December 13, 2019 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! Raider of the lost ark

Join adventure seeking scientist Mei Khong on her never-ending quest to discover new civilizations.

Mei Khong, Ph.D., scientist, operations science and technology, AbbVie, stands high atop a mountain overlooking Machu Picchu, Peru.

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month, we chat with Mei Khong, Ph.D., scientist, operations science and technology, AbbVie.

From an early age, Mei Khong seemed convinced space travel was her final frontier. Her imagination often soared into the universe and beyond with all its colorful planets and shining stars. But as she grew and a potential career blossomed, her attentions turned to more practical vocations. And when a series of health issues came knocking, and her world turned upside down, a new trajectory was forged. Now grounded right here on Earth, she embraces her ultimate passions for world travel and scientific research and development.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

As a child, I had a deep desire to explore unchartered territories and otherworlds via space exploration. I was convinced I would one day embrace a career in space travel by becoming an astronaut. My friends would often laugh at me, making fun of what they felt was an unrealistic dream. But my fascination with space held fast and I was determined that one day I could be found travelling to galaxies far, far away. Until such a time, I relied on the creative and unknown worlds presented in science fiction films to quench my thirst for discoveries into the unknown. The exciting worlds of sci-fi and space travel allowed my imagination and creativity to soar! As I grew older (and more practical), and I had a realization that discovery is inevitable in every aspect of science, I found myself more drawn to the field of scientific research and development. I soon embraced a scientist’s mission to ask questions, gather insights, search for solutions and innovate. Although I may not have ended up blasting into space, I am happy to report I ended up with a cool career in science.

Your current role involves the manufacturing of medicines. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly this entails?

I often compare a pharmaceutical scientist’s job to the role of a baker. To successfully create a medicine in the form of a pill, powder needs to be processed into a final solid form, the same way a baker works with flour (and other ingredients) to transform it into bread, cookies or cakes. The formulation of a medicine is similar to a cake recipe, where one must add various ingredients in precise amounts to achieve the best quality and results. In fact, many processes used in a bakery are analogous to finalizing medicinal dosages in a manufacturing plant (i.e. sieving, mixing and making dough). The only difference: instead of baking in high heat, the final product is produced through compression or powder filling.

My current role involves the transfer of a medicine from our research and development department to our manufacturing site. I then continue to monitor the quality and manufacturing process of that given medicine. Part of my responsibility also includes the “baking” process previously mentioned (i.e. transferring the baking process to a factory setting) and continuing to ensure the “bread, cookies or cakes” we manufacture are of high quality.

Can you share a little about your fascination with visiting the Seven Modern Wonders of the World?

Travelling the globe is a huge passion of mine, with a predilection for ancient historic sites; so much so that my husband has given me the nickname “tomb raider.” My bucket list includes (eventual) visits to all seven of the New Modern Wonders of the World, of which to-date I have already visited Machu Picchu, the Roman Colosseum and Chichen Itza. The seven locations span different continents and showcase fragments of history and ancient civilizations that once populated the world we live in. I’m fascinated to learn about the rise and fall of these civilizations, the culture, technology and political evolution over time. And it’s always a pleasure to immerse yourself in the lifestyle and culture of the surrounding local communities which have flourished over the years. My hope is to visit the remaining four wonders someday soon with my family -- the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India, Petra in Jordan and Christ the Redeemer in Brazil.

I understand you have suffered for years from a chronic autoimmune disease. Can you tell us a little more about your experience with this condition?

Towards the last year of obtaining my Ph.D., I contracted a bad virus and became quite sick. During this time, I experienced unbearable pain all over my body, particularly due to inflammation in my joints. Basic tasks like sitting and walking were excruciatingly painful; every step literally took all my strength. Although I recovered a couple of months later, no official diagnosis was ever identified, and chronic symptoms of pain and fatigue remained. Years later, when suffering from a bout of the flu, a doctor was finally able to provide me with an official diagnosis: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in many parts of the body. After years of struggling, feeling helpless and at times completely lost, it was such a relief to finally have an actual diagnosis and treatment plan.

It has been almost 10 years since my diagnosis, and with the proper health and diet management, I am currently in remission and medication-free. Living with a chronic disease gives my role as scientist more meaning; it provides me with the determination to work even harder to help those kindred spirits who feel helpless, suffering from this oftentimes relentless disease. My illness has changed my perspective on life; it has taught me to better appreciate my own health and the health of those around me. It has taught me to live in the present; to not just sit back and wait for things to happen. It has also prompted me to be less judgmental of others, more tolerant of situations different to my own, as every person comes with their own tale. I hope that sharing my own story can continue to offer inspiration to those patients in need: to remember to always stay strong and have hope, even in the darkest of times.

Is it true your early career involved scientific experimentation using an electronic tongue?

Yes, my early career in pharmaceutical science involved ‘taste assessment’ using an electronic tongue. Fancy as it sounds, the machine does not physically mimic a human tongue but instead consists of a series of sensors, each designed to detect changes in different taste elements such as sweetness, bitterness and saltiness. Once detected, the data is then converted to an electronic signal and the amplitude of that signal then tells the intensity of the taste. In theory, the electronic tongue should provide preliminary taste comparisons in a safe environment, without the need for human taste testing.

If you could talk to the 10-year-old version of yourself, what would you tell yourself?

Live in the present. Life is short, so be sure to take risks and make the best of it. The road may not be easy, but if you never try, you’ll never know whether you might succeed. Dream big, and never stop dreaming -- if you’re truly passionate about something, all obstacles can be overcome if you just focus your energies towards achieving your goals.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

Science revolves around us. It helps us understand who we are, as well as providing a detailed roadmap of the things we see or the activities we perform every day. Ultimately, science tackles problem-solving by utilizing creativity to transform innovative ideas into real-life solutions. For example, the invention of the telephone started with a simple need for communication and ended with scientists integrating concepts of acoustics and electromagnetism. In similar fashion, AbbVie scientists begin with an idea (or unmet medical need), but instead integrate concepts of medicine, chemistry and biology to help identify and bring new medicines to life.

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Jaquelin Finley
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