A technology plan that transformed the life of a Singaporean and a modern research institute that opened doors of opportunities
IMCB is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2015, which is a significant milestone in its history. I would like to take this occasion to pen down the influence of our nation's investment in research had on me, and, in particular, the setting up of IMCB, which played a critical role in influencing my career journey.
Pursuing my passion in Science at NUS led to my undergraduate research work at IMCB
Since young, I had a strong interest in Zoology and Botany and I developed a deep appreciation for living organisms. Hence, at the age of 16, I made the decision to pursue a Degree in Biology at NUS. Till this day, I can still recall my delight when the Faculty of Science accepted my university application. Back then, it was common for students to intend to pursue professional degrees in Engineering and Accountancy instead. However, I believed in pursuing my passion, i.e. Science. I was also grateful to receive the support of my family in the pursuit of my dream.
In the beginning, my understanding of "Research" was limited to research by browsing through journals or books in the library and extracting information on the topic of interest. However, the Undergraduate Science Research Programme (USRP), initiated by the NUS Faculty of Science, led me into a whole new world of research. To enrol in the USRP, I will need to find a laboratory to conduct my research. Soon, I found myself knocking on the doors of a futuristic blue building at the top of Kent Ridge hill. That was the home of IMCB. There, I was immediately intrigued by the conversation I had with one of the senior scientists on DNA repair and carcinogenesis. Indeed, I was fortunate to have been offered, as an undergraduate, the opportunity to study the DNA repair mechanism in cells under the guidance of Dr. Benjamin Li. I realised that research was more than just browsing through journals or books; it is about something more interesting and exciting, something that goes beyond my imagination.
IMCB - A wonderland for molecular biology
During my four years in NUS, I managed to clock one year of full-time research experience by spending my vacation time researching at IMCB and doing my Honours year project with IMCB. Through this experience, I came to understand that research is serious business.
Dr. Benjamin Li is a legendary coach and supervisor. At IMCB, I learnt and acquired knowledge in molecular biology from Ben and his PhD student, Linda Chuang. In his laboratory, I gained essential knowledge in HPLC techniques to purify proteins and oligonucleotides. And how could I possibly forget the incident in which I broke a Superose 6 column! Because of this, Ben kept his silence for a few days, but thankfully, a packet of wanton noodles from the Science Canteen diffused the situation. I was extremely grateful for his generous personality in looking past my mistake. Through this undergraduate research work, my appreciation for research amplified. I still remember distinctly that the apparatus, experiments and results-searching brought along inexhaustible fascination, while the perfect pouring of the polyacrylamide gel for sequencing brought along the occasional agony. Nevertheless, I loved it best when I was working in the laboratory. I could spend all day there and forget the time. The nostalgic memory is the night path from IMCB to the taxi stand at NUH. I was always looking to see which laboratory in the majestic building still has its light on. Fortunately, during my time, there was no midnight surcharge. So, even as an undergraduate, I could afford to take taxi home after midnight (only occasionally). I learnt that hard work and dedication are instrumental to sustain this scientific journey.
Besides the laboratory, my other favourite hangout was the IMCB library, a cosy area with a large collection of journals and state-of-the-art photocopiers. Somehow, I came to realise that the IMCB library would receive the latest issues of Cell, Science and Nature journals as soon as they were published. As electronic journals were not yet introduced then, hard copies were the only means to read published articles. Thus, I could still remember vividly the satisfaction I felt when I managed to lay my hands on the latest journals to read the latest research articles.
As an undergraduate, I did not have many opportunities to interact with the senior scientists. However, I did get to know a number of inspiring scientists, including Tom Leung, Bill Chia, Uttam Surana and Pua Eng Chong, along the research journey. When they talked about Science, you could see the glow in their eyes and feel their conviction for Science and their subjects.
