Julin Wong thought her scientific research skills might be too narrow for the outside world. But she found stability and satisfaction at the intersection between science and law—even if she still misses those late nights on the bench.
By Brian Shott
You used to be a researcher in a p53 laboratory. Tell us about your journey away from the bench.
When I decided to hop off the bench, I wasn’t really confident. Like many, I felt I might regret the move. I still loved science. So I opted for a position in the same building where I was, the Institute for Medical Biology (IMB), where, if I regretted the move, I could always go back to the bench.
So at IMB, I became the bridge between the patent people and the legal team, and between the scientists and the administration. So, for example, if you wanted to have your mouse model sent to the other side of the world, and you needed all those agreements done, that could be me, because I understood the science and the lawyers had no idea. Transfer agreements, contractual agreements, publication rights, confidentiality agreements—all this needs to be translated between scientists and lawyers.
Did you have a legal background?
No, but when you join, you’re given a 2-3 day crash course on what you are allowed to do without needing to escalate for approval. So after being there a while, and after repeating the same thing several times, you get the gist of it. There’s also a one-year, part-time legal course you can take. If in doubt, there is also Legal whom we can always seek help or confirmation.
You were at IMB for three years. How did you move from David Lane’s lab into that role?
I was lucky. I spoke to David, and told him I was looking for something else away from the bench, and he felt that I was suitable for the position. We thought it was going to be a business development role: you go out to speak to people and try to get collaborators for the science project. But it turned out to be a contract administrator position, reviewing agreements and documents and being the bridge between legal and the scientists.
Did you do a lot of business development during your years there?
Very little. There’s no time. Because there is so much administrative focus. Everything is administration now. I feel like science is not very fun these days. Even as an administrator I feel bogged down by administrative tasks. I feel so sad for the scientists and feel glad I’m not in that position anymore.
At KKH (Singapore’s KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital), there is a lot more focus on administration but that’s what I am being hired for, I guess!
Is there any fun part to your administrative role?
Well, what I like is to talk to people and to further their ideas. You do want to help people and see them through the whole process. But when you start the administrative process, things get slower and slower and slower. Coming from a science background-turned administrator, I understand the reason for the administrative work. However, sometimes it can get overwhelming. Administrative work is not a scientist’s favorite thing to do, but it is also inevitable. I feel happy when I am able to support/assist the scientist and make the whole administrative journey better for them. And when the researcher gets their royalties or is successfully awarded the grant, you do feel happy for them.
Do you think you could get to your current position without the transitional project manager position you held for three years?
I do think I could have done it, but it would have been much harder. My IMB experience really helped, for example in project writing agreements, what to look out for, how to negotiate a deal—things like that have really put me in front of many people.
You said you learned how to negotiate a deal. Can you explain?
You learn how to convince people of your ideas. Or, say if I put in so much money, can I get so much out of it?
Who are you fundraising for?
It could be for the granting bodies, or the collaborators; it could be for a company that was a collaborator. So I have to draft a budget and convince them that my budget is actually worth the money that we’re asking for.
What did you find very difficult at the beginning of your jobs off the bench, that now you find easy?
It took me so long to write a professional email. You have to write it in such a way that the person understands what you want, and you have to end it nicely. I struggled with that (and still do). For example, I often ask myself if there is a better word I can use, or is my email clear enough? Where should the important points be (especially for the really busy people who may delete your email after reading the first sentence)? I often look at my email and think, I can’t possibly send this off. And I read other professional emails and wonder, ‘How can people write such nice emails and I can’t think of the right word?’ After a while I realized that I don’t have to stress myself so much, as long as I can get the point across.
But emails now are so much easier. I still worry about sounding offensive.
What was the most challenging for you at A*STAR?
Looking at the contracts was really difficult at first. Thirty pages of legal language! But after a while, you get the hang of it.
Tell us about KKH, where you work now.
KKH is Singapore’s largest academic medical Centre specializing in women’s and children’s health, and is part of SingHealth – Singapore’s largest cluster of healthcare institutions. In each medical specialties they have the academic clinical program (ACP). They group clinicians by specialty; I’m in obstetrics and gynecology (O&G). There are 15 ACPs in SingHealth, and we form a network. I support the O&G doctors at KKH and SGH (Singapore General Hospital). I lead a team of 20 staff, comprising five clinical research coordinators and 15 administrators.
What are your job responsibilities?
There are three pillars of the ACP program. The first is clinical care, where we try to improve the patient experience. We do quality improvements projects; for example, we review patients’ waiting time, and we try to enhance their experience when they see the doctor. The second is research, which is what the ACP is looking to improve the capability. I am hired for this purpose, mainly looking at facilitating clinical trials, proof of concept, surveys, mobile apps, anything that helps bring care to a higher level. The third is education, where we coordinate the training and faculty development of medical students and junior doctors.
And we ACPs also manage grants at the same time. We seek residents who are more research-inclined, and then we try to support them in competitive grant applications and grant submissions (eg national grant calls).
What would you say to someone who’s thinking about leaving the bench? What are the pros and cons?
I thought it was going to be very hard to get a job outside the bench—that my skill set was very niche. But when you think about it, in research you’re multitasking, and all of this can be transferred to your new job. It’s a big field out there. You’re more than qualified for a number of jobs.
I really loved science and bench work. I liked being able to schedule my own time. But if you are thinking of pursuing a career in administration, you may not be able to have that much flexibility. There will be many meetings to attend within the business hours of a day, and many actionable tasks to follow up thereafter. The good thing is I end work at rather regular timings. In research you can go for a beer, come back at 10pm and do your tissue culture and nobody cares, as long as you get your job done.
I guess one kind of research I didn’t like was the troubleshooting, week to week, trying to figure out what was wrong with your experiment. So I think I had had enough of that.
Currently at KKH, I’ve been looking at establishing better support for research and also developing/teaching the team in various aspects of research administration. This is something that I never thought I will be doing.
Anything else that you didn’t know how to do and now you have achieved?
I’ve learned a lot about how the grants work. Because in David’s lab, the funding was simple—we were not responsible for budget planning. So you really don’t need to learn about where the money goes, or how to spend it wisely, or how to project for the next five years. I didn’t have to learn that until IMB.
For KKH, I had to learn a lot about the doctors, the hospital and its systems and processes, like any new organization you join. The doctors don’t just manage patients and go home, they lead many hospital-wide projects or programs, teach, and do research. Sometimes they’re on night shifts and even deliver babies in the middle of the night, and yet they still have to run a clinic the following day.
You can reach out to Julin here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/julin-wong-a29b99112/