Thomas Dick, Ph.D
Associate Professor & Director BSL3 Core Facility
Department of Microbiology
Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine
National University of Singapore
Research fellow at IMCB: 1990-1996
Principal Investigator: 1996-2003
Head Tuberculosis Drug Development at Novartis Singapore: 2003-2011
I was in the middle of my PhD work on drug resistant Staphylococcus at Heidelberg University, when I saw a letter from Uli Bernard pasted on the notice board : "IMCB in Singapore is looking for research fellows". That was in 1988. Being young and adventurous, I was attracted by the idea to come to South East Asia for a postdoc stint. (I had been hiking in the mountains of New Guinea just the year before, and besides, why go to the US like everybody does?).
Then again, Singapore for life science research? In the late 80's, this little island state was just a white spot on the world map of molecular research.
I came for a visit on my way to the jungles of Sumatra the following year I wanted to make sure that the place is real. I still remember that Uli showed me very proudly a room full of fax machines! (Those were the days when such equipment was considered the vanguard of technological advancement.) For my research presentation during the visit, I used photographic slides (self made, of course) and that was a step ahead of transparencies on an overhead projector.
I left convinced that the new institute has immense potential: a core of dedicated people, strong infrastructure, and generous funding. I joined Bill Chia's lab in 1990 - and learnt all about developmental biology of fruit flies from him. Bill is not only an outstanding scientist, but also a superb mentor. One of the most enlightening pieces of advice he had for me was "Thomas, you have to ask a biological question".
A few years later, I became a PI at IMCB. Sydney Brenner thought my idea to work on dormant, phenotypically drug resistant tuberculosis (a developmental biology problem!) was a good one; and as the father of molecular of biology, he was, right, of course. I was fortunate to have wonderful people in my lab, including my first PhD student Calvin Boon.
I will always remember the founding Director Chris Tan (wearing his sun glasses while running the show i.e. the institute), and the chief administrator Mrs Tay-Png Hong Lan (running the show in the back ground). There are so many cherished memories of my time at IMCB. For instance, Alice Tay, Uttam Surana and I taught lawyers and judges about molecular biology, and we were invited for tea by then Chief Justice Yong Pung How at the Supreme Court. What a privilege! Chats with Bob Gallo, and John Maddox come to mind, a coke with Jim Watson, and all the very entertaining and thought-stimulating talks by Sydney Brenner.
Now, being at NUS, after eight years at Novartis, I continue my work on tuberculosis, with a focus on discovery of new antibiotics. (Please see slide below for a summary of my current research.) I constantly meet former colleagues from IMCB who seem to be everywhere - at ASTAR, universities, companies, and government agencies. My 'new' colleague in the department Vincent Chow, Bor Luen Tang, also now at NUS (I usually meet him on my way to pick up a coffee), Tuck Wah Soong, Yoon Pin Lim, Eyleen Goh, Kah Leong Lim, Shanthi Wasser... the list is very long indeed. In just two and a half decades, life science and biomedical research in Singapore changed dramatically: it transformed from a tiny white speck to a little red spot (IMCB in the 90s), and has burgeoned into to a bright red splash today.
Thank you, IMCB, and all the amazing people I have had the privilege to work with!