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  6 March 2013  
  Thirumaran Thanabalu, Ph.D.  
 



Dr Thirumaran Thanabalu is an Associate Professor at the School of Biological Sciences, Nanyang Technological University.

This is what Thiru has to say about his scientific journey:

"When I completed my B.Sc. Honours degree at the Department of Biochemistry at NUS in 1987, IMCB was just starting up and some of my friends had joined IMCB as Junior Research Fellows. As IMCB was still new, I decided to pursue my PhD at the Department of Biochemistry in NUS. My project was to genetically engineer Xylose isomerase from B. Subtilis so that it can convert D-Glucose to the sweeter D-Fructose more efficiently. Unfortunately, my PhD supervisor left Singapore to join his family in Australia six months into my PhD project. Thus I had to wrap up my research project and I submitted an M.Sc. thesis and applied to join IMCB as a Junior Research Fellow.  During my interview, I said my research goal was to contribute to the understanding of cancer. However at that time, a PI working on a novel brain specific gene was looking for a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) so I joined his lab to characterize a novel brain specific protein.

In early 1990 IMCB was and still is, well funded and the place to carry out biomedical research without having to worry about funding and resources. I joined the Molecular Neurobiology laboratory. My project was to find the function of a novel brain specific gene. In those days we did not have Blast and most of the genes have not been sequenced. In order to carry out homology search we had to align our protein sequence using a stand-alone PC with the database stored on a CD which is updated every 3 months. Three days after I joined the laboratory, I got the shock which every researcher fears. The novel protein sequence that I was working with had a high sequence homology with a protein in the database and that protein has been well characterized and there were many papers published on that protein. In a matter of three days my PhD project had collapsed - I tried very hard to keep my spirits up and carried out research under the supervision of one of the post-docs in the Molecular Neurobiology laboratory. The PI of Molecular Neurobiology laboratory had two laboratories: one in Singapore and the other in UK. I wanted to work on the clone the UK laboratory was working on but it was not possible and I also wanted to use C.elegans to characterize the novel protein but that was also not possible. After spending three months in the Molecular Neurobiology laboratory, I approached Chris Tan and told him that I wanted to change laboratory as I felt that I would not be able to get many publications working in the Molecular Neurobiology laboratory. Chris Tan introduced me to John Hindley who was looking for a JRF to clone Mosquitocial toxin genes. I joined John Hindley’s Laboratory and met Sydney Brenner who suggested that we express the toxin genes in Caulobacter cresentus so that the toxin will be in the feeding zone of Mosquito Larvae. That project was successful and we got a patent and a paper. In those days, I was driven by a singular goal to complete my PhD as fast as I could to make up for lost time and I managed to get some decent publications. After my PhD, I stayed in IMCB as a Post-doctoral Fellow under Alan Porter but continued working on Mosquitocidal toxin. My days in IMCB were filled with interesting conversations with scientists from all over the world; each one of them brought something unique to the research culture at IMCB. The sitting arrangement away from the laboratories encouraged interaction among members from different laboratories - none of the colleagues at neighbouring work stations were from my laboratory. This fostered collaboration and introduced fresh perspectives to my research problems.  Till this day I can still remember the scientists who shared my little corner on the fourth floor in the old IMCB building.

At this point I felt that I needed a change and a new challenge thus I took up a Research Associate appointment at the University of Cambridge to characterize the type I secretion system responsible for secretion of Haemolysin. I brought along my family, my wife and son to Cambridge. We had a wonderful time living in Cambridge with its traditions and old buildings. In the laboratory I worked with Greek, French, Scottish, American, Canadian and British scientists. My experience at IMCB helped me to interact with all the nationalities. I was in the Department of Pathology where they worked with animals and every year, animal activists would try to free the animals so on those days we could not go to work. I also had my taste of living in a country with four seasons and walking in the snow. My daughter was born in Cambridge and we decided to return home so that my wife could return to work. On my return I joined the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology (Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory) to work on actin cytoskeleton using Yeast as a model system.

In 2001, Nanyang Technological University announced that they were starting a new school focusing on life sciences (School of Biological Sciences) in a predominantly engineering University. I weighed my options and decided that helping to set up a new school though demanding would be fulfilling. Thus I joined the team setting up the new school - the first year we did not have any research laboratory and in the second year we had a make shift laboratory where each faculty staff had half a bench. During this time I really missed those days in IMCB where I had all the resources to carry out experiments without having to worry about reagents, etc. When my student did her first experiment, we actually had to scrounge for centrifuge tubes. During the early days of setting up the school, I coordinated renovation of the make shift laboratory while carrying out undergraduate teaching, postgraduate supervision and promoting the new school to the various junior colleges in Singapore. The school of biological sciences was where I set up my own laboratory and I finally understood why my supervisor at Cambridge was so stressed. My supervisors at IMCB and IMA did not have to worry about grants while the supervisor at Cambridge had to write grants to sustain his laboratory. As a PhD student and later as a Post-doctoral fellow I was only concerned with getting publishable results. Now as the head of my laboratory, I worry about securing grants, making sure that the grant money is spent wisely, and ensuring that my PhD students are on track. Over the last 10 years my laboratory has evolved from a yeast laboratory studying actin cytoskeleton to one using mouse model system to study carcinogenesis and metastasis.

Life is different now, with a lot more undergraduate teaching, postgraduate teaching, postgraduate supervision, interminable administrative work, writing papers and most importantly writing grants to fund my research activities.

I have come a long way since starting my PhD in the Department of Biochemistry at NUS to finally completing my PhD in IMCB. When I started my PhD I was a naïve student and thought I will do brilliant research and solve the problem of cancer. I am older and maybe a little wiser and have a better understanding of biomedical research. I am more realistic about what I can achieve as a researcher and as a supervisor. But my passion for research has not changed in the last 20 years and I am still trying and contributing in my own way to our understanding of cancer.”







 

 
     

 
 
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