A Day in the Life of Professor Lina Lim

This interview series seeks to introduce fellows and students of Tembusu College to the wider community on a more personal level, and to create dialogue between these groups of people. This week, Professor Lina Lim shares with us her thoughts on having her daughters grow up on campus grounds, the ups and downs of academic life, and her hopes for students to find and pursue their passions.


 Supporting Ora during IHG

A/P Lina Lim is jointly appointed at the Department of Physiology at the Faculty of Medicine, NUS, and Tembusu College as the Residential Fellow of Ora House. She has lived in the UK for 12 years and has a BSc degree from King’s College London and her Ph.D from the William Harvey Research Institute in London, both in Pharmacology. Her next stop was the USA for her Post-doctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University Medical School in Baltimore. She returned to Singapore as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Physiology, NUS and is now an Associate Professor.  She leads the Inflammation & Cancer Laboratory situated in the Immunology Program, Life Sciences Institute.  The main focus of the her research program is on annexins and their functions in inflammation, infection and cancer. She is currently the acting Director of Studies at Tembusu College, and a loving mother of 2 beautiful daughters.

What would you say a day in your life would be?

Alyssa has just started Primary One, so it has just changed. Before, we would just get up at a reasonable time of 7.45am and go to school.   But now since she started Primary One, we have get up at 6.00am.  She struggles a little, so we have to do it slowly and so she’s up and about at about 6.20am. This has only been for about a month now  and she has done really well.  She hasn’t been late once, which is good. I have a younger daughter Sierra who is 3, and she is in N2.  I stay behind and spend time with her when she gets up while my husband Daniel sends Alyssa to school.  Sierra wakes up happy – maybe because it’s a bit later. Alyssa is a night owl. If  we don’t ask her to go to bed,  she probably won’t go. She can stay up till 11pm, and wake up at 11am. So I always say I have a five- or six-year-old teenager.

When Daniel comes back from sending Alyssa to school, we have breakfast together, and we send Sierra to Kindergarten, then Daniel to work (at Fusionopolis), and finally I would go to work, either back to Tembusu or to my office in the main campus, near NUH.

What has it been like for your daughters – they’re the youngest residents of Tembusu – to live on a university campus with young people, but people who are still considerably older than them?

We moved in in 2011 when Alyssa was only 1½ years old and Sierra wasn’t even born yet. Some of the seniors and alumni have known the girls for a long time. It’s nice, but because there’s such a big age gap, they are usually quite shy. It took them quite a long time to open up and now they are quite good friends with some people, like Mike (my Graduate Fellow), Arjun and Ikhsan. They’re still quite shy with other students, though.  They love the Town Green and the area around the Tembusu tree at the ERC.  You can see then scooting or biking every weekend. They like the atmosphere here, and for me, it’s either you feel young together with them or you start feeling old. Every year, the students are coming in at the same age but I’m kind of growing older – but, it’s a good dynamic, I think!

So to answer your question, they play quite well with the Tembusu students, if the students are interested to play with them. If you’re friendly, they will start to smile.  The house structure is good, because they can get to know the people in the house; rather than knowing over 600 people, they know about 80 or 100, which is a better size. Sometimes they come to the events that my house. Ora is currently the only house where the students can play with young kids and even baby-sit.


 Alyssa at Open Day 2014

What has it been like being the Residential Fellow (RF) of Ora? It is a very active house.

It’s very dynamic, depending on the freshmen that we get in. This year, the freshmen are very energetic. With that, I just let them run on their own energy, which is really good. I think this year the residential team has been more laidback because the freshmen and house committee have so much energy. In other years, we have had more residential team events, which we called CulturOra. We have had a play reading, and have hosted a few “Internation-Ora” events to meet the exchange students.   I even roasted a Turkey to celebrate Thanksgiving with the students from USA last semester.  The house committee events are usually very big, whereas these residential team sessions are smaller, and more focused on improving the culture of the house.  There is also usually nice food, like wine, grapes and cheese, which Mike usually buys.  He likes those smelly cheeses…

Ora also started the wing mentors initiative, where a 4th year resident or one of the Residential Team would meet with the students on our wing or level every week or two weeks.  I believe it has worked well and is good for bonding the level, but also so the students know there is someone around who they could talk to if they have any problems or issues.

Going back to your work – what gets you out of bed when you think of a project you want to research, or what inspires you for your research?

I should introduce what I do first outside of Tembusu.   I am an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Medicine and I have a lab where we do cancer research as well as infectious disease research on viruses like influenza. 2014 was a bumper crop year for me – I received a grant of $1.2 million, and another of about $700,000. Altogether, these grants last for 3 years, gave me a lot to think about, a lot of people to hire.

