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For one to be a successful scientist, being a jack of many trades simply wouldn’t do. What one needs rather, says Professor Saw Seang Mei, is a laser-sharp focus on a singular impactful topic.
“Just like making a kueh lapis, every study builds upon what you’ve done previously. This is how you think deeper, get stronger and venture into cutting-edge work,” she says.
And her “dessert” of choice was decidedly myopia, a condition that has affected as many as 80 per cent of young adults in Singapore since the 90s.
“Singapore will soon experience a tsunami of myopia as the population ages,” says Prof Saw, adding, “This is going to affect the healthcare system, mobility, quality of life and even job prospects. It’s a lifelong disease that can lead to pathological myopia in old age and eventually blindness.”
The need to take action
When Prof Saw returned to Singapore after completing her graduate degree, she wasn’t interested in doing small cross-sectional studies. To create real impact, she knew she had to launch something big.
This led to her initiating the ambitious Singapore Cohort Study of the Risk Factors for Myopia (SCORM), a 20-year study on nearly 2,000 primary school children that started in 1999.
Year after year, Prof Saw and her team conducted detailed examinations and questionnaires on these participants to identify trends and major possible risk factors. The massive effort bore fruit within a few years.
“We discovered that the lack of outdoor time causes myopia. This was not only new, it is a modifiable risk factor,” says Prof Saw.
The finding inspired the invention of FitSight in 2013, a wearable device for children that encourages them to head outdoors and measures outdoor time patterns by estimating light illumination levels.
Prof Saw and her team also conducted community outreach programmes and got out on park excursions with school-going children as part of a study done in collaboration with the National Parks Board and the Nature Society.
Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Prof Saw, along with a team of colleagues from Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), was given the prestigious President’s Science Award in 2019 for contributing to the decrease in prevalence and severity of myopia in children over the last three decades.
Apart from developing FitSight, the team was the first in the world to discover the efficacy and safety of low-dose atropine eye drops to treat myopia in children, and has now produced their own eye drops to slow myopia progression.
With the impending commercialisation of FitSight and its corresponding smartphone application, Prof Saw is looking to artificial intelligence to analyse patterns.
“For example, is it better to be outside for an hour daily or can we spend the whole day outdoors during the weekend to prevent myopia?” says Prof Saw, who quotes one of the most common queries she faces from parents. “The tracker has real impact for public health,” she adds.
With over $15m worth of grants currently under her belt, Prof Saw is also studying biomarkers in an attempt to identify children at high risk of pathologic myopia. This is done in collaboration with the International Consortium for Refractive Errors and Myopia (CREAM), which has gathered more than 30 population-based studies in Europe, Asia, the US and Australia.
It never gets boring
Despite decades studying myopia, Prof Saw continues to stay motivated by the findings, and more importantly the implications of her work.
“As public health practitioners, our discoveries aren’t just disseminated in Singapore but worldwide. It’s important to help our children see well. This will improve the health of the country,” says Prof Saw, who has started similar SCORM studies in Sumatra, Indonesia and Xiamen, China.
Research aside, the passionate educator also finds joy in grooming the next generation of scientists. “It’s satisfying to see young people blossom in their career, and to help move them forward,” she says.
One of her top wishes is for more outstanding females to join the fold. “We need a system that enables a woman to both care for her family and have a successful scientific career,” says the mother of two who doesn’t hesitate to provide flexible hours for her team when needed.
And she encourages every aspiring scientist to embrace failure, saying, “This is part and parcel of the job. The best-laid plans sometimes don’t work out. You need to find that greater vision, that is to help the community. And things will just get better.”