Prof Zee Upton: Reflections on my career and my time in Singapore

Prof Zee Upton, Executive Director, Skin Research Institute of Singapore (SRIS) & Executive Director, Institute of Medical Biology (IMB), A*STAR

January 2021 SgWIS speaker

Written by Laxmi Ravi Iyer, Member of SgWIS

Singapore Women in Science had the honour of hosting Prof Zee Upton as 2021’s first speaker. Prof Zee who is currently the Executive Director of Institute of Medical Biology (IMB) and Skin Research Institute of Singapore (SRIS) at A*STAR, shared some reflections about her career and time in Singapore, before she leaves to take up her next assignment at Newcastle.

Prof Zee Upton gave a fascinating outlook of her early research days as a PhD and post-doctoral scholar in which an unexplained band on a SDS-PAGE gel led her to discovering a novel interaction between a protein, that was present in abundance in the extracellular matrix and an important growth factor. The findings from that study led her to establish a start-up that explored its application as a potential, topical therapy for chronic, non-healing wounds. The company went on to get listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and raised $80M along the way, before it had to be shut down due a failed Phase2b clinical trial.

What struck us, was that even though Prof Zee’s academic career had seen a lot of ups and downs by then, she persevered through it all, and learnt some valuable life lessons from it! She shared that there will be tough times, but as researchers, we need to think creatively and frugally about how to deal with the situation. She noted that, while starting a new venture, costing needs to be carefully considered at the start and one needs to be mentally prepared, that failure is a definite possibility!

Her entrepreneurship journey taught her to think “Big and Bold”, imagine the unimaginable and to take risks, most importantly. And that “Life will only change when you become more committed to your dreams than to your comfort zone.”

The second part of her talk about gender equality, lack of women in STEM leadership and gender stereotypes/barriers was fierce and accurate. She called for an immediate change in mindset in the way we deal with gender disparities on a day-to-day basis and suggested some practical strategies.

She noted that gendered stereotyping has created many barriers for women in leadership roles. Studies have shown that during hiring process for leadership roles, women were judged more on past performance compared to men were judged more on potential. Men benefitted from this invisible privilege, even though the women were equally talented.

Similarly, she spoke about how the representation of women in board rooms, in STEM leadership, in governmental decision-making processes was appalling, world over barring a few countries. Despite several studies and reports which have suggested that diversity and inclusiveness in decision making improves overall performance, increases collective intelligence, leads to higher investor returns, and overall leads to a competitive edge in the market, there has been no improvement in the status quo and she urged us to do better.

How? Some of the strategies she suggested was to be vocal about ensuring diversity in panels, committees and to actively voice out against “Man-els.” It would do good to expose more women to leadership activities – eg. observers on panels and as co-chairs. We all need to use better discretion, while using language and images in mass communication, depicting diversity.

On an organizational level, there could be organization-wide training in “unconscious bias” starting at the top, because everyone, including men, need to champion diversity and inclusiveness, if there has to be a tangible change.  Organizations could demonstrate best efforts have been made to at least interview a female candidate for new positions. In countries, that are really lagging behind, even quotas could be set aside for females- be it awards, grants or fellowships. She suggested that eligibility criteria for grants and fellowships should be based on “working years post PhD” rather than age.

She strongly believes that “motherhood” or parenting, should be viewed as “career enhancement” and not as “career interruption,” which is how it is viewed now, especially since parenting involves, mostly 2 parents.

Prof Zee has been an ardent advocate for women scientists and has effected several changes in these areas, as a part of her leadership. She strongly believes that the role of a leader is to enable and bring out the best in others.

Towards the end of her talk, she strongly emphasised on the role that each of us play, in sustaining or breaking this cycle of gender disparity and stereotypes. The message was clear: change should begin with us. Her inspiring talk, truly urged us to strive for the better by fearlessly calling out unconscious bias and by introducing diversity and inclusiveness in our day-to-day life.

Thanks for your wisdom and insights, Prof Zee.