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  26 August 2013  
  Tuck Wah SOONG, Ph.D  

IMCB 1986-1999

Profile of my Scientific and Academic Career

After obtaining my BSc (Hons) in Microbiology from the National University of Singapore in 1983, I was confronted with the choice of continuing with PhD studies or to accept an offer as an Administrative Officer (AO) in a government corporation. I decided on the latter as I wanted to give myself a chance to experience working in a non-academic environment. After slightly more than 2 years in my job as AO, I was again thinking about my future direction. This time it was whether to pursue an MBA if I were to continue in administrative service or to pursue science as the age of biotechnology has caught on in Singapore in 1985. During that time, the idea of setting up the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) was proposed and accepted by the Singapore government and active recruitment of graduate students was underway. I was in the first batch of PhD students recruited by Prof Louis Lim.

I was sent to the laboratory of Dr Michael J. Owen of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) for research exposure and training when the IMCB building was being constructed. Mike’s laboratory was located at the University College London (UCL). It was my first exposure to intensive and fore-front research and the laboratory was competing to be the first in the discovery of the genetics and role of the T-cell receptors in tumour immunology. As I was in an ICRF lab situated in UCL, I became aware that academia included doing research within a university or in a research institution. My old idea that working in the university was mainly about teaching undergraduates, as was the case in NUS in the early 1980s, was replaced by the new and exciting understanding that education and research can be pursued with similar intensity and passion.

My interests in research and experimentations grew during my PhD studies under the supervision of Prof Hui Kam Man at the IMCB in Singapore and later when I spent 4 years as a postdoctoral fellow, supported by an IMCB fellowship, in the laboratory of Prof Terrance P. Snutch at the University of British Columbia. I enjoyed the research and academic culture, the freedom to explore and ask questions and to be able to design experiments to test one’s hypotheses. While failed experiments and the dearth of results weigh down the spirit, resilience and purposefulness usually tip the scale as excitement accompanied one’s findings. The long-term hope is that the new information will be of value to the international research community in generating more new knowledge, or in applying the knowledge for the improvement of learning or living.

After returning from UBC to serve my bond, I spent another 3 years at IMCB as a Research Associate in Prof Wang Yue’s group. I was provided a half-bench and a Research Assistant by Prof Chris Tan to conduct my research on the Candida albicans Na+/H+ antiporter and in an independent work on the iron transporter NRAMP2 or DMT1 in which I was co-supervisor of a PhD student. As research in neuroscience was not a research focus in IMCB, and my postdoctoral training was in voltage-gated calcium channels, I decided to launch out again in a new independent phase as a Principal Investigator (PI) at the newly established National Neuroscience Institute (NNI).  I was with NNI for 5 years of which one year was spent at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine supported by a NMRC Research Scientist Award. This phase of my research career was an adventure but risky. While in IMCB, there was entirely no need to apply for external funding or research grants;  however, at NNI not only do I have to apply for research grants to employ my research staff, but I have to include my own salary in the grant as well. Essentially, my entire research group was on “soft” money. This situation forces us to work very hard and to work very closely as a team as we all “sink and swim” together. The camaraderie and the spirit to excel were very real and they propel us to outdo ourselves to first set up the laboratory and to next develop a research direction that could be internationally competitive.  At the same time, I became an adjunct faculty of the Department of Physiology and this arrangement allowed me the opportunity to test myself on whether I enjoy teaching, and I discovered that I do enjoy teaching and it also gave me great satisfaction and fulfillment to interact, guide and train students. I also relish being immersed in an inspiring and integrative academic culture that is found within the university environment.

Just as I was one of the pioneering students at IMCB, I was also a pioneering scientific PI in NNI. It was therefore with an ambivalent heart that I decided to join the NUS fulltime in 2004, and in a reverse situation I became an adjunct PI of NNI. Recently, I was appointed as NNI’s Distinguished Visiting Scientist.

After 9 years in the Department of Physiology, on reflection, I know I have made the correct decision. I find academic life very enriching and fulfilling in that there is a very intimate interplay and synergistic augmentation of research on education, and education on research. Equally fulfilling is the opportunity to directly influence young minds, and be influenced by them; and to play a role in shaping their thinking and in encouraging the cultivation of their creativity. This sober responsibility must not be taken lightly as we are duty-bound to mentor the next generation. The university environment also provides a fertile ground for exchange of ideas and for formulating collaborations across disciplines.

In the 9 years with NUS, I have been given many opportunities to grow with the university. I became actively involved with the Neurobiology/Ageing programme and helped to galvanize education and research in neuroscience. For education, I proposed and coordinated a third year undergraduate module in “Molecular and Cellular Neurobiology” that has been offered for the past 8 years. For graduate studies, I initiated and finally helped launch a NGS network graduate programme in neuroscience, called the Singapore Graduate Programme in Neuroscience or SGPN that has enrolled its first batch of students in August 2010. Besides education, together with my colleagues, we registered and established a SfN Singapore chapter in which I was the first president. This chapter has been very active in promoting interactions between neuroscientists across the island and between academia and industry. The chapter has, as part of its mission, taken neuroscience to the schools and public and so far we have co-organized public lectures with the Singapore Science Centre and the NUS High School for Science and Math during the “Brain Awareness Week” (BAW). The organization of BAWs is not new to us as before the establishment of the SfN chapter, a group of like-minded neuroscientists from NNI and NUS have on their own already given neuroscience lectures to the public and to students in the polytechnics and schools. In 2012, funded by the Singapore Technologies Endowment Programme or STEP, a charity organization of the Temasek Foundation, and as co-chair, I helped organized the first STEP-NUS Sunburst Brain Camp. This camp brought together high school students from the Polytechnics and Junior Colleges to interact with high school students from the 9 ASEAN countries, India, China, South Korea and recently Japan (link: I am also co-editor, with A/Prof Lim Kah Leong, of The Brain Book 1, a book written by the high school students for high school students. This book has been distributed to all secondary and high schools in Singapore, as well as to all public libraries. We have just organized and hosted the 2nd Brain Camp in June 2013, and a new The Brain Book 2 was also printed.

For service at the NUS, I have been given the opportunity to serve as Assistant Dean from 2006-2008, NGS EXCO from 2010-2013 and as Head of the Department of Physiology, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, from 2008.

The academic life revolves around Teaching, Research and Service and as in all things in life, one seeks to find the balance, the focus for excellence in outcomes and most importantly in finding fulfillment in all that we do whether in a small or big way. As scholarship and curiosity are the underpinnings of academia, one should keep them in sight while one enjoys the thrills and spills of discovering more of our world and ourselves.

To read more about Tuck Wah’s current lab at NUS, please click here.


(C) Copyright 2012 Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, A*STAR Singapore.