I have about 12 people in my lab, ranging from undergraduates, PHDs, research assistants, post-doctoral research fellows which I have to manage weekly to see how their projects are going. Every day I meet 2 or 3 people.   Each person is working on their own project and I have to manage all of them.  So it’s really not just one project that I’m working on – I think I’m working on 10.  I always say that I am like an octopus head, and they are my tentacles.

I never really stop thinking about my research, but having 4 jobs makes it a bit difficult. 4?  Running my research lab, being an RF, and of course being a mother. The fourth job that just came up recently because Catelijne is on sabbatical, is the Acting Director of Studies at Tembusu. I am quite happy to do it as I really like the staff at Tembusu and the job entails overseeing all the modules and academic life in Tembusu, from appeals to the Module Preference Exercise (MPE) and all the questions or issues which are related to the UTCP at Tembusu.

You have to go from being a scientist, to a mother, to the Director of Studies, to being an RF – how do you transition between each role?

It is a blend, it is never going to be very straightforward.  There are some sacrifices which need to be made. Being a mother used to be a 24/7 job when they were younger, but now that they go to school, I can focus on other things in the day, but I do have to be there for them in the mornings and evenings and sometimes even in the middle of the night.  From 6pm to 9pm, it’s definitely 100% being a mother. These days, I am in Tembusu in the mornings, answering emails, looking at data, reading and writing my scientific papers. In the afternoon, I go over to my lab at the Center for Life Sciences, meet with my students and staff. I try to leave work at 6pm, and be a mother again.

Putting aside the motherhood aspect and work, and with your family living in this one building, Tembusu, how do you unwind? How do you manage taking time out from Tembusu in particular?

I love to sing – I am still singing in a choir in church. Its called the Soli Deo Gloria Chorale at St Ignatius Church. I am trying to go back to sing more, and last year I sang at Easter Vigil and Christmas Midnight Mass.  It is wonderful. Before the kids,  I used to be more involved in musical theatre, and I’d love to go back to doing that again. I wish I could take a sabbatical, take a year off and go on stage. That would be nice.

Apart from singing, do you have other hobbies you would pursue if you had more time?

I was talking recently to Anekant about joining the horse riding IG with Alyssa.  I used to ride quite a lot when I was in England, but I haven’t ridden much since I was a girl.  The weather here too humid to do outdoor stuff. It would be nice to do some hiking down Bukit Timah with the kids.  We love animals so it would be great to bring the kids to watch birds and feed goats.  Not that many places to do that in Singapore though!

I also used to go scuba diving.. I’d like to do that again, but that would mean travelling out of Singapore. So after the kids, I could not do that very much anymore. That would be something that I would like to take up again.

I’d also like to read more. Somehow time seems to get away from me. I like science fiction, and fantasy. It’s a bit silly – the little child in me comes out again. I love stories which have elves and dwarves in it. Sometimes you when you want to get away from real life, these books just take you far away.  Since my kids arrived, I know all the Disney songs and all the Disney movies. We have watched them all more than ten times.  The girls also love to read books – the children’s books we read are quite nice like The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Room on the Broom, also by Julia Donaldson.

I think it’s really important, especially since you have kids, to get in touch with your inner child. When you’re younger, you’re so self-conscious and you feel that you need to do something, you can’t read young adult books or children’s books, everyone’s watching action movies – this is simplifying, but do you find that as you grow older, you do mature, but you become more of who you were?

Yes, yes of course. You need to embrace that. So I don’t feel like I am xx-age –

You don’t feel like you’re 28 –

Yes oh, you’re being nice; I was going to say 32.

It’s okay, there’s an error of margin, all scientists – no we’re not…

If you embrace who you were and don’t let go of it, then you will feel young. Being a mother definitely brings you back to your childhood.  Before you become a parent, you will feel like you need to read these heavy books.  But after you become a parent,  it is lovely to go back to reading very simple, wonderful books.  Some have good meanings, others are just really very cute.  We love these books about a Pig called Piggy and an Elephant called Gerald by Mo Willems. Kiera, who is Dr Connor’s daughter gave us the first book called “There’s a bird on your head” and it is very cute. “There’s a bird on my head?” “What’s a bird doing on my head?” “I don’t want two birds on my head!” “Well, now you have 2 birds and a nest and 3 eggs on your head!”

Do you read aloud to them and do you do the voices?

Not that much the voices, but you do have to change it up a little bit. Alyssa reads very well – she was reading since she was 3, or something. She loves to be read to and so every night we try to read a few books, and that makes them love books even more.

