AS A student, Madam Yap Ai Bee would watch in amazement as her science teacher tinkered with test tubes in the school laboratory, producing chemical reactions that were akin to magic tricks to the teenager.

Inspired, the young Madam Yap eagerly tried to mimic her teacher’s deftness and skill in her own experiments. Of course, some bombed spectacularly.

Today, armed with a combined degree in biochemistry and chemistry, the effervescent 51-year-old can proudly say that those first steps paved the way for a successful scientific career.

Life and death

As a senior medical technologist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), Madam Yap is part of a dynamic team of laboratory professionals who analyse and report on some four million tests on patient samples that the institution does every year.

As the investigative team behind one of Singapore’s busiest hospitals, the members help doctors determine a quick and accurate diagnosis for each patient, ensuring the right result reaches the right patient each and every time.

This calls for a wide range of skills and a breadth of knowledge – from analysing blood samples and calibrating lab instruments to culturing live bacteria and examining various tissues under the microscope.

Being meticulous and staying focused on the task at hand are not only a requirement, but they also mean the difference between life and death, says Madam Yap, who has two decades of clinical laboratory experience under her belt.

“Doctors reach a final diagnosis of their patients’ conditions based on the results we provide, so one wrong test result may cost the patient his life,” she explains.

The scale of TTSH’s laboratory operations provides its staff with ample opportunities to develop their career.

For example, promising medical technologists are sent to local and overseas scientific conferences to keep them abreast of emerging technologies and the latest in laboratory practices.

Just as viruses and bacteria constantly evolve, so too must the personnel tasked with identifying these microbes.

TTSH sees skills upgrading and knowledge acquisition as vital, especially in the face of emerging diseases.

Tracking viruses

When Sars struck in 2003, the team had to work round the clock during the epidemic’s early days to cope with the avalanche of suspected cases.

“At that point in time, no one knew what the root cause of the disease was and how it was spread,” recalls principal medical technologist and supervisor Ou Mui Geok.

Armed with tenacity, goggles and full protective gear, the team – part of a nationwide network – persevered in their search for the viral culprit.

After the corona virus was successfully identified, researchers were able to develop faster and more effective tests and treatment methods to help alleviate the crisis.

“I will never forget the day we had the breakthrough – it was a memorable moment,” says Madam Ou.

Daily impact

For Madam Yap though, it is the day-to-day triumphs that she cherishes the most.

She recently helped to set up a quicker test for monitoring treatment for breast cancer patients.

The new method provides results to doctors within a few hours, compared to several days with the previous system.

This allows doctors to quickly access the efficacy of treatment for their patients, and make changes if needed.

“I’m happy that I’ve played a part in prolonging the lives of cancer patients.

“As a mother myself, my wish has always been that all parents can watch their kids grow up,” says Madam Yap, who has three school-going children.

“Even though I may not meet the patients face to face, I know that my work behind the scenes has made an impact. At the end of the day, that gives me the greatest satisfaction.”