An eye for discovery: Why Dominic Lam Man-kit considers himself extremely fortunate

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 1:36pm

Doctor, artist, scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist – Dr Dominic Lam Man-kit is living proof that time and circumstance don’t have to be barriers to realising your dreams.

“I describe myself as somebody who has been extremely fortunate,” says the Hong Kong-based founder and chairman of the World Eye Organization. “Because I’ve been so fortunate, I have had the courage and curiosity to pursue what I like to pursue. And I think if one is lucky enough, one can do anything.”

Born into a poor family in Shantou, Lam was a precocious child. “I was always impatient. I went to grade one when I was four years old because my mom didn’t know there was kindergarten,” he says.

After graduating from high school at 15, Lam earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics in two-and-a-half years, a master’s in theoretical physics in eight months and a doctorate in medical biophysics in 18 months. By 24, he was on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

Lam dedicated his career to research and teaching, serving as professor of biotechnology, cell biology and ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas from 1977 to 1993.

“My Nobel laureate mentors [whom I worked with at Harvard] – who were also MDs but never practised – told me, you can practise and maybe see 10, 20, 30 patients a day,” he says. “But if you discover something important, then you can actually benefit millions and even billions of people.”

In 1985, he did just that with the discovery of a drug against secondary cataracts. Lam established the first biotechnology company in Texas, which went public in 1988 and made him financially independent for the rest of his life. While he continued to teach, Lam became more involved in charity work and more established as an artist. “I started painting when I was four years old, so I had always wanted to be an artist,” he explains.

“My parents thought it would be too precarious for me to be an artist, so I decided if I could not be a visual artist I wanted to be a visual scientist.”

In 1980, while making photographs of the eye, he accidentally discovered a process now known as chromoskedasic painting, whereby colours can be produced on black and white photographic paper without the use of pigments.

Since then, Lam has become a prominent and award-winning artist, having been chosen to create works for the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing, Hongkong Post and the London Olympics, where his painting won a gold medal at the Olympic Fine Art Exhibition.

Lam also devotes time to the World Eye Organization, with an aim to build eye hospitals in each of the mainland’s provinces by 2020. The father of two is also working on a technology he first developed 20 years ago that can put genes for vaccines into vegetables or fruit.

“I think the edible vaccines, more than even my work in ophthalmology,” he says, “will turn out to be the most important contribution I can make to mankind.”