From lab bench to corporate planning
From lab bench to corporate planning: Advancing clinical research that will drive healthcare solutions for patients
Dr Chen Huijia, Senior Manager, Planning and Strategy at the Consortium for Clinical Research and Innovation, Singapore (CRIS), finds purpose in supporting the strategic initiatives at CRIS, which houses six key national clinical initiatives and translational platforms under the Ministry of Health to advance clinical research and innovation for a future-ready healthcare system.
These research areas span across precision medicine, cell therapies, translational cancer and cardiovascular research, and also support national healthcare innovation projects and clinical trials. CRIS brings a stable infrastructure to create synergies that will allow these programmes to deliver impactful outcomes for Singapore’s healthcare needs.
Read on to find out more about how she made the switch from a career in the research lab to business development and corporate planning, all of which have been meaningful roles in driving healthcare for the greater good.
Taking a love for science beyond the lab
As a child, Huijia’s favourite subject in school was science, particularly the field of biology, owing to her love for small animals. She fondly recalls that the first pets were fishes and she had a strong bond with her pet rabbit when she was growing up.
“I knew I always wanted to do something science or biology-related. I enjoyed reading widely and trekking along nature trails to learn more about the science behind living things,” says Huijia.
After her undergraduate studies, she went on to pursue a PhD in human genetics. Thereafter, she worked in the laboratory to unravel the genetics behind eczema in the Asia population and took a brief stint abroad on drug discovery for a muscular dystrophy genetic disorder before returning to Singapore. Then, she decided to take up an opportunity as a business development manager in a local skin research institute, to understand how research can be applied to businesses and influence consumer lifestyle. She shared that it was a heartening moment when she realised a career in science could venture beyond the walls of the laboratory.
From drawing up business strategies to growing partnerships and collaborations with other leaders in the field of skin research, Huijia learned the ropes of securing funding opportunities as well as the art of communication in negotiating contracts and building relationships with stakeholders.
She realised that advancing research is a consolidated effort of the whole ecosystem: “Apart from contributing from behind the lab bench, I realised I could also contribute in other ways to shape the research and healthcare landscape to help patients. Being in the lab is not the only path, although that is how most of us begin our training,” she says.
For instance, one key driver of research is securing funding from the private sector.
“Funding is key when it comes to research.My role then was to be the bridge to connect scientists to industry partners who could fund and translate their work, ranging from clinical treatments for rare blistering skin disorders to consumer care products,” she says.
Huijia adds: “We had to think out of the box and find a way to convince stakeholders to see the value of the research in contributing to good clinical and economic outcomes, for them to contribute funding resources to it.”
A new chapter: CRIS – a thriving new organisation for partnerships in research, innovation and translation
The experiences and insights gained in her early career prepared her to take on her current role at CRIS to develop corporate strategies and support a thriving new organisation.
CRIS was formed in April 2020 to keep Singapore at the forefront of clinical and translational research innovation, while actively advancing the sustainability, affordability and quality of Singapore’s healthcare system.
“Joining an organisation as young as CRIS is fulfilling as the team gets a chance to shape corporate strategies and see it come to fruition. In addition, it has been a great learning experience because we have more direct access to senior leaders in the ecosystem thanks to the flat management structure,” she says.
“My role in Planning and Strategy allows me to bring people together and find solutions that will be useful for healthcare in the future,” says Huijia.
Part of the job in Planning and Strategy includes facilitating senior leadership engagements, communicating CRIS strategies to stakeholders and seeking guidance and feedback to steer CRIS as an organisation toward its long-term goals.
It also includes collaborating with cross-functional teams to develop areas for growth. One example would be working with senior management to establish synergies and harmonise processes across the CRIS programmes in the areas of clinical trials, business development and establishing health and economic outcomes for research. This will in-turn drive efficiencies and reduce red tape for industry partners and clinicians looking to expand their clinical trial studies and R&D capabilities in Singapore.
Huijia shares that although this role has an evolving scope with a steep learning curve, it has also provided new perspectives.
“Instead of focusing on knowledge discovery through research, I’ve learned to think with a more global view and understand patient needs versus cost effectiveness. My role in Planning and Strategy allows me to find solutions that will be useful for healthcare in the future, solutions that will lead to a better life for Singaporeans,” says Huijia. She adds that she has benefited greatly from the sharing of experiences by her mentors and passionate colleagues she has worked with during her time in CRIS.
Turning plans into concrete
One memorable project for Huijia was leading the relocation and renovation of the CRIS office from Biopolis to Rochester Park under a very tight timeline of approximately six months, amid remote working arrangements, safe management measures and a period of heightened alert due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“Although I had no prior experience managing a project of this nature, it was a rare opportunity because the new space was a fresh slate to create an environment that can encourage collaboration and bring people together to create impact through healthcare research,” says Huijia.
Huijia (centre) at the new office space while renovation was ongoing.
Together with a workgroup comprising representatives from the CRIS programmes, Huijia led weekly meetings to discuss everything ranging from the logistics of packing up the old office, space planning for the new office space, working with the interior design firm on the design theme, selecting carpet colours, to ensuring that the IT infrastructure was in place.
The workgroup also organised a room naming contest where staff had a chance to name the meeting rooms. Today, the meeting rooms at the CRIS office are named according to trailblazers whose work led to significant advancement of life sciences research.
Huijia shared another fun fact about the meeting rooms: “The shapes of the acoustic panels you see are related to the scientists’ research. For example, in room named after Marie Curie, the triangular panels represent her pioneering research on radioactivity,” says Huijia.
“We also wanted to include special touches in the design to represent science and technology. If you look up on the ceiling of our largest meeting room, you will see a hexagonal lighting pattern which represents molecular structures and symbolises connectivity,” she adds.
The renovation project was completed on schedule and despite the challenges along the way due to the pandemic, the workgroup remained adaptable and undaunted despite evolving circumstances.
Leading transformation by being what you are good at
Looking back, Huijia shared that it has been a fulfilling journey contributing to the scientific industry through her role in Planning and Strategy because it is aligned to shaping the nation’s healthcare landscape.
When asked what advice she has for young women interested in a career in science, she said: “Be open minded and play to your strengths.” From her experience, her scientific career turned out to be different from what she had envisioned when she was younger; but nevertheless, “it is fulfilling and I have been pleasantly surprised by how I can make a difference along the way,” she says.
Outside of work, Huijia is also a proud owner of four adopted pet rabbits, which keep her busy when they are more active in the evenings. She is an active volunteer with Bunny Wonderland, a rabbit welfare group of like-minded volunteers who rescue, rehabilitate and re-home abandoned pet rabbits. In her spare time, she works with the welfare group to run educational seminars and fund-raising events to advocate responsible pet ownership, and shares rabbit care tips with potential rabbit adopters. On some occasions, she may even be spotted “re-capturing abandoned rabbits somewhere in a forested park!” Huijia beams.
Huijia with two of her adopted pet rabbits Halo and Hank.
Huijia regularly volunteers with Bunny Wonderland, a rabbit welfare group of like-minded volunteers who rescue, rehabilitate and re-home abandoned pet rabbits.
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