Voices of Singaporean Scientists Working Abroad (II): The Experience of a Lifetime

Editor's note: This is the second in a multipart series, Voices of Singaporean Scientists Working Abroad, which focuses on young Singaporeans working as scientists in universities, research institutes, or industries outside Singapore. This time, we bring to you the firsthand account by Singapore's International Fellow, Dr. Choong Meng Ling, of his exhilarating experience as an exchange postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A Drastic Transformation

My PhD work was in population genetics with an emphasis on the correlation between genetic variation and disease manifestation. It was an interesting experience to see firsthand how research findings can be translated to benefit patients. Nonetheless, I developed during this period a yearning to hone my brainpower for bigger challenges in basic science research. I think basic scientific research is more brain-activity intensive, more suitable to my inquisitive character, and offers a better chance to test my potentials to the fullest.

After obtaining my PhD, I made a drastic switch by joining the Bioprocessing Technology Centre (BTC), where I was first given the chance to dabble in dengue virus epitope mapping before moving on to the functional characterization of genes related to hepatocellular carcinoma.

Toward the end of its previous fiscal year, BTC had identified the stem cell as one of its new research areas, and I was chosen to be a member of the new team. The stem cell group was set up with the goal of enhancing cell therapy by improving the maintenance and expansion of stem cell population in in vitro culture systems.

Having been educated locally all my life, I always find myself playing catch-up with technology innovations and knowledge advances. Scientific innovations are accelerating at a pace that far exceeds our expectations, and to be able to remain at the cutting edge, one is compelled to keep abreast of technology advances. Realizing my inadequacies, I felt that further training in a more technologically advanced country would be vital to expand my scientific perspectives. Through the help of the director of BTC, Professor Miranda Yap, I was able to secure a position with Professor Harvey Lodish at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research (WI), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I am very fortunate to be at the right place, at the right time, and doing the right thing. Armed with an International Fellowship from the Science and Technology Board (NSTB) of Singapore (a sponsor of the Next Wave Singapore site), I set sail for Boston....

The WI experience

The Lodish lab has enormous expertise in cell biology, with a particular focus on receptors and transporters, cell signaling, and hematopoiesis, as well as projects on obesity and diabetes. My graduate training was in clinical population genetics, so I greeted the sudden transition to hard-core cell biology with mixed feelings of fear and anticipation. However, the experience at WI has turned out to be very exhilarating, both in terms of cultural enrichment and scientific stimulation. Most importantly, the interactions with the large international scientific community have helped to sharpen and nurture my intellectual abilities.

The WI encounter was smooth and enjoyable. I was privileged to work with Biao Luo, a postdoc in the Lodish lab, on the hematopoietic stem cell project. Both Lodish and Luo are very knowledgeable persons and yet, in every respect, big-hearted in sharing their skills and knowledge. The sudden exposure to so many postdocs graduated from prestigious universities and high-profile scientists was a downright scary and intimidating experience, but Luo has helped ease my initial feelings of inferiority. Discussions with these people are always lively and intense. The benefits from working with great minds and having access to state-of-the-art research facilities are tremendous. These experiences have definitely bolstered my research abilities, fortified my scientific principles, and strengthened my confidence to prepare myself as a future contributor to the scientific community.

I do feel genuinely lucky to have been offered this learning experience at WI. It coincided with my desire to improve myself in a cutting-edge environment. Boston is famous for being a college town. World-class institutions such as MIT, Harvard University, Boston University, Northeastern University, Tuft University, and the University of Massachusetts are all within close distance of each other. The researchers from these institutions collectively created a large and vibrant scientific community. Seminars and talks are particularly numerous in the campus and around town. The insightful speeches and discussions are very educational, provoke creative thinking, and are inspiring to young researchers who are thirsting for new knowledge and eager to establish their own niches in the competitive research arena.

It is one of the most exciting endeavors I have ever undertaken. The scholarship offered by NSTB has made possible a chance to further improve oneself. Though it is definitely very beneficial, the 1-year Fellowship is probably too short to enable one to fully fathom the depth of a complex discipline such as stem cell biology. The stem cell field has been plagued by confusing and sometimes contradicting findings. It would take several years for a person to begin to grasp and appreciate the breadth and width of the discipline. Furthermore, the first year is a time of probing and groping in search of a research direction and setting the path for subsequent years of work. It is untimely to wrap things up and return home at such a point. On the other hand, it is probably good that one is forced to cherish the time given, and to have the urgency to learn as much as possible during the short stay.

The Singapore Vista

Singapore is moving toward a knowledge-based economy. Rapid scientific advances are opening up new knowledge frontiers and growth opportunities in the biomedical sciences industry. Singapore's goal is to develop the biomedical sciences as the fourth pillar of the country's manufacturing sector and to achieve the same level of success that we are realizing in the other three industry pillars--electronics, chemicals, and engineering. Thus, more local researchers are needed to supplement researchers from abroad in public research institutes, universities, and industry.

In conjunction with the above aim, NSTB has launched the National Science Scholarships to cater to that need. One of the scholarships is the International Fellowship that I have received. It supports local postdocs for overseas training as well as foreign PhD students and postdocs here, in order to build ties with them and attract them to work in Singapore. Even though the terms only allow for a preciously short visit, it is nonetheless a laudable move by the Singapore government to improve its pool of local talents, and I hold infinite gratitude for such an opportunity.

* The author's contact email: choong@wi.mit.edu or btccml@nus.edu.sg

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