DEVELOPING DISEASE DIAGNOSTICS
by Chang Hee Kim (class of 1987)

This feature was first published in Journeys Summer 2021.
This article was written by alumnus Chang Hee Kim (class of 1987). 

I can absolutely say that Singapore American School made me fall in love with science! I particularly loved Mr. Michael Cox’s CHEM study program and the AP Chemistry course—CHEM study had some of the trickiest questions I have ever seen. I also loved Mrs. Abraham’s Biology and AP Biology courses, as well as Mr. Watson’s AP Physics course. These solid foundations in science helped me compete at top academic institutions later. Most of all, they instilled in me a love and passion for science, which you need to succeed in any field.

Besides encouraging my interest in science, my SAS teachers were influential in my post-SAS decisions. After graduating from SAS in 1987, I studied for my bachelor of science degree in chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Mr. Cox was instrumental in this step, because he made chemistry fun and the author of his CHEM study book was Professor J. Arthur Campbell of Harvey Mudd. I was first author on two publications from Mudd, which next helped me get into the graduate program at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) in Pasadena, California. Mr. Bob Dodge always recommended CalTech, and I was happy to get into this most competitive research program. I did thesis research on RNA splicing, an important step in gene regulation, and received my doctorate in biochemistry from CalTech.

I was then accepted into a prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard. I joined the laboratory of Professor Jack W. Szostak, who was later awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of the telomere—the “biological clock” of a cell. After my fellowship, I worked as a scientist for seven years at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and discovered microRNA-based genetic signatures of prostate cancer and gastric cancers.

I made a career change in 2010 after attending a Business as a Mission conference, where I learned that business can be used for mission work in developing countries. I envisioned developing rapid, low-cost diagnostics for infectious diseases prevalent in the developing world. I worked for two biotech start-up companies before co-founding GoDx in Madison, Wisconsin. As CEO, my role is to execute all aspects of the business, to secure funding, and to develop strategies for the company. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were developing simple, rapid, low-cost paper diagnostics to detect gut bugs that cause diarrheal diseases. These diseases are the second leading cause of death in young children worldwide, killing 500,000 under the age of five each year.

When COVID-19 happened, we quickly pivoted to develop a rapid, point-of-care, paper diagnostic test. We applied for a supplement to our parent grant at the NIH, and we found that the virus could be detected using chemistry on its RNA. We had to know and optimize a lot of chemistry to make this work. The most rewarding part was doing the clinical validation. I was ecstatic that the accuracy of the test was high on real-patient samples. It was amazing to see that the basic science I learned in high school, college, and grad school works and can be used to develop diagnostics to help people!

One of the challenges in doing this work is that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is very restrictive about what can be approved, especially if technologies are too innovative. However, we hope to get FDA authorization so that we can start to provide diagnostic tests to resource-limited settings, since our test is instrument-free and lowcost. We are also seeking to provide our test to the developing world.

SAS continues to impact me positively today. I talk with my SAS friends almost every day on Facebook—they have been my support group and my biggest cheerleaders. As third culture kids who spent our formative years in beautiful Singapore, we share a deep experience together. The King’s Road campus was a special place and continues to define me. My favorite memories are climbing onto the chemistry lab bench and singing a song about chemistry for the final project, and also singing on a cafeteria table! Mr. Tony Calabrese, our Asian Studies teacher, lives 30 minutes from me in Wisconsin, and he is always an inspiration: he still does theater and swims three miles a day! The excellent teachers I had at SAS—shout out to Mr. Cox, Mr. Dodge, Mrs. Lili Banwell, Mr. and Mrs. Abraham, Ms. O’Keefe, Mr. Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Banck, Mr. Hurst, Mr. Imperiali, Mr. Baker, Coach Bava, and Coach Vijay—really taught me the best, and inspired me to be the best!


Journeys, our print publication, shares current, in-depth stories written by and for members of our school community. It is mailed to current families, faculty, staff, and alumni in December and June. If you are interested in contributing an article to Journeys, email communications@sas.edu.sg. Read more articles here

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  • class of 1987
  • COVID-19 diagnostics
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  • research
  • science

 

 

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