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International Women’s Day – Interview with PLOS ONE Academic Editor Dr. Siaw Shi Boon

March 8 marks International Women’s Day 2024. To celebrate, we interviewed one of our female Academic Editors, Dr. Siaw Shi Boon, who talked about her journey to becoming a scientist, the key challenges female scientists are currently facing and her perspectives on how more women could be encouraged to be involved in science.

Dr. Boon has dedicated herself for more than 10 years to tumour virology and cancer biology research, where she constantly seeks opportunities for research innovation and advancement, and ultimately aims to translate basic science to the bedside. She specializes in exploring oncogenic virus-mediated carcinogenesis, particularly in human papillomavirus (HPV)-related cancers, using state-of-the-art in silico, in vitro, cell-based and in vivo models. She has been a Principal Investigator based at the Chinese University of Hong Kong since 2020. Her research team focuses on elucidating carcinogenic mechanisms and pinpointing therapeutic targets for HPV-associated ailments. Dr Boon has published more than 40 articles that have gained widespread attention from the HPV research community and beyond.

Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your path to a career in science?

I am a Malaysian-born Chinese. My hometown is located in Kuching, Sarawak, situated on the Borneo Island part of Malaysia. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Sciences from the University Putra Malaysia (UPM), and I then pursued a Master of Science in Cancer Molecular Biology at University of Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). At that point, I knew that what I had was insufficient to fulfil my passion for cancer research. While seeking the opportunity to advance my studies, I worked as a lecturer at INTI College Sarawak and SEGi College Sarawak. After communicating with my potential PhD supervisor, Dr Lawrence Banks, he accepted me to join his Tumour Virology team at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) located in Trieste, Italy. I was lucky that throughout my studies, I obtained scholarships and fellowships from the respective institutes.

Since my PhD studies, I have been working on understanding the mechanism of how human papillomavirus (HPV), an established cancer-causing aetiological agent, promotes cancer development. After joining the Chinese University of Hong Kong as a postdoctoral fellow and now a Research Assistant Professor, I continue studying the mechanistic basis of HPV-mediated carcinogenesis. Our team has ventured to discover targeted therapeutics for HPV, to mitigate diseases caused by the virus, including cancers that arise from uterine cervix and head and neck cancers. The main factor that drove us onto the drug discovery path is the absence of an anti-viral agent for HPV, and the absence of targeted therapy for cervical cancer, which affects at least 600,000 women annually, especially those in developing countries. With years of effort, our team has reached a milestone in which we discover drug targets and hit compounds.

What makes you most proud of being a scientist?

For a scientist, interest, personality, determination, persistence and confidence are among the important elements, in my opinion. What makes me proud is when I can untangle the tangles in research, prove my hypothesis, reach a milestone, disseminate my knowledge and skills to young and future scientists, and be able to translate basic science to healthcare.

What challenges do you feel that female scientists are facing, and would you expect the situation to change in the future?

Everyone, from all walks of life, faces challenges at different levels and degrees. I see challenges as a driving force. One should not be struck down by challenges, opposing comments/ideas and peer pressure that could hinder oneself to pursue a dream. I remember my grandmother tried to talk me out from pursuing postgraduate studies after I finished my Bachelor’s degree. She thought I should settle down and have my own family. Lucky enough for me, my parents were extremely understanding and supportive. They stood up for me and encouraged me to follow the path that I dreamt of.

I feel lucky that I have a loving and supporting network who always give me courage and strength to move forward and higher. I always remember what my high school teacher told me, “aim high, go high”.  I embrace this philosophy, and I encourage myself to bravely face uncertainties and challenges in science.

Taking aside gender discrimination that a minority of people have, I juggle the balance between science and my personal life. As a mother and a daughter, undoubtedly, I need to bear the responsibility of taking up the caregiving job and domestic chores. I have to admit that I spend more time working than with my closest family members, which include my child and parents. However, I try my very best to plan my work so that I can work more efficiently during working hours, and that I can spend quality time with my family whenever I can.

With the advancement of multimedia and technology, I am optimistic that the situation will be better in the future. Work can be done more efficiently, either in physical or virtual modes. In addition, I hope that, in terms of infrastructure, time spent on travelling can be made shorter and more economical, so that one who works abroad can go home more often. 

How would you encourage more women to be involved in science?

Needless to say, women can make great scientists, and in my opinion, possess innate qualities that enable them to really understand a problem and find a good solution. It’s clear that women can self-manage and influence people around them, making them good leaders and team players – we need to lose the traditional mindset that women are homemakers. In fact, many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and institutes have invested great effort in promoting gender equality in science globally. Women today should feel empowered to sustain their own lives, be independent, pursue their interests and be a star in different arenas.

What role do you feel that PLOS can play in addressing challenges faced by female scientists?

PLOS can provide more freely accessible articles on the stories of female scientists, particularly those from developing countries to tell their bumpy journey to success, to women all around the world. This would give more insight and courage to women who are struggling to be in science, and to advance those who are already in science.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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