Director (SRP), Rice Functional Genomics Group, Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory and Chief Technology Officer, JOil Singapore Pte. Ltd.
In 1992 as I was finishing up my PhD at the University of Idaho, USA, I came to know about Singapore through a friend of mine who graduated from the same University. He joined Nanyang Technological University in Singapore as a faculty and he was impressed with the facilities Singapore universities and Institutes had to carry out international quality research, and shared his thoughts with me. Meanwhile, I applied for a Post-Doctoral Fellowship with Prof. Nam Hai Chua at the Rockefeller University but he did not have a position at Rockefeller to offer me. Subsequently, through the Arabidopsis network, I found an advertisement for Research Fellow position in Prof. Chua ’s lab in IMCB and applied for the same. I got the position in August 1992 and joined IMCB, but worked at the Rockefeller University for the first 6 months of my contract and moved to Singapore in February 1993. I was fascinated by the facilities and quality of scientific research IMCB was carrying out, and never regretted since then coming to Singapore.
Initially, I was working with Prof. Chua’s lab on the actin-cytoskeleton, particularly in plant actin-binding proteins such as Profilins, Actin Depolymerizing Factors and Fimbrin. Our strategy was to over- and under-express these proteins in Arabidopsis and analyze their functions in plant growth and development. Apart from this, we expressed Arabidopsis cytoskeletal genes enriched cDNA libraries in fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe and identified more Arabidopsis genes that would alter the actin cytoskeleton of S.pombe. These genes, upon identification, were transferred into Arabidopsis for functional characterization. This was highly exciting for me to work with S. pombe and this gave me an opportunity to visit one of the leading pombe scientists Prof. Viesturs Simanis’s lab at ISREC, in Lausanne, Switzerland. I spent three months in his lab as a visiting scientist and learnt pombe actin and tubulin staining techniques and other aspects of pombe biology. My days in IMCB were exhilarating and enjoyable with the company of fellow researchers and scientists.
In 1995, I moved with Prof. Chua to a newly started institute, the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology (IMA) where I continued my work on actin cytoskeleton in plants. In 1999, I had an opportunity to head the Rice Functional Genomics program under Prof. Venkatesan Sundaresan. This project was initiated as an IMA’s collaborative project with the French biotech company ‘Rhone Poulenc’. We were generating maize Ac/Ds transposon tagged lines in rice and this project was very challenging as I did not have adequate hands-on experience in rice biology. I remember the early days where I used to go to the greenhouse with my lab members for mixing soil, potting, planting, making crosses and other activities in the greenhouse. This helped me enormously to understand the rice physiology and biology. For screening and planting rice plants in the tens of thousands, we had a tie-up in China and I started operating in a new country and environment. Though I lived for 7 full years in Singapore then, the only Chinese words I knew were ‘Ni hao ma’ and Ni Chi Bao le Ma’. I had a very difficult time trying to communicate with the farm workers in a small town in Southern China. However, my Chinese started improving and I started communicating in broken elementary level Chinese and that made a whole lot of difference in terms of getting around and asking for help. Since year 2000, till now, I have operations in China.
In 2002, there were some structural changes where IMA merged with IMCB and a new institute was started with a handful of Principal Investigators from IMA. I was one of them to join the newly formed institute, Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) and have been working there since then till now. I continued to work on Rice Functional Genomics as Biotechnology Research Manager (2002 – 2004), Associate Director (Strategic Research Program (SRP); from 2004 to 2011) and Director (SRP; from 2011 to date) in TLL. In 2006, in addition to the rice projects my lab focused on biofuel crops and worked on projects to improve Sweet sorghum for bio-ethanol and Jatropha curcas for bio-diesel. This twist was very interesting for me and I was happy to extend my research horizon.
From 2003 to 2008, In addition to my position in TLL, I was heading a TLL‘s satellite lab as a Principal Investigator at the Institute of Genetic and Developmental Biology (IGDB), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Beijing, focusing on rice functional genomics with respect to the abiotic stresses. This was a totally exhilarating experience for me. In addition to this lab, in 2007, another satellite lab of TLL was set up at the Institute of Botany (IOB), CAS, in Beijing to focus mainly on improving sweet sorghum for bio-ethanol production. This was an overwhelming experience for me as I was surrounded by great scientists who were working on sweet sorghum for one to two decades. I gathered a lot of insights from this association and we completed our term of 5 years in 2012.
In 2008, TLL spun off a company named ‘JOil (S) Pte Ltd’ which focusses on improving Jatropha curcas feedstock for bio-fuel production. JOil was formed with partnership of TLL, TATA Chemicals as major shareholders and other partners including local companies and Toyota Tsusho. I joined JOil (half time) as one of the three General Managers initially and later got promoted to Chief Technology Officer, taking care of Jatropha tissue culture production outside of Singapore in five countries, field trials in India, Indonesia and currently Africa operations. As a part of senior management and a member of the executive committee, I am getting trained in business administration as well. I am also heading the Indian JOil subsidiary ‘JOil India Private Limited’ as a Chief Executive Officer/Director and taking care of the Indian operations.
On the whole, my journey which started in IMCB as a Research Fellow continued from Basic Research to Strategic Research to working in a company. I consider myself lucky to have journeyed through various research and biz admin opportunities where I learnt a lot and am still learning. I still have the burning passion to achieve in science which was started in IMCB. My journey continues...