It’s very nice how present you are with your children, because it’s so easy to get preoccupied with all your other jobs. Has having children affected your career in any way, or how you see your career?

No, perhaps I timed it very well. When I started at NUS as an Assistant Professor, I had just finished my post-doctoral job after my PHD degree.  The position is tenure-track, meaning I had to put in my promotion by a certain time or I’d have to leave.  When I was pregnant with Alyssa, it was time for me to put in my promotion.  So I did it quickly before I had my baby, and everything turned out well.  I could have waited till after the baby, but that would have delayed everything. If I had waited, it would have probably have not been successful, as I would lose up to 4 months of work on maternity leave, and not really focused on my research.  You need to focus all your attention and energy to a newborn and you are not really there and focused on your job.  Perhaps that is why not many women are in high-ranking positions, because they either give up having a child, or they give up the big promotions as it will take them away from their children.  All the children want is to spend time with me and to have me around more.


With my beautiful girls

You said that sometimes your daughters say that they just want you around – do you find that that actually brings you back to what is important? Because research can be a really stressful field, or just juggling a lot of responsibilities and knowing that when you come back, there are these two human beings who don’t care about what you did at work, but just want to see you because you’re you.

Yes, absolutely. They bring me back to what I am really supposed to be doing in my life, being a mother. The love that is there for these two little ones can go so deep.   Deeper than you will ever imagine. That feeling of loving someone that you haven’t even met. How is it possible that you can feel such a deep connection to somebody that you haven’t even met before?  If you are a mother, you will understand, because you have felt something inside you move, and you have started speaking to her when she was in your  tummy, and you can feel her responding to you.  It is amazing.

Is there any point of time where there are just frustrations sinking in, when you go to the lab and things aren’t working out the way you expect them to or even at work at Tembusu? How does that play a part in your everyday life?

What drive academics is passion for what they love.  It is not a 9-to-5 job, and doing projects for the sake of deadlines and to make your bosses happy and to meet targets. If we do not love what we do, or if we do not have passion for what we do, we won’t survive very long in the field of research. You have to have the passion and the drive for it to succeed.

Whatever failures or rejections that have come only make you stronger. I have told my students time and time again  “Do not get depressed over a failed experiment, just pick yourself up, and say “I can do it again.  What can I do to change it?” Unless you are very lucky, you probably will not get a paper, book or a grant accepted the first time. It may have to go through many rounds of edits and changes before it is finally accepted.   So do not let a bad grade or failed experiment get yourself down.  Just pick yourself up and try again.  It makes you stronger to deal with academia, which is going to be lots of hard work.

I think that the point you just made is really good not just for academic work, but for life in general. Do you, now that you have more experience, look back and think of all the mentors who have helped you out along the way, and feel compelled to give back in a similar way?

As we grow, our situations change and we are now in a place where we are a mentor, supervisor.  I think yes, definitely, I have learnt a lot from all the people that have helped me through in my degree, my PhD, my post-doctorate, and even when I was a young investigator in NUS. Maybe that is one reason also why I joined Tembusu, to be an inspiration to others.  I had been lecturing for a number of years before I joined Tembusu.  Large classes, factual and exam-based.   I see these faces of the students in the lectures with not much an expression to learn. They just want to be taught, and that just frustrated me.  It seemed like there was no passion in learning anymore, just being taught the facts and studying the topics just to do well in the exams.

So, when the call came in 2010 to join this new residential college, where there would be small seminar-based classes, I was really interested and thought that to be wonderful to be involved in something which inspired learning.

I believe that when students come into the university right after junior college, they still have this life in them – this desire for knowledge.  They are like a sponge and they want to learn. But once they are grilled into the lectures and tutorials, this desire to learn dies.  Why not nip it in the bud before the passion dies? I needed to get in there where students wanted to learn rather than be taught and that’s why perhaps these junior and senior seminars at Tembusu work so well.

Hopefully this passion to learn does not die once you go to your modules in the faculty, because that would be very sad.  I see that in students that are not taking modules in UTCP. I have had students in my modules in Life Sciences from Tembusu, and I can see the difference.  I can see that they are there and they want to learn. I felt like I achieved something-  I have helped nurture someone in Tembusu wanting to learn cardiovascular physiology happily, not just rote learning to answer  the questions in the exam.


NUS Graduation Ceremony 2012 with 3 PHD students

What would you like to ask a student about a day in their life?

I am sure that a day in their life would be going to lectures and classes. But it would be nice to get to know them and find out what they like to do, what passions and dreams they have, what drives them and how Tembusu has helped them achieve their dreams.

This interview was conducted by Erica Lim and Nisha Verma, with images from Prof Lina’s personal collection.