Spurred by late grandma's cancer, S'porean poly grad is working to develop better treatments

Stories of Us: Javier Tham, a recent graduate from NYP's Biologics and Process Technology course, recalls how he brought his grandmother for treatments, and came away with a strong impression of how scientific advancements helped cancer patients and their families.

Nigel Chua | June 22, 2021, 10:32 AM

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It's often said that one should follow their passion.

But where does passion come from? How does one catch that spark, and nurture it into a flame?

And, once ignited, how does one protect one's passion from being unfortunately extinguished?

20-year-old Javier Tham might have some insights to share.

Not the "brightest kid" in secondary school

Tham, now a recent graduate of Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP), explains that he has had a "strong affinity" with the sciences as a child, and enjoyed playing with experiment kits made for children.

This led him to the science stream in secondary school, though he soon found that interest alone would not be sufficient.

He found himself going through secondary school "not really topping the class", and having trouble in particular with Mathematics and Physics — subjects which he would struggle to pass.

"I wasn't like, the brightest kid," Tham says wryly.

"At one point of time, I even thought of like, dropping out of Pure Sciences, because I wasn't doing that well," Tham says.

Grandmother's cancer diagnosis

But things took a turn for 15-year-old Tham after he witnessed his grandmother going through lung cancer, and his interest in cancer research began to crystallise.

Tham remembers the period of time after she was diagnosed.

"At the time, definitely we were in shock," Tham recalls, saying that receiving the news was "not pleasant" for him and his family.

And while she eventually passed on due to the disease, Tham and his family drew comfort from the fact that she was able to receive treatment that prolonged her lifespan for about three years after the initial diagnosis.

The initial phase of treatment saw the family making frequent trips to the hospital, though the pace soon eased, into once-per-month visits.

For the bulk of those three years, these monthly hospital visits became "quite a routine kind of thing" for Tham's grandmother.

"Scientific advancement, and the healthcare that she [received], it does help the patient's family, and the patient."

At the time of her diagnosis, Tham knew little more than the fact that cancer was a terminal disease, but soon became acquainted with the different ways to treat cancer.

"I'll always follow her to appointments, treatments, and consultations in the hospital," Tham says, recalling that she was involved in clinical trials for new treatment options.

In the process, Tham found himself drawn to find out more.

"I remember that I told my parents that I aspire to be a researcher, to actually study cancer and then work on drugs to help treat patients with cancer," Tham says.

With that, Tham doubled down on preparations for his O-Levels.

Passion takes shape

In the lead-up to the examinations, Tham was researching potential diploma courses, and found himself being drawn to Biologics — the study of biologic drugs — as a new frontier of medicine.

Tham rattles off an almost-textbook definition, explaining that biologic drugs are mainly composed of biomolecules such as like proteins and carbohydrates.

Some biologic drugs are used to treat cancer, while vaccines and antibiotics are also examples of biologic drugs, he adds.

What attracted him to the field was the fact that treating cancer with biologic drugs is an area where there is plenty of scope for research.

"It's always a race against time," Tham says, explaining that cancers can develop resistance to existing drugs. This calls for the development of new treatments which can combat drug-resistant cancers.

With his intended field of research in mind, Tham applied for NYP's Diploma in Biologics & Process Technology — the only Biologics course offered at diploma level here — and secured a conditional offer even before the O-Level examinations through the Early Admissions Exercise (EAE).

"It was a huge relief for me," said Tham. The fact that he had partially secured a position took some pressure away, which allowed him to "perform naturally", and attain results that qualified him for the course even if he had not applied for early admission.

Passion drives motivation

Discovering his interest and passion in cancer research early on did not mean that the rest of the journey would be smooth sailing, however.

Tham shares that in the course of his diploma studies, certain technical concepts were hard to grasp, especially due to the requirement for independent learning. But Tham overcame this by tackling the complex topics together with a group of friends, with whom he would study together and have frequent discussions to ensure that they were on the same page in understanding their course material.

"I like to talk and explain my content, to help me digest the concepts better, so that I can identify learning gaps that I might need to brush up on as well," Tham says.

Tham also points out that the continual assessment throughout the course of his diploma studies made things challenging as it called for consistent effort in each semester.

But Tham had no trouble staying motivated, saying:

"As long as you have an interest and a passion in wanting to learn, and wanting to gain more knowledge in a field, it will be easy because you already have the heart to learn."

The need to affirm passion

Tham says that his diploma course helped to establish his foundations, helping him to be sure that he wanted to enter the industry.

He also credited his lecturers for being friendly and supportive.

But Tham wanted to know whether he was suited to a scientific research working environment, specifically.

He thus sought out a part-time role as a lab assistant at the National University of Singapore (NUS)'s Department of Biological Sciences, even though it was a role typically offered to either diploma holders or NUS students.

“I’m very lucky for them to have taken me in," says Tham, who says that he also had the benefit of meeting a supervisor who had also taken the polytechnic path, understood where he was coming from, and was willing to give him an opportunity to learn.

For nine months, Tham worked in the lab on two days each week after school, balancing it with his other co-curriculars, until Covid-19 restrictions meant that his assistance was no longer needed there.

While Tham says he would ideally have liked to continue working at the lab, the experience was a valuable one which helped him to affirm his desire to pursue a career in research.

In his final semester at NYP, he also had the opportunity to intern at GSK, working on a project that looked into ways of improving the manufacturing process of a particular vaccine.

"It actually gave me quite an insight about the full process of manufacturing the vaccine, because we were synthesising the vaccines in the lab to study it."

Not wasting any time

Tham shares that he's been offered a place to study Chemistry and Biological Chemistry at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), after he completes full-time National Service.

And he already has a rough idea of his plans after his degree studies — to get a few years of work experience in the industry, before going on to postgraduate studies for either a Master's degree or PhD.

This will open more doors for Tham, such as allowing him to lead research projects independently.

In the meantime, Tham is working as a Research Technologist at the National Cancer Centre, while he awaits the letter confirming his enlistment date.

Some might consider him to be in a transitional state. However, this just means that he has more time now for work which he finds both interesting and meaningful.

"Interest and passion is important when I go to work now, because I enjoy my work. And because I'm interested in whatever I'm doing, I feel motivated to want to go to work," says Tham.

Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

Top photos via Javier Tham