Advancing Research at Harvard.

When UCSI University’s alumnus Joel Phua Jia Meng began his research with Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), a Harvard University hospital, in late 2019, he could not envision how his journey took an interesting turn. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from heading to the United States. However, it did not stop him from completing his research at the prestigious institution of higher learning through computational research.

“It is a shame that the pandemic prevented me from going there in person, but this experience showed me that this kind of computational genetics work is a viable arrangement in this COVID-era.” He said.

Joel Phua is one of the few students selected to do high impact research at renowned institutions of higher learning under UCSI University’s Star Trek programme. The programme aims to award the university’s brightest students with opportunities to obtain exposure working or studying with top corporations and universities. In this regard, Joel Phua was attached to MGH for a research year.

Research at Harvard

Joel Phua’s research at MGH is a computational genomics project that involves identifying genetic changes from treatment of clinical depression using alternative treatments. He conducted his research under the mentorship of Dr Simmie Foster and Dr Kumar Veerapen. Dr Veerapen, an alumnus of UCSI University, is a research fellow at the Analytic and Translational Genetics Unit (ATGU) at Massachusetts General Hospital and a community engagement manager at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

“I was working on a project determining the kinds of viable treatments for depression and their mechanisms. Specifically, my project under this collaboration between MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Programme and the Broad involved comparing the genetic expression between people who receive the different treatments to determine their genetic mechanisms in alleviating depression.” Joel shared.

Prestigious Experience

When asked about his research experience at one of the top Ivy League universities, he admitted that he felt a little nervous due to the university’s prestigious status.

“Honestly, it was intimidating initially because of the status of the institution. I did not know what to expect. However, I was quickly comforted by my welcoming and down-to-Earth mentors, who were patient and understanding as I learnt the ropes for this high-impact research,”

“In terms of topic and scope, this research was a great opportunity to explore and experience a broad topic, involving interdisciplinary insights from my mentors. I hardly think that many of my peers have had the privilege to take up such an interesting subject and work with real patient data. So, I am very grateful for this opportunity and experience. Also, having access to the vast Harvard library and the high computing power offered by the Harvard O2 high-performance computing cluster did make conducting my research easier.” Joel said.

Joel also shared the impact that his research will have in the field of medical science and biotechnology.

“The results obtained from this research will contribute to the wider understanding of the genetics of depression, especially to the field of alternative treatments. We also believe it will assist in developing future treatments to address the issue of depression.” He added.

Solid Foundation For Research

For Joel, he could not have made it this far without the academic foundation set by the academics of the Faculty of Applied Sciences at UCSI University.

“Here at UCSI's Faculty of Applied Sciences (FOAS), I received my foundational knowledge that propelled me to perform in this high-impact research environment. Courses like research methodology, human molecular genetics, bioinformatics, and statistics were essential to understanding and acquiring skills for my project.”

“The Faculty also provided many opportunities through the Star Trek programme. It aimed at rewarding high-achieving students with exclusive opportunities. In fact, I could not have arrived where I am today without the well-connected FOAS lecturers like FOAS Deputy Dean Associate Professor Dr Crystale Lim Siew Ying, the mover and shaker of this programme at FOAS who presented me with this amazing opportunity, and Associate Professor Dr Renee Lim Lay Hong, my project co-mentor from FOAS who really helped to keep me grounded. I would argue that this healthy environment of lecturers who care about their students' welfare was also a major contributor.” He concurred.

Future Plans

After completing his Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology, he decided and was encouraged by his mentors to take a well-earned break from his studies. However, he has not ruled out a possibility to further his studies in statistical genetics.

“Currently, I am simply on a break after a hectic final year in my undergraduate degree. I am privileged to be in this position, and I could not be more grateful to the family for letting me take this breather between university and working life. As I ponder on the work that I would be interested in, I am open to sharpening the computational genetic skills that I have acquired through my project. Otherwise, I feel that perhaps I could head down the education path as well.”

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