Coming to Life: A Peek Into Singapore's Life Sciences Scene

Last week, from 12 to 13 November 2001, more than 200 life scientists, clinicians, postgraduate students, and teachers gathered at the Clinical Research Centre at the National University of Singapore to share their research findings and to discuss science funding, education, and training. The meeting is hosted each year by three societies: the Singapore Society for Microbiology and Biotechnology, the Biomedical Research and Experimental Therapeutics Society of Singapore, and the Singapore Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

The annual event--which comprises a forum on "Life Sciences for Singapore," plenary presentations given by distinguished international and local scientists, and poster presentations--aims to raise awareness of life sciences research in the country and to bring together life scientists from disparate fields to share and discuss ideas. The combined annual meeting enables junior scientists, including postgraduates, to showcase the fruits of their research. For the younger delegates, the meeting also provides a rare opportunity for them to meet not only senior scientists from whose experiences they can benefit immensely, but also funding authorities, top administrators, and policy-makers from whom they can draw some insight into the broader world of capability and infrastructure planning and development.

Keynote: Research Funding

The meeting started off with a keynote lecture that focused on something close to the heart of all researchers: money! "Science Funding Through the Australian Research Council--A New Experience" by Professor William Sawyer, programme manager for biological sciences and biotechnology at the Australian Research Council, was very informative. According to him, a "sea change" has occurred in the way that governments perceive the role of science, research, and education in a national economy. "Knowledge" is seen as a powerhouse that drives technological innovation and so provides economies with a global competitive edge.

Sawyer also touched on R&D initiatives that draw funding for research infrastructures, and he informed the audience that biotechnology investment is introducing a new and urgent prerogative into the research equation. He maintained that "this is an era of the biological scientist, but our education and research systems must be flexible yet robust and innovative yet traditionalist to deal with this exciting--but at the same time unsettling--environment." As for "small players like Singapore," he advised that "funding priorities be set and priority areas identified from the ground up and not from the top down." Urging Singapore to "concentrate on existing strengths and emerging areas," he stressed the need to "fill the gaps and eliminate the overlaps."

Plenaries, Forum Discussions, and Presentations

Professor Lee Eng Hin, dean of the Faculty of Medicine, National University of Singapore, chaired the "Life Sciences for Singapore" forum, which took the audience through a wide range of themes pertaining to R&D in the life sciences. The panelists, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, director of medical services, Ministry of Health; Professor Edison Liu, director, Genome Institute of Singapore; Professor James Tam, dean, School of Biological Sciences; Nanyang Technological University; and Professor John Wong, director, Office of Life Sciences, National University of Singapore, collectively explored the different aspects of life sciences in Singapore. These aspects include theme research in Singapore, clinical research and the life sciences, and life sciences perspectives at Nanyang Technological University.

The forum was followed by a series of sessions entitled "Status Updates in the Life Sciences," "Life Sciences Research and Applications," and "Therapeutics in Life Sciences." There were also presentations of two online resources for scientists: Science's Next Wave and the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.

On the research applications front, Dr. Chia Tet Fatt, a young scientist from the Natural Sciences Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, revealed Singapore's very first genetically modified organism (GMO)--a transgenic resveratrol producing red lettuce for the prevention of cancer and cardiovascular diseases--which was developed by introducing the stilbene synthase gene into a red plant and diverting the precursors into resveratrol synthesis. This is a culmination of many years of hard work and will hopefully benefit many in the future.

R&D Showcase--A Snapshot of Research Activities Across the Nation

In addition to participating in the forum and plenary sessions, researchers from across the nation presented about 100 research posters showcasing diverse research interests in cell biology and physiology, protein chemistry and proteomics, genes and genomes, microbiology and immunology, and therapeutics and diagnostics. The depth and diversity of the presentations is a testimony to increasingly broadening interest and involvement in the life sciences. Notable among the posters was one entitled "Abolishing DENN/MADD Expression by Antisense DNA Treatment Induces Marked Apoptosis in Mammalian Cancer Cell Lines in vitro and Significant Regression of Tumor in Mice in vivo," by Mr. Lim Kah Meng, a Ph.D. student from the faculty of medicine, National University of Singapore, which won for him the Best Overall Poster award.

Next Wave caught up with Lim to ask him what he thinks about receiving the award and what he has to say to the budding scientists who are toiling away in the many laboratories in Singapore for that elusive breakthrough that all researchers hope for. Feeling "very honored," Lim said the award is the result of a full commitment and plenty of hard work. "Research is like entrepreneurship. You put in all you can without knowing what you will get in the end. There are ups and downs. Failure is inevitable in the process, but through failures, success becomes sweeter." In the same spirit of determination, Lim said he will be off to start up his own life sciences company, but he would still like to remain in touch with academic research.

New Opportunities in Education and Training

Stellar though the presentations of current research were, it was also clear from the meeting that Singapore is not resting on its laurels. Professor James Tam, dean, School of Biological Sciences, Nanyang Technological University, and Professor Lee Eng Hin, dean of the faculty of medicine, National University of Singapore, announced some very good news in human capability development--that is, education and training--which remains an important area of focus for the nation's new initiatives. Lee highlighted the promotion of biomedical sciences as the nation's new engine of growth and added that one of the central cores of activity will be staffing development, at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. According to him, come July 2002, the National University of Singapore will have two new majors for its undergraduates: life sciences and bioengineering. Bioengineering will also be offered at the MSc and PhD levels. Speaking for the Nanyang Technological University, Tam announced that the first intake of 100 students to the basic biological sciences stream will also happen in July 2002. An annual increase in intake of 100 students is planned. Unlike those in traditional undergraduate degree programs, these students will be trained in a multidisciplinary approach rather than focusing on one single discipline. And some of these biological sciences students will be groomed for a US-style graduate MBBS-PhD program, aimed at producing a new generation of clinician scientists adept at solving both clinical and basic sciences problems.

With Singapore's two major universities geared up to prepare a new generation of workers to drive the new life sciences-based economy, university students in Singapore can now expect to have more choices in tertiary education--a multidisciplinary approach to learning--and to be in a better position to face the future.

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