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Honouring the commitment behind the L’Oréal-SCELSE Joint Lab success

SCELSE salutes all women this May for their efforts in propelling SCELSE forward.

  • Featured
  • 28 May 2024

A blog on Dr Viduthalai’s Journey from the Netherlands to Singapore

In celebration of Mother’s Day in May and in honour of the pivotal role women play in our lives, SCELSE Comms invites Dr Viduthalai R. Regina – deputy director at the L’Oréal-SCELSE joint lab – to share his journey. His family moved from the Netherlands to Singapore where he helped to set up this lab (with director, assoc prof Scott Rice). Underpinning his shared journey with his wife, Dr Umadevi Rathinavelu PhD, is a common dedication to success.

1. Can you share with us how you got involved in the L’Oréal-SCELSE joint research programme, which has reached its 10-year milestone?

After completing my PhD at Aarhus University, focusing on bacterial biofilms, I became fascinated by microbial interactions within multi-species communities during my first postdoc studying the raw milk microbiome. Aware of A/Prof Scott Rice’s work on synthetic microbial communities at SCELSE, I reached out to him while living in the Netherlands. He offered me a project on the skin microbiome (the first project with L’Oréal) involving clinical samples and in vitro microbial community studies, with funding for 18 months. I took the opportunity, and the promising results allowed us to extend the project, evolving into establishing a joint laboratory with L’Oréal at SCELSE.

2. What motivated you and your wife to make the decision to relocate from the Netherlands to Singapore to help set up the L’Oréal-SCELSE joint laboratory?

It was a tough decision, knowing that this skin microbiome project only had funding for 18 months (back then I didn’t know that L’Oréal was a key collaborator), and that our daughter, born in the Netherlands, was just over a year old. I also had an industry offer, which made the decision-making process even harder.

So, do I move to the industry or continue into academia? A common dilemma faced by fresh PhDs and early postdocs. I was at this same juncture in 2016. My passion for working with microbial communities and studying microbial interactions prevailed. I told my wife that I felt I should give myself another chance to do research in academia. She agreed. Without her support, I don’t think I would have made the decision to move to Singapore and forego the industry offer.

I only came to know about the L’Oréal collaboration in the project after joining SCELSE, and was very surprised to see the level of scientific involvement L’Oréal had on the project. I worked very closely with Dr Tarun Chopra , who was leading the project from L’Oréal’s end, and together with Scott, we had hours of discussions about the project and how to advance the research to the next level.

The collaboration proved to be very successful. Our approach to constructing a model skin-microbiome community yielded groundbreaking results, prompting L’Oréal to deepen their commitment to SCELSE. This led to the initiation of new projects and the eventual establishment of a joint laboratory with us.

3. In what ways has your wife’s support been instrumental in your career?

Without a doubt, I can say that without my wife, Dr Umadevi Rathinavelu, a materials scientist herself, who believed in my passion and put her career on the back seat for my passion and raising our kids, I would not have reached the place I am in my career today.

Not only did she help me make the decision to move our family from the Netherlands to Singapore, but she is also the one who reminds me to stay the course whenever I have doubts about my career choice—academia vs. industry. She is intelligent and strong, and the main source of my strength!

4. You mentioned the protocols and methodologies you established during the early stages of the laboratory’s development. How have these protocols laid the foundation for the lab’s current success and reputation?

The skin microbiome research programme in SCELSE is one of the earliest skin microbiome programmes in the world. This is underpinned by the fact that we pioneered in building multi-species microbial communities to model the skin microbiome.

When we started in 2014, there were no tools or established methods in the field to study the functional interactions of the microbiome. So, we had to invent all of that right from scratch, and it took us a few years to establish them. These methods laid the foundational stones for the programme. And because of that strong foundation, we are thriving right now.

To provide some context, when I first joined SCELSE, the skin microbiome project consisted of just three people: myself, a research fellow, and two research assistants. Today, the joint lab has grown significantly and now includes approximately 20 members, comprising both SCELSE and L’Oréal researchers.

5. Reflecting on your journey together, what lessons have you learned from your wife’s support? How has this partnership enriched your personal and professional life, as well as the broader scientific community in Singapore?

It’s unfortunate that, in many married couples, women often take a back seat when it comes to career development. We were both PhDs when we got married. She did her first postdoctoral research at TU Delft in the Netherlands. When we were deciding on our career paths and the subsequent move to Singapore, she could have easily argued that it would be better for the family if I chose a different path.

We had our second child after moving to Singapore, and by the time she was ready to apply for jobs, COVID-19 hit, making the labor market difficult for foreigners. Her maternity break extended, and she couldn’t return to her research career. During our time in Singapore, I had at least three different industry offers that would have paid more than my academic salary. Throughout all of this, she could have insisted that I take those offers for the financial stability of the family, or she could have applied for a job elsewhere, which would have strained the family.

Instead, she prioritised my passion and our children’s well-being over her career aspirations. Through this gesture, she taught me the importance of building a good home for our kids to grow strong and feel loved. This has led me to be more responsible with my working hours, and to be more organized and efficient in balancing work and life.

Kudos to her resourcefulness; she has been involved in teaching science to higher secondary students, preparing them for their STEM careers, and working remotely as a contract editor for a scientific publishing company. While the situation has made it difficult for her to pursue her dream career in science, she has managed to create opportunities that keep her intellectually challenged and help the next generation of scientists pursue their dreams—including me.

L’Oréal-SCELSE Joint Lab