Professor Aung Tin is currently Executive Director of the Singapore Eye Research Institute (SERI), and Deputy Medical Director (Research) of the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC), where he is also a Senior Consultant in the Glaucoma Department. In addition, he is a fully tenured professor with the Department of Ophthalmology, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore. In 2018, he was conferred the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professorship of Ophthalmology, Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore.
Prof Aung Tin is an internationally renowned clinician scientist with clinical and research expertise in angle-closure glaucoma and glaucoma genetics. He has published more than 600 papers, 15 of which have been in high-impact journals such as Nature Genetics, JAMA, and Lancet. He has been awarded more than $20 million in competitive Research Grant Funding, and has received many prestigious research awards from national and international organisations.
1. Why did you enter the field of glaucoma? When I was a resident, I was struck by how little we knew about glaucoma, especially angle-closure glaucoma, which is the form of glaucoma that causes a lot of blindness in Asia. Most of the research done back then came from Western countries, where this form of glaucoma wasn’t very prevalent. There was a dire need to study this in Asian populations; hence, I embarked on a career in glaucoma. I also saw a lot of people going blind from angle-closure glaucoma during my practice, and that nudged me to do more in this area.
2. Who are your mentors and role models?When I first started my career, I was encouraged locally by SNEC’s Founding Director Prof Arthur Lim and his successor, Prof Vivian Balakrishnan, as well as Prof Paul Chew and Dr Steve Seah. Internationally, I’ve been mentored by Prof David Friedman from US, and Prof Paul Foster from London. When I was doing my PhD in London, I had mentors such as Prof Roger Hitchings and Prof Shomi Bhattacharya.
3. What have been the most significant advances in glaucoma during your career?Some of the big advances in the glaucoma field have been the rise of prostaglandin analogs as medications, imaging modalities like OCT, and advancement in genetics with genome-wide association studies and whole exome sequencing. There have also been some innovations in glaucoma surgery and lasers.
4. What do you think are your most significant contributions in the field of glaucoma?
My research focus has been on two main areas:
5. What advice do you have for young clinician scientists?Firstly, it is very important to find a department or a hospital that is very supportive. If you work in a department that is not supportive, it’s going to be very difficult to do your research.
Secondly, look for good mentors from whom you can seek advice on a regular basis, and people who actually care for your interest and your career.
Thirdly, it’s important to think about important questions in your field of research so that these can form the basis of your research career.
Finally look for opportunities to collaborate with people outside your field who can help you answer your questions. For example, I like looking for scientists and engineers who can answer my research questions. I find that collaborating across disciplines with people outside your field is very helpful to get refreshing, new insights about the questions you are trying to answer.
6. What are some of the biggest challenges you had to face during the COVID-19 pandemic?The challenges we faced can be broadly divided into three parts.
During the Circuit Breaker (CB) period, supply chains were affected, there was a lot of disruption to patient recruitment, the experiments were interrupted, and there was a big disruption in patient care due to the pandemic.
Secondly, there were longer-term repercussions because, for a few months after the CB period, patients were scared to come to the hospital and scared to take part in research activities — doing so would expose them to greater risk.
Thirdly, there were financial challenges. We depend on philanthropy, and we had difficulty raising funds through that platform. Our delays in research also cost us financially in terms of manpower.
Finally, there were HR challenges. For example when, we recruited new workers, it was difficult integrating them with the rest of the team, and aligning them to our work culture and practices. This was because of social distancing measures, with people working from home.
7. As Executive Director, what is your vision for SERI with regard to eye research and support among major stakeholders?We aim to be one of the leading eye research institutes in the world, conducting translational research that will help our patients with eye diseases so as to minimise visual disability and blindness worldwide.
8. How has your journey been so far?I’ve been very lucky. In the world of genetics, it’s very important to have large collaborations, and I’ve helped set up some of these big, collaborative networks. For angle-closure glaucoma, we have more than 30 different countries; for exfoliation syndrome, there are about 100 centres working with us.
I have been so fortunate to find people who are willing to work together and to contribute to this field of glaucoma genetics. It’s really a network that is successful. In that network, every single person makes a contribution to the entire question. We cannot do it on our own.
Different people have different roles in it — some contribute samples, some contribute clinical data, and some do the genetics sequencing, the genotyping, and the analysis. We have people who look at the function of the genes, the expression and the histology. Every single person contributes to the solution of the overall puzzle.
I am very grateful to all collaborators who have helped us on the journey. I am blessed that I have many friends and collaborators in this respect. Our principle is to work firstly with my friends, and we always enjoy ourselves when we meet up. We always have meals and drinks together to discuss research. We rarely have meetings in conference rooms, where things tend to be overly serious. We always meet over a meal, coffee or drink, so that work is also fun!
9. You are a world-renowned clinician scientist, but what is the one thing that you would like to be remembered by?I hope that people remember me as someone who is very collaborative and is able to bring groups of people together to work and have fun at the same time.
10. What do you like to do for fun?I like to travel, go out with my friends; I also enjoy football and mahjong!
11. If you could be in a different profession, what would you choose?I would probably be an engineer or a journalist. Since I like sports, maybe even a sports journalist!
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