Aaron Koay, a Laidlaw Scholar at Trinity College Dublin, on approaching one of medicine's Holy Grails, his first published paper, and day-to-day leadership inspiration.
Breathing is central to life. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a long-term, irreversible and progressive lung condition with very poor prognosis. Although the progression rate varies, IPF will eventually be debilitating and the average life expectancy upon diagnosis is around 4 years. Medications are available to delay but not stop the disease progression, so the patients will inevitably need to resort to oxygen therapy or lung transplant. Therefore, the magnitude of the clinical implications of IPF imposes a great global clinical challenge on the scientific community; what actually causes IPF remains a ‘Holy Grail’ to date.
Notably, most IPF patients are diagnosed at 50 years and older and IPF is correlated with smoking history. Thus, it is conceivable that high oxidative stress may contribute to IPF. On the other hand, mounting evidence articulates the significance of ergothioneine, a naturally occurring antioxidant vitamin that is exclusively available from dietary sources, primarily mushrooms, in health preservation. Previous laboratory research also found that low levels of ergothioneine are associated with tobacco-induced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in lung cells.
Therefore, for my Laidlaw research project, we hypothesised that compromised antioxidant capacity due to a low level of ergothioneine can increase the risk of developing IPF. From our research, we discovered that ergothioneine indeed showed protective effects against IPF in lung cells. Thus, new research avenues have been opened up; future investigations, including not only more cell studies, but also proteomic and genetic studies involving IPF patient tissues, could be conducted to substantiate this piece of evidence. My Laidlaw research project has contributed to the elucidation of the cause of IPF, on which better diagnosis and rationale-based therapy will hopefully be designed in the future to enhance clinical outcomes for IPF patients.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
Prior to Laidlaw, I carried out a summer research project in the field of biopharmaceutics in Japan. Thus, I wanted to further build on my laboratory skills and research expertise I had gained, while delving into natural products research for which I had always had a strong passion. After all, we still rely heavily on nature as a source for novel drug discovery! This project married the two in a trans-disciplinary manner, so it was perfect for me. I also knew someone, a relative of a friend of mine, who unfortunately passed away from IPF while waiting for a lung transplant. Therefore, I have an understanding of the far-reaching impact of the disease on not only the patients themselves, but also the people caring for them. I hope my project will play a role, however small that might be, in pushing IPF research forward.
What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw scholarship experience so far?
We successfully generated novel and interesting results from the first 5-week research period, which prompted us to think creatively about how to develop our investigation further. This included submitting our research to conferences, so as to communicate our findings to the wider scientific community. Our abstracts were accepted for oral presentation at the Experimental Biology (EB) Conference 2019 (presented by my supervisor, as I was sitting my annual summer exams!) and poster presentation American Thoracic Society (ATS) Conference 2019 (presented by myself).
Using my Laidlaw Travel Fund, I was able to attend the ATS Conference 2019 in Dallas, Texas in the U.S. Standing in front of a poster and presenting research on an international platform as an undergraduate researcher was a very new experience to me – I was both excited and proud, and a little bit terrified! Our research was well-received, with some delegates offering extremely beneficial advice. I was able to network and form connections with postgraduates and academics from all around the world (and some invite-only university receptions which my supervisor knew all about!!).
What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys so far, and what did you learn from it?
As someone who leans towards introversion on the personality spectrum, I was not sure if I would measure up to the brilliant minds and loud voices across the Trinity campus. I thought, ‘I certainly don't have any leadership skills, whatever that means!’ As it turns out, I have very much enjoyed every aspect of the Leadership Days.
The events were very well-organised, with a spectrum of experts generously delivering their teachings. The fact that our cohort is made up of a diverse group of talents from different backgrounds made those Leadership Days even more enjoyable. Thought-provoking questions and intriguing perspectives were constantly being raised and discussed, which really stretched and made me challenge my own beliefs and values.
Personally, I think the most valuable lesson I learnt was that we all can exercise excellent leadership, but that is only possible when we are rooted in strong self-awareness and when we practise continuous reflection. It is only through those qualities that we can develop and adapt our leadership values effectively in accordance with the team, circumstances and goals. I now have a much deeper understanding of my own values, and how I could align my career with them moving forward.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
Being a Laidlaw Scholar means having the privilege to be part of a growing international community of brilliant minds that seek to continually improve and change the world for the better. I think the Laidlaw Programme is a unique development opportunity for aspiring undergraduate talents across disciplines to learn, reflect and grow, and it certainly was a catalyst in both my personal and professional development. The Programme was not trying to mould us into a ‘perfect’ model, but rather constantly stretching us beyond our comfort zones, so as to allow us to realise our own deeper potentials. Therefore, I believe being a Laidlaw Scholar could mean very different things to different Scholars.
Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?
‘Who do you look up to as a leader?’ was one of the questions I was asked during my Laidlaw interview. The truth is, I usually draw on practical leadership inspirations from my day-to-day life: a lecturer, a pharmacist, a scientist, a journalist, a whistleblower, a friend, and so on.
Consciously or not, we are often exercising our leadership capacity and skills in our daily lives, and I am particularly intrigued by the domino and butterfly effects a perceivably small action can have. I also think that I tend to admire certain actions or qualities over the whole person! That being said, there is no doubt that a few lecturers have been really significant in my personal and academic development throughout my college education.
Describe a scene from the future you are striving to create:
Leaving my laboratory days behind, I am currently pursuing a PhD in Population Health and Human Factors at Trinity College Dublin, where I will be exploring household medication practices and safety in lay people. Whilst I frankly don’t know what I will end up doing and where, I have a strong passion for equity, global health and population health. I envision a more equitable world with more love and less prejudice and where healthcare access is universal on the basis of need.
📺 Currently binging: Just finished binging The Queen's Gambit…can another season of American Horror Story come about already?!
🎵My quarantine anthem: Lovesick Girls by Blackpink (or any of their songs, to be honest).
📚 My top book recommendation: Factfulness by Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling – a must-read for all to gain a more accurate picture of the world we live in.
🍽 Recipe obsession: I adore all kinds of pastries and I love making vegan scones when I have the time (which regrettably doesn’t happen as often as I would like).
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Carved my first Halloween pumpkin with my housemate – so much fun!
Want to know how dandelion, dock and nettle were used medically by the Irish people in post-famine Ireland? Want to see how humanities, folklore, history, botany, medicine and technology can converge?
Check out my paper (my first paper ever!) exploring ethnomedicine in Ireland in post-famine Ireland in the late 1930s, using the digitised version of the School’s Collection. The School’s Collection contains a wealth of invaluable ethnographic material, including songs, poems, stories and information about how people lived, collected by over 100,000 schoolchildren across Ireland post-independence in the late 1930s. Even better, the Collection is now accessibly freely online! Have a read and let us know what you think!
Aaron is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Research and Leadership Scholar at Trinity College Dublin. The programme uniquely funds both undergraduate research and leadership development, and aims to develop a new generation of leaders who are skilled researchers, embrace data-based decision making, and believe it is a moral imperative to lead with integrity.