Principal Investigator at IMCB 1998 – 2005
I started work at IMCB as a Principal Investigator on Monday, 20th April 1998, two days after flying back from the University of Cologne in Germany where I had spent the past three years as a postdoctoral fellow on EMBO and HFSP fellowships. I recalled that I was pretty excited that morning as I would finally have my own research group in that famed “Blue Fish Tank on the Hill”.
Prior to that fateful day, I had two other close encounters with IMCB. In 1989, I happened to apply to Rockefeller University in New York for PhD studies and Prof Chua Nam Hai, who was a faculty member there, intercepted my application and referred me to Prof Chris Tan, then IMCB Director, who immediately offered me a Junior Research Fellowship and a project to generate antibodies against a phosphatase. I did not take up the offer and went to Columbia University instead. My next brush with IMCB was in 1994 when I was looking for postdoctoral opportunities and Prof Chris Tan referred me to two principal investigators working on signal transduction. Again, I did not join IMCB as I was interested in immunology. I supposed I was third time “lucky” or “hooked” when I finally joined IMCB in 1998. Till this day, I am not sure if Chris remembered that I had rejected IMCB twice!
My first day at IMCB was literally hard work. I had to roll up my sleeves and cart used pieces of equipment from a second floor store room to my designated laboratory space on the third floor. I wasn’t allocated a start-up package to buy new machines. I even had to re-use old pipettes and timers! But IMCB more than compensated in terms of the freshness of ideas, quality of science and friendliness of the staff.
Science at IMCB was serious. Work at IMCB was interesting. And Life at IMCB was fun with its quirks and ups and downs. I recruited my first two PhD students, Mr Xu Shengli and Ms Joy Tan immediately upon joining IMCB. We were the first group to generate gene knock-out mice in Singapore in 1999. And to our amusement, we learned that we had to have “armed escort” and could only transport gene knockout mice from the airport to IMCB in the middle of the night. We also discovered that the IMCB basement carpark was a pretty good place to eat durians or to catch hold of the director while he was eating durians. And of course, being in Singapore, IMCB practised the “Hungry Ghosts Festival” on a daily basis as food left in the pantry would quickly disappear in no time!
In 2000, the Human Genome Project was completed and Singapore launched the Biopolis project. Mr Philip Yeo, Chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB) became Chairman of A*STAR. Prof Louis Lim (one of the key persons behind the establishment of IMCB) and Dr Kong Hwai Loong became Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director of the newly formed Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) of A*STAR, respectively. I was roped in to help design the Biopolis Resource Center, then codenamed Mickey Mouse Village or MMV for short. In 2002, Mr Philip Yeo sent me to Business School at Stanford University and upon my return in 2003, I was assigned to assist Hwai Loong who had taken over as BMRC ED. There, I oversaw the build-up of Biopolis infrastructure where many of my IMCB colleagues, namely Prof Hong Wanjin, Assoc Prof Ed Manser, Mrs Tay-Png Hong Lan and others, also lend a hand. We also facilitated the re-location of the various research institutes from Kent Ridge and Science Park to Biopolis. IMCB moved into Proteos in June 2004 and my laboratory was located on the 6th floor. My immediate neighbours were Dr Yoshiaki Ito (working on Runx genes) and Dr Cao Ximin (working on JAK-STAT signaling). In November 2004, I took over the BMRC from Hwai Loong, who had decided to join private medical practice. BMRC worked to procure the Science &Technology Plan (S&T) 2006-2010 budget, emphasizing the Bench-to-Bedside theme. Together with Dr Sydney Brenner, we also launched the Center for Molecular Medicine (CMM), which was the predecessor of the current Institute of Medical Biology (IMB), Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) and Singapore Institute of Clinical Sciences (SICS).
In Oct 2006, half a year into the new S&T 5-year funding cycle, and after procuring an adequate R&D budget for BMRC for 2006 to 2010, I decided to return to full-time research as that was my primary interest. I took on the Executive Directorship of SIgN and helped setup its research programs, laboratories and facilities at Immunos. In May 2008, I joined the Bioprocessing Technology Institute (BTI), helmed by Professor Miranda Yap, and was its Scientific Director. I have overseen BTI since 1 September 2011.
In a way, I have come full-circle. BTI was once partially housed in IMCB and Prof Miranda Yap’s office was on the second floor in the “Blue Fish Tank on the Hill”. Today, BTI and IMCB enjoy an excellent relationship and collaborate extensively in research projects. I count many existing and past IMCB staff and scientists as friends. In fact, I regularly lunch with IMCB buddies such as Shanthi and Hong Hwa, and also have frequent dinner get-togethers with the current IMCB ED, Wanjin who is an excellent host and unknown to most, "a good singer".