Ph.D from IMCB in 1994
My IMCB days
I finished my BSc Hons in Chemistry in April 1989 and immediately joined Beecham Pharmaceuticals Pte Ltd as a Development Chemist. During my time at this company, I came up with an innovative idea for increasing the production of antibiotics by 0.3% daily (which is equivalent to a few kilograms) and I was told that the method was later patented.
After I visited IMCB at the Open Day and spoke with some of the pioneering researchers, I decided to apply to IMCB. I left the pharmaceutical company the day it became Smithkline Beecham Pharmaceutical and I joined IMCB in 1989. I was assigned to help set up on my own the laboratory for Prof William Chia while he was still in England. During his absence, I was given a chance to rotate through two different laboratories to learn essential molecular biology skills for my subsequent career in biomed. The first laboratory was headed by a German PI while the second was led by an Englishman. This rare opportunity, which was similar to rotation for would-be PhD students in the US, helped me to gain a more global perspective as I mingled daily with co-workers from Europe.
By the time Prof William Chia arrived at IMCB in 1990, the laboratory was poised to compete with the rest of the world. Our research area was molecular developmental neurobiology using the Drosophila (fruit fly) as a model system to understand signaling events during axonal outgrowth that are critical for neuronal regeneration. Within a few months, we found out that my research competed directly with well-known labs in the US. My preliminary results enabled me to skip my Master’s degree and I became a Ph.D. student in 1990. In 1991, we managed to coordinate our publications and published back-to-back in Cell. I was one of the first authors in Cell (the first Cell publication from IMCB) and, as far as I am aware, I was the first PhD student in Singapore to publish as first author in Cell.
I submitted my Ph.D. thesis in April 1994 and immediately started my post-doctoral training in Canada. I was working with a team to pioneer a new technology which most experts at that time believed would be a total failure but is now a mainstream platform in both basic and applied industry research.
Moving into industry
While I was in Canada, the technology we developed led to a biotech spin-off company. I learned a great deal of computational biology and after I came back to IMCB in 1996, I decided to do a part-time master’s degree in knowledge engineering to equip myself with more skills relevant to a career in bioinformatics. In 1998, I was given an independent position in structural bioinformatics at IMCB and for the next few years until 2000, I managed to collaborate with seven different IMCB laboratories and published ten papers, all involving a new research design methodology which I pioneered - computational/structural biology driven molecular biology experimental design. Structural bioinformatics is critical to drug discovery. I believed my consistent track record (from 1998 to 2000) in demonstrating how to turn newly cloned genes with no known function into virtual computer protein structure models which were verified subsequently by molecular biology experiments (thereby by-passing the need for experimental structural biology) was extremely relevant to pharma research. I wanted to develop this strategy further in the pharmaceutical industry where I could scale up the research operations and test the predicted models in a multi-disciplinary drug discovery team.
I applied to Merck KGaA Germany in 2001 and I was invited there for an interview with a first class air ticket. My master of technology degree from the Institute of Systems Science, NUS, allowed me to obtain my working visa within 4 days of application. At that time, Germany was looking for highly skilled professionals in the IT sector. Within 2 weeks of joining Merck's global technology division in Oct 2001, I was assigned the most challenging task, faced not just by Merck, but by the whole pharma technology industry - the establishment of microarray technology which was the key to translating genomics data into drug discovery platform.
After spending a few months of learning about this new emerging technology through a couple of conferences, I went back to Merck's research divisions all over Europe (Germany, Spain and France), and terminated all existing research involving microarray activities. I invited the group leaders to the headquarters where I worked and together we established the first corporate protocol for microarray through the FIRST Merck Microarray Symposium which I coordinated. After demonstrating how to translate the results of the technology into new drug targets, I went on to introduce new cutting-edge technology to Merck's corporate solutions. Most of these corporate solutions required a deep knowledge of structural bioinformatics skills which I had developed at IMCB.
In 2006, as part of the European pharma technology research platform based at European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), close to Cambridge, UK, I organized the FIRST EBI Systems Biology Symposium. I invited the CEOs from top systems biology companies in the US (as ranked by Nature Biotechnology) while my academic partner from EBI invited the top academic systems biology professors from Europe. In two days, we challenged the participants to list the deliverables of systems biology that would impact the pharma industry.
In 2006, I left Merck KGaA pharma research - the very day it became Merck Serono.
In 2007, I founded a company - WEI Medicine (West East Integrated Medicine) at Frankfurt, Germany. The mission of the company is to translate knowledge from Traditional Chinese Medicine into platform technology for drug discovery.
Lessons from IMCB
The experience I gained from IMCB is indispensable for my career – like the opportunities to interact with prominent scientists from all over the world during my Ph.D. days. The incentive of presenting research findings at major conferences in Europe and US at IMCB’s expense also spurred me to greater productivity on the bench. There is no doubt in my mind that the training I received at IMCB is as good as that enjoyed by Ph.D. students in US and Europe.
I was fortunate to be in IMCB during the early phase of her development when the emphasis on basic research was strongly supported. The key to IMCB’s success as a world class research institute can be largely attributed to the efforts of the founding director, Professor Chris Tan. It is from him that I learnt the importance of a clear vision, and the determination and perseverance to translate that vision into reality. These principles have been an anchor in all my endeavours after moving on from IMCB.
To read more about WEI Medicine GmbH, please click here.
To read more about Frankfurt Health Oasis, please click here.