The first National Technology Plan in 1991
In 1991, the National Science and Technology Board drew up a National Technology Plan to promote Research and Development (R&D) in Singapore. I purchased this report titled "Window of opportunities": Science and Technology: National Technology Plan 1991. It outlined a vision to boost the R&D scene in several strategic areas such as Biotechnology, Medical Sciences and Agrobiology. A technology corridor that spans from Jurong to Buona Vista was proposed to incorporate the concept of work, live and play. It painted the direction of Singapore's future in R&D and was an inspiring plan for a novice like me. With both the IMCB experience and the national priority in mind, I was motivated to truly embark on my own research journey. My first step was to pursue a PhD. I scanned the list of editorial board members in Cell and applied to some in a bid to realise my aspiration. However, with only three days to prepare for my GRE, my applications to the US universities did not advance far. Yet with a stroke of luck, I received a favourable reply from Adrian Bird, one of the top scientists working on DNA methylation. Adrian mentioned to me that the reason my application was accepted was largely due to the experience I had with IMCB. I was thus extremely grateful towards IMCB for the IMCB experience. It indirectly gave me the privilege of spending three years in Scotland and subsequently another three in Boston. Another highlight in the R&D scene was the announcement of a plan to build a city for Biomedical Sciences, the Biopolis under Singapore's third national R&D Plan (S&T2005). A spectrum of advanced capabilities will be hosted at the new campus of Biopolis. The vision as outlined in the 1991 Technology plan was realised in S&T2005. The continuation and progression are important to instil confidence for the research community.
My homecoming in 2003
After completing my post-doctoral training, I contemplated joining IMCB to further my career in research. However, a meeting with Bing Lim over coffee convinced me that GIS could provide a more suitable environment to advance my genomic ambitions. As such, I started as a joint Assistant Professor between NUS and GIS in 2003. Soon after, I found myself occupied with both setting up a laboratory and recruiting team members. I enjoyed building up the laboratory from scratch and reflecting back on the experience today still provides me with a sense of satisfaction. Gradually, my team built up our reputation in the global research arena. As time passed, some also left the laboratory to further their training. I am extremely pleased that four of my graduate students have managed to obtain faculty positions too.
One of my former graduate students, Jonathan Loh, who is currently a Principal Investigator in IMCB, is continuing our efforts in nurturing more young adults both in Science and in society. This is an example of a multiplier effect that helps to expand the base of a research enterprise. This is particularly important to Singapore as it pits itself against decades-old research enterprises in California and Boston and continues to develop towards a major global innovation hub for building development and research talents.
Furthermore, I have always believed that the concentration of talents fosters collaboration. For instance, I was introduced to Fred Bard from IMCB over a dinner event and soon after, we started a new collaboration. This led to the publication of my first Nature paper in 2010 where Fred was the co-senior author.
Marching forward towards a Smart Nation
There is no doubt that the future and journey of more Singaporeans will be different as Singapore marches towards R&D. Today, Singapore is one of the global hubs for Biomedical Sciences. The high quality research, a research workforce comprising of international talents and a rich R&D ecosystem are indicators of our movement in the right direction. Nevertheless, we still need to recognise that Singapore is constantly competing with key research hubs for talents. The talents whom we are seeking will likely be mobile and treat the entire world as their oyster.
At present, Singapore has a strong research foundation which is a highly valuable yet tenuous asset that requires constant nurturing and reinforcement. Any easing of these efforts or disruptive perturbations would compromise both our asset and our competitiveness. In my opinion, we should leverage on and continue to build on the foundations of our present research. As research involves discovering and applying new knowledge; it is often a challenging task as the path to great scientific innovations is historically an unexpected tangential. Over-engineering will counter the very essence of great scientific innovations in Biomedical Sciences. The question that Singapore should consider is its progression from building a good research foundation to a more challenging and nebulous task of creating great scientific innovations. There is no simple answer to this. The successes of well-established innovation hubs are the results of a high concentration of talents and a long term funding framework. In fact, Singapore may embark on a path that differs from others, however, the fundamental question of acquiring the right talents for its progression to the next level of challenge remains. Hence, we need to constantly consider our present challenges, think ahead and develop strategies for the future.
Reflecting back, the research environment back in 1992 when I was an undergraduate is a far cry from the current vibrant research environment and we should be proud of our accomplishment. Presently, Singapore has a thriving research landscape coupled with a globally competitive R&D ecosystem. Moving forward, I am confident that Singapore will continue to evolve into a globally competitive innovation hub. As our talents become globally competitive, our immediate challenge is to provide an environment that encourages and motivates one to venture onto paths that are less travelled for the purpose of discovery and innovation. In addition, research requires a stable environment to achieve its long-term goals and generate new ideas for the well-being of the public domain. Thus, I strongly believe that both stability and adaptability are essential ingredients to the future development of Singapore's young research enterprise.
The excitement of being a part of Singapore's research enterprise still persists for me. The 1991 National Technology Plan has transformed my life and I believe future investments in R&D will touch the lives of many more. Let us celebrate IMCB's achievements as a defining pillar of Singapor's contemporary biomedical landscape. Congratulations IMCB and happy 30th anniversary.
Ng Huck Hui
An IMCB alumnus (undergraduate researcher 1993 to 1996)