ARC Future Fellow at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of Melbourne
Research Fellow in Cao Xinmin's Lab from 2003-2006.
I was awarded my PhD from the University of Western Australia in 2003 on work characterizing the role of cytokine-activated signalling pathways in pathological cardiac hypertrophy (thickening of the heart muscle). While contemplating where to pursue my post-doctoral training, the idea of working in Singapore somehow came into consideration. My colleagues asserted at the time the prevailing wisdom that a post-doc stint anywhere other than US or Europe would be 'career suicide'. However, I did my due diligence and Singapore quickly emerged as an attractive and exciting opportunity. The government's commitment to biological research and the life sciences was unprecedented. Nature journal reported on the quality and innovation of research in the Lion City, particularly at a place called 'IMCB'. I also read about successful drives to recruit foreign talent and the construction of Biopolis, a biomedical research hub of a scale that was simply mind-boggling. The fact that family and close friends in Perth were in the same time zone and a short 4 hour flight away was icing on the cake. My imagination was stirred and after a quick phone interview, I packed up the family and joined the lab of Cao Xinmin (CXM) to work on the Signal Transducers and Activators of Transcription (STAT) family of transcription factors.
I started in the CXM lab, initially while IMCB was still located at Kent Ridge. I was immediately immersed in a dynamic and international research environment and I knew right away that I had made the right decision. Cao Xinmin was also a fantastic mentor allowing me to pursue my research ideas, follow my own instincts and supervise research assistants and students which served me immensely well when the time came to establish my own independent group. Barely 6 months into my post-doc, I participated in the historic move of IMCB as the inaugural institute to take residence in Biopolis in the Proteos building. My lasting impressions of Biopolis were overwhelmingly positive. Sure, there were teething problems as with any brand new building designed for advanced research. But these were inconsequential and indeed I now struggle to remember exactly what they were... something about the supply of double de-ionised water? Instead, my memories were of a futuristic research 'village' and a diverse multi-disciplinary scientific community that were seamlessly inter-connected. I remember the 'ease' of conducting our research due to the availability of the latest technology, unparalleled infrastructure, centralized facilities and all unfettered by complex and cumbersome grant applications. We worked hard but we also had fun. Not many institutes boasted a fitness centre and a wine-bar on-site (and I hope it still does). I still have fond memories of our lab bonding over a quick work-out in the gym in between setting up gel electrophoresis or unwinding with a drink or two in the evening while meeting new people (and potential collaborators!). It really did seem like some kind of utopian environment for conducting cutting-edge collaborative research in molecular biology, genetics, proteomics and cellular imaging.
During my tenure in the CXM lab, I contributed to the first mechanistic characterization of non-canonical STAT protein functions that were independent of direct effects on gene regulation and published very well by any measure. My decision to do my post-doc in Singapore was vindicated upon my return to Australia, as those seminal publications helped me secure a highly competitive National Health and Medical Research Council Peter Doherty Fellowship (2006-2010) to continue my research on novel STAT regulatory mechanisms in cancer and cardiovascular disease. This was followed by a University of Melbourne Faculty Trust Roper Fellowship (2011-2012) and during this time, I established an independent research group based at Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology within the Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne. I even successfully recruited an CXM lab and IMCB alumni member, Yvonne Yeap, who has been a research officer in my lab for the past 7 years now. Most recently I was appointed as Senior Research Fellow/Senior Lecturer and principal investigator at the University of Melbourne, supported by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (2013-2016) and continue to work on the complex regulation of cellular architecture by JAK/STAT and MAPK signalling pathways.
Perhaps I may be over-romanticizing my time in Singapore in this exercise in nostalgia, and perhaps it's because I spend an inordinate amount of time nowadays writing and assessing grant applications but I can truthfully say that working in IMCB was one of the most productive, enjoyable and fulfilling periods of my research career. I am extremely thankful to IMCB for the post-doc opportunity, Cao Xinmin for her guidance, my CXM lab 'mates' for their camaraderie and Executive Director Professor Hong Wanjin for his suggestion that I share my experience on this website.