Delving Into Division on a Dainty Island


It was not the place that would have immediately sprung to mind when I was hoping to piece together a research group (my first) to study how cells control their division. But for some reason, Singapore did come up as an option, and after much thought I arrived in this tiny-dot-of-a-country to do exactly that.

Singapore is a small island-nation with a strong will and an unwavering determination to succeed. A very well developed financial muscle supports both these traits. In the early 1980s, Singapore began to see biotechnology and biomedical sciences as new hunting grounds for its economy. To develop the scientific environment and infrastructure necessary for realizing this goal, new institutes such as the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) and the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology were established and funding was substantially increased to the already established institutions.

Research centers here are now very well equipped, largely autonomous (in formulating their research programs), and very generously funded. For a young investigator, this provides an excellent opportunity to launch their independent, scientific endeavors without having to worry about the source of the next grant.

While much remains to be done, the research and development infrastructure for life sciences in Singapore continues to evolve. A firm commitment to both basic and biomedical sciences is taking root, with a not-so-distant eye on the financial rewards that they are expected to bring. Additional institutes, such as the Genome Institute of Singapore and the Bio-Informatics Institute, are being created to make the entire effort more interdisciplinary. Funding agencies such as the National Science and Technology Board (a sponsor of Next Wave Singapore), the National Medical Research Council, and the Biomedical Research Council are already in place to oversee the appropriate granting of research funds.

At one time there were concerns that the researchers in Singapore are isolated from what is considered to be the mainstay of science (Europe and North America). However, in this age of communication, connectivity, and networks such concerns are melting away. (Some degree of isolation can actually be advantageous because it forces one to be innovative). Difficulties of attracting and recruiting bright graduate students, postdocs, and group leaders are slowly easing. And because foreigners make up a sizable proportion of the force fueling the life sciences drive, "foreign talents" are valued.

All these reasons make Singapore an attractive destination for young investigators, even more so now then when I first joined IMCB. Although Singapore is not so far away from my native India, I took a long road to this small island, via the United States, the United Kingdom, and Austria.

My Path to Singapore

Doing research as an occupation is not an option that you consider when you grow up in a business-oriented family like I did. However, my father's keen interest in machines, mechanical tools, and puzzles of all sorts--and my older siblings' strong interest in books, music, and higher education--maintained an academic type of environment in the household, compared to the other business families in town. Being the youngest was also an advantage as I was shielded from the pressure of going into business-related activities. A love for riddles and puzzles took root early; finding the solution to a puzzle was a thrill.

After completing high school at the age of 15, I enrolled at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, one of the premier institutions for higher studies in India, for a 5-year integrated master's program in basic sciences with specialization in biology. By this time I had decidedly drifted far away from what might have been expected of me by my parents in terms of occupation/profession. But thankfully, everyone in the family took a no-interference stance and let me spend some time doing what was catching my fancy.

Once I successfully completed the M.Sc. (Hons) program, I moved to the Bose Research Institute in Calcutta for an apprenticeship in Anadi Chatterjee's laboratory to work on the mechanism of penicillin action and methicillin resistance in Staphylococcus aureus. It was during this time that I started to explore the literature on bacterial cell division. It was a mostly naïve and amorphous curiosity: Why does a cell bother to divide; how does it know when to divide; does it have a "program" that forces it to divide so precisely, with no other choices, etc.

A combination of circumstances induced me to leave India and enroll in the graduate program in what was then the department of cellular and developmental biology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, in the U.S. My Ph.D. supervisor, Neil Mendelson, had been a well-known name in DNA replication and cell division in Bacillus subtilis, but by the time I had joined his lab, his interest had decidedly shifted to cell shape determination. It was an interesting problem, and I enjoyed my time as a graduate student in Mendelson's lab, learning, discussing with colleagues, and doing experiments. But cell division was always at the back of my mind.

Toward the last leg of my graduate studies, ground-breaking work on the molecular characterization of an important cell cycle regulator, the Cdc2 kinase, was published by Paul Nurse's lab in the UK. All of a sudden, a lot was happening in the area of yeast cell division. After finishing my graduate studies, I wanted to join Nurse's lab as a postdoctoral fellow, but the position was not immediately available. I left Tucson anyway and took a research associate position in the department of engineering at the University of Cambridge, UK. There, I set up a "biomechanics" lab to study the physical properties of bacterial cell surface polymers and their relevance to cell shape and continued to read about cell division and other subjects.

My next destination was the Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna, Austria, for a postdoctoral position in Kim Nasmyth's lab. I hoped to finally start studying cell division. The only trouble was that the Nasmyth lab was devoted entirely to the study of the HO gene (involved in mating-type switching) in the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Although the regulation of this gene has a strong "cell cycle control" component, I was more interested in studying cell cycle regulation "proper." Kim was quite receptive to the idea, so I set out to study yeast cell division. In the Nasmyth lab, we uncovered interesting aspects of mitotic regulation in budding yeast with general implications for cell division in other organisms, including humans. My 4 years in Kim's lab were exciting and productive. His lab was an ensemble of interesting students and postdocs, many of whom were self-starters and very driven. I learned a great deal from them and of course from Kim. It was always "fun" to discuss and argue scientific matters with Kim--he is a very effective experimenter and, as everyone in the cell cycle field knows, an unusually bright mind.

The Decision

I could have continued at IMP for two more years but somehow I felt it was time for me to be subjected to the tribulations of a young investigator. I received two offers to start my own group: Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich and IMCB in Singapore. The two settings could not have been more different: Max Planck Institute, a well-known and reputed center for research, and Singapore, a one-city country known as a business hub in Southeast Asia with little to suggest in the way of scientific discoveries and innovation in its history. Kim's advice was clearly in favor of Munich. Max Birnstiel, then director of IMP, put it in an intriguing way: "If you follow conventional wisdom, it should definitely be Munich, but if you were daring then you would head for Singapore." Toward the end of 1992, I joined IMCB.

My small research group's forays into various aspects of cell division controls have been well supported during these years in Singapore. As in many other areas, the competition has always been intense with a large volume of findings coming from the well-established labs in Europe and North America. However, the trauma of competition can be mitigated to some extent by following slightly different (if not as popular) approaches to the questions. Under the steadily improving research climate and a national push for biomedical and life sciences research, institutes such as IMCB have faired well both in terms of publications and the development of their research programs. The coming years should undoubtedly be eventful for life sciences in Singapore.

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