a big influence. My mum, who stayed at home when me and my twin-sister were younger, taught us about nature and science in a fascinating way. My dad was passionate about his job as an Engineer and influenced our thinking process and the way we see the world.
I did well in CJC in Biology and decided to undertake Microbiology as a major at NUS. I was selected to the Honours Year where we were assessed on independently-carried out research projects and advanced course work. It was at this stage that I first encountered the appeal of research work. The independence of it, thinking about things, planning the steps to your next experiment, reading, discussing, trouble-shooting, making a hypothesis and predictions, testing them, failing or getting it right…. the lure of the experimentation process was exciting.
I worked for two years as a research assistant and ended up as a first-author in a reputable journal called Bacteriology! By then my interest in science was sealed and I decided to do a PhD at the then only premier research institute in Singapore called the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMB). In my final months of PhD, I went to a conference in Melbourne to present my graduate work on Cell Cycle research. At the conference, I met a Professor from Harvard whom I knew had a project in an area I was looking to pursue. He interviewed me in Melbourne and accepted me on the spot!
I packed my bags for Boston in July 2008 to start my post-doctoral training at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School. I was awarded the A*STAR International Fellowship in 2009. In 2012 I returned to Singapore and joined IMCB, now under A*STAR, as a Senior Research Fellow.
In 2013, I was awarded the National Research Foundation Fellowship from the Prime Minister’s Office which came with 3 million dollars in funding over 5 years. This allowed me to start my own lab in Sept 2013 and I’m now leading a team of like-minded people who share the same vision in solving the major problems my lab is addressing, namely toxicity and resistance of chemotherapy drugs.
My mothers’ role:
I love my Mum! My mother, Stella Crasta, nurtured my love for science and the 3 of us siblings would not have come to where we are (us twins as successful scientists and my younger sister as a lawyer) without her example, dedication, sacrifice, encouragement, and unconditional love. She imparted good Christian values to us, and most importantly, kept us constantly in her prayers.
She has a double degree in Botany and Zoology, and also in Education. When my twin sister and I were born, she stayed home until we were 16 years old. Home was a loving environment as my mum was always there to turn to for advice and Dad came home promptly at 6.15pm everyday.
I am glad my mum was a stay-at-home-mum in our growing up years. She was up early to make breakfast and prepare our lunchbox. She went through our homework and taught us different subjects in inspiring ways. She particularly had a twinkle in her eyes when teaching us Science.
Not only did she take a keen interest in our academic work, she also made sure we were self-reliant. We had to do simple household chores to learn independence and help out as a family. My parents ensured we had a well-rounded education and encouraged us to play badminton, swim to relax, and learn to play the piano. Amidst all that, she made sure we had fun as well!
My mum is now the Principal of St. Francis of Assisi Kindergarten, and it was really inspiring to see her working so hard – working during the day, going for classes at night, and staying up to finish assignments. Although she was the oldest in class, she achieved top marks for all her assignments and it was obvious that her professors and classmates loved her! It was my wise dad who encouraged her to take up teaching as he said it is always important to have other interests besides family lest anything happens to him when we’re all grown up. He passed away 3 years ago from cancer and on hindsight, it was good that she has her own interests and work to keep her busy as my Dad is no longer around as her companion.
How did you find your passion / area of interest?
It was more by trial and error. It was obvious that I did better in Biology than all the other subjects so it was natural that I gravitated towards it. Having an interest in cancer cells came from studying the controls of cell division during my phD. Understanding how cells turn cancerous became somewhat of an obsession and that intense curiosity about wanting to know more got me hooked on this path, in the hope of coming up with improved cancer therapies.
Which aspect of your job gives you the most satisfaction?
When I see the joy of discovery on the face of someone in my team!
What does success mean to you?
Success at work is the ability to do my best every day in mentoring the younger generation so that they can become good scientists and good people. I try to always remember that any talent we have is from God and we must use it to the best of our ability.
Are you involved in any voluntary work?
I am involved in a church group that organizes activities to help the less fortunate, the elderly and the sick.
I am also an UN Women in Science Ambassador and open my lab twice a year to interested secondary school girls in the hope of inspiring and motivating them to see how fun and exciting making scientific discoveries can be!
To know more about the Girls2Pioneers program, you can visit this website – http://www.girls2pioneers.org/
One advice to parents
Support your children in pursuing dreams that make them happy; do not impinge your aspirations on them.
One advice to teens
Work hard with passion, determination and confidence to achieve your goals. You can do anything you set your mind to!
To be a good scientist, it takes someone… who is truly Passionate about science since it can be fraught with failures. Having said that, you need to be able to learn from the failures and have the ability to troubleshoot and design key experiments. You will also need to be curious about nature and how things work. Finally you need self-motivation, drive and hard work to pursue it.
~ www.mummyweeblog.com – a blog on parenting 6 kids in Singapore ~