Principal Investigator at IMCB 1987 - 2002
Currently Professor at University of California, Irvine
(Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and in the Program in Public Health)
It was July 1986 when the phone of my lab at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg rang. Someone called Louis Lim, unknown to me at that time, was on the line: "You seem to know a lot about sexually transmitted diseases, we need someone like you in Singapore. Can you please come to a job interview in London?" This was the response to an application I had sent to the not yet existing IMCB, having known Singapore only as a backpack tourist in 1973 on a visit that lasted all of two days. Well, I was accepted after an interview with Chris Tan, Louis Lim, and Nam Hai Chua, and in December 1986 we met again in Singapore, together with about 10 freshly hired P.I.s, in order to discuss how to set up the "Experiment IMCB". The crucial question was, "Is it possible to generate state of the art molecular biomedical research in Southeast Asia, even though this has never been done before?"
Fairly exotic memories of the transition from Germany to Singapore come to my mind. There was no internet nor email and international phone calls were still a big deal. The first graduate student assigned to me, Chan Woon Kiong, became tired of letters sent by regular airmail. "Can't we communicate by fax?" he asked. I did not know what a fax was, but then found out the German Cancer Research Center had just bought its first fax machine. Other memories: Transfer of cell lines in a liquid nitrogen container to Singapore Airlines at Frankfurt Airport. "Won't it catch fire?" questioned an airline representative. Well, no, liquid nitrogen does not tend to do that. And then the good-bye to my colleagues who said, "Have a good time, but we will never hear from you again. There is no science in South East Asia!"
I remember fondly the enthusiastic welcome by my first graduate students, Chan Woon Khiong, Terence Chong, Chan Shih Yen, and Vincent Chow upon my arrival at the new IMCB building in May 1987. Discussions on the long term future: "Well, we are all going to be unemployed - there is no professional profile for molecular biologists in Singapore". (In case anyone is unaware, all four of them are today Professors or Directors). I was followed by my German students Bernd Gloss and Gerd Klock, and within months all seven of us generated top notch experiments, which led to a stream of publications about papillomavirus transcription and evolution. This level of success may seem moderate today, but was celebrated ecstatically in those days. Small successes precede big successes - the IMCB experiment was off to a promising start.
I remember that I was acting director for a few weeks in 1987 when Chris Tan (Founding Director) was travelling. There were not enough pipettes at IMCB nor anywhere else in Singapore, and I had to order 2000 via airmail from Europe.
Then we had problems with Southern blotting to detect HPVs. Vincent Chow suggested that we try PCR. It was 1988 and I reminded him that nobody in Asia had ever used that technique before. The technique in those days involved carrying the samples between three water baths set at different temperatures. Well, he tried and became the first one to achieve a successful PCR in this region. Sometimes our academic environment puzzled us. My wife Vera had been hired by NUS (IMCB was then part of NUS) as a lecturer in Psychology and specialist in autism. "No, there is no autistic patient in Singapore - that is a disease of the West" was the prevailing experts' view. Vera found the first patient through a US database, and shortly later, there were hundreds of such cases.
The years have passed. Thousands of excellent publications have emerged from IMCB. Most of the staff at the IMCB 25 years ago are now in leading positions throughout Singapore as well as in multinational companies, which became attracted to invest in Singapore by IMCB's well-trained manpower. The experiment is a success.
When Chris Tan retired in 2001, he told me, "Well, others will follow in our footsteps, but we had the guts to be the pioneers". After 2002, I became productive again at the University of California, but it never matched the excitement of the founding of IMCB, and those 15 years in Singapore were professionally the most valuable time of my career.