Singaporeans Abroad: East Meets West Through Science

Voices of Singaporean Scientists Working Abroad is a new series of articles focusing on young Singaporeans working as scientists in universities, research institutes, or industries outside Singapore. We will bring to you firsthand experiences, thoughts, and aspirations of some of our most promising transnational scientists who are crossing borders to do good science.

In 1995, I began graduate studies on signal transduction by growth factors and receptor tyrosine kinases in the laboratory of Graeme Guy at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) in Singapore, obtaining my PhD in 2000. But from 1997-1998, I was a visiting student in the laboratory of Joseph (Yossi) Schlessinger at the New York University School of Medicine in the U.S. After completing my PhD I went to Canada to work with Tony Pawson at the Mount Sinai Hospital (which is affiliated with the University of Toronto) as a postdoctoral fellow.

My fellowships in New York and Toronto were tremendous experiences--both scientifically inspiring and culturally enriching. In particular, the interactions with my mentors and other scientists were immeasurably important in honing my research abilities, shaping my scientific values and principles, and in fostering my academic and leadership qualities as a contributor to research and development (R&D).

Learning From the Gurus

Several things motivated me to work overseas. Having received most of my education in Singapore, I felt that further training in other countries with larger scientific communities would expand my scientific horizons. Guy, my PhD advisor, had always encouraged me to carry out postdoctoral training abroad. During the early years of my PhD studies, I was very fascinated by the exciting discoveries in the field of signal transduction, in particular how receptor tyrosine kinases are activated to transmit their signals and how protein complexes are formed through defined protein folds (domains) interacting with specific cellular targets. The desire to learn directly from the scientists who made these discoveries and to participate in cutting-edge research in signal transduction provided me with a strong impetus to join these laboratories. I worked toward the goal of earning myself a place in a competitive laboratory in North America after my graduate studies in Singapore.

As it happened, I achieved this goal earlier than expected when, during the third year of my PhD studies, Schlessinger offered me the opportunity to work in his laboratory in New York. I was totally thrilled and was fortunate to receive both approval from the IMCB and sponsorship by the National Science and Technology Board (NSTB; a sponsor of Next Wave Singapore) to spend 1 year in Schlessinger's laboratory as a visiting student.

Schlessinger taught me how to ask meaningful questions in my research, and I have gained much from his insightful directions and strong commitment to the education of his students. In his laboratory, I was fortunate to work with Irit Lax, who is an extremely skilled experimenter and wholly generous in sharing her knowledge. By the time I left Schlessinger's laboratory to finish up my PhD in Singapore, we had obtained many interesting results and were on our way toward publishing some good papers. And I was well on my way to becoming a confident and able scientist.

After completing my PhD, I moved on to Toronto to work with Pawson as a postdoctoral fellow, sponsored by the National Medical Research Council (NMRC) of Singapore. Pawson was quick to realize that I am very keen to understand many biological problems. With his vast knowledge, he recommended several topics and I soon became very interested in cell motility and axon guidance. His insightful advice and strong support of my career have been influential in promoting creative thinking and confidence in exploring new projects. We were quickly able to provide some explanations for several biological questions and are in the process of developing many interesting projects.

I have indeed benefited much from working with great mentors and being accessible to state-of-the-art research facilities at the New York University School of Medicine and the Mount Sinai Hospital. In close vicinity of these two institutions are several other excellent research centers, such as Columbia University and Rockefeller University in New York City; and the Amgen Institute, Ontario Cancer Institute, Toronto General Hospital, Princess Margaret Hospital, and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, all affiliated to the University of Toronto. The researchers from these institutions collectively constitute a large and vibrant scientific community, with exchange of expertise and information to facilitate efficient collaborative efforts that are critical for competitive research.

Sharing the Knowledge and Experience

Next Wave Singapore had asked me to comment on whether I would return to Singapore in the future. The government of Singapore has identified R&D in biomedical sciences as the fourth pillar of the country's economy. Its strong commitment to develop this new economy is evident from the resources it has pledged to build a first-class infrastructure, to train an elite corps of scientific personnel, and by its close interaction with world experts in academia as well as the biotech industry. Singapore is a small country, and having benefited greatly from government scholarships in all my local and overseas studies, I would be honoured to return and contribute to the drive for excellence in biomedical research. Singapore is making heavy investments in the biomedical sciences, so it is important that the accumulating knowledge and experience be imparted to the scientific community, especially the younger generation. At the same time, it is important that the technology developed be translated to benefits of the providers of the resources, such as improved health care, social security, and job and wealth creation. As science is a global endeavour, I believe I will continue to interact with researchers in different regions of the world when I return to Singapore.

In a broader context, I believe that science is a very important human activity that warrants the support of every society. The application of science has a truly enormous impact on the quality of human life and indeed human civilization. However, it is also a great challenge to ensure that scientific knowledge is not applied in contradiction to the ethical codes of humankind. A case in point is the terrorism events in the United States on 11 September: The invention of aircraft and devices to aid navigation are remarkable human achievements, but they have been used for the destruction of human lives. And the hundred or so years that have elapsed since Pasteur and others discovered microbes in the late 1800s have contributed to the development of antibiotics and have saved numerous human lives. But today, the bacterium Bacillus anthracis that causes the anthrax disease has become a weapon in bioterrorism.

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