Biocomputing at Singapore’s Top R&D Institutes

I came to Singapore 5 years ago with the hope of starting my scientific career in a place with lots of enthusiasm but limited scientific infrastructure. I had completed a postdoc with Prof. Michael Rossmann during which I studied virus-receptor relationships by using x-ray crystallography and electron microscopy. I decided that structural biology is extremely important for understanding biological relationships, but the new high-throughput world would allow interesting sequence-function relationships as well. It was with this knowledge and background that I came to Singapore after being recruited by Associate Professor Subbiah, who was working at Stanford University at the time but helping with the activities of the Bioinformatics Centre in Singapore. It is amusing that some people were shocked of my move to Asia and asked if I would be ok in the third world. I think that the U.S. school curriculum could benefit from increased geographical awareness including understanding the socioeconomic diversity of Asia and other regions in the world.

I initially began work in the Bioinformatics Centre led by Associate Professor Tan Tin Wee at the National University of Singapore. During this period I continued to work in the area of structural biology but also had the freedom to develop a bioinformatics-oriented laboratory. It was a major shift for me to go from a laboratory with a large army of postdocs and students to a unit consisting of a small number of software developers and students. After a slow start, productivity in terms of papers and projects grew steadily in both structural biology and bioinformatics. It was at this time that my laboratory made a collective decision to become a part of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) so that we could have closer interactions with a large group of excellent biologists.

At the IMCB, headed by Professor Chris Tan, we were able to increase our productivity through closer collaborations and interactions with scientists studying apoptosis and cell regulation. We were able to bring biocomputing into an institute with a diverse collection of biological scientists and thus it was a mutually beneficial move. In addition to the increased collaboration, the intellectual critical mass existing within the IMCB also helped the learning process through stimulating discussions with seasoned experts in exciting topics such as signal transduction and cell cycle processes. However, the genomics revolution was now going global and a flurry of new activity was beginning in Singapore, with brand-new institutes such as the Bioinformatics Institute and Genome Institute of Singapore being established.

My group once again made a collective decision to move to the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), where we saw a tight integration of biological and computing activities. This is perhaps the most interesting, intellectually challenging, and collaborative institution I have ever been a part of. There is really vibrant activity stemming from the interactivity between the various groups within the institute. There is a large sequencing group with a battery of sequencers, a microarray group, a proteomics group, and several groups being formed. The participants hail from all corners of the world including North America, Europe, and of course Asia. The technological facilities are absolutely fabulous including access to excellent computing through in-house hardware as well as collaborations with the Bioinformatics Institute.

The projects being undertaken at GIS are designed carefully and focused on understanding complex biological functions of the genomes being studied worldwide. Different technological platforms are being implemented to integrate and analyze information, which will give us new insights in comprehending the large amounts of genomic data being generated around the world. The Information and Mathematical Sciences group, to which I belong, is involved in the critical step of data management, integration, and analysis. It is extremely exciting and challenging to know that the input from our group will help shape the discovery process of the institute.

One of the most enjoyable and educational parts of the scientific process is an extremely active bioinformatics journal club. Once the coffee and cakes arrive at the meeting location, we have a very informal and bare-knuckles discussion about a variety of topics, such as the Human Genome Project, support vector machines, and many others. The participants include people from GIS as well as many other departments in Singapore with specialists in genomics, mathematics, and algorithm development. It is an excellent venue to learn and discuss topics from a wide range of areas, which is critical to a subject as complex as bioinformatics. Many projects have been started as a direct result of discussions from this journal club. The attendance at this meeting is always extremely high and there is obviously a large backlog of subjects that are waiting to be discussed.

Dr. P. Kolatkar, second from right, with members of his laboratory at the Genome Institute of Singapore

In addition, collaborations with the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratories in the U.S. have facilitated crystallographic projects, one of which involves an interesting protein isolated from mushrooms indigenous to this region that has no similarity to any molecule in current databases. These collaborations have also highlighted the importance of an excellent networking infrastructure, which allows sharing of large amounts of data between two points on opposite sides of the globe. Many of the genomic projects will eventually lead to interesting targets for structural biological studies.

Although science is a big part of my life in Singapore, I enjoy many other activities, including learning guitar, playing tennis and basketball, going to the gym, and visiting other places in the region. The island where South Pacific was filmed is only 5 hours away by boat. One can enjoy a relaxing weekend on the beach surrounded by warm, tranquil waters and lots of excellent seafood. There is also a very active chapter of the Hash House Harriers in town, which is an excellent way to unwind from a busy life of science and enjoy mingling with people from other walks of life in Singapore over a run and a beer.

GIS is still less than 1 year old and currently is in the middle of a large hiring and recruiting drive. I have met a large number of highly qualified people from excellent institutions from all around the world. Quality of life is always one of their questions when considering a move to a small island in the middle of the Pacific region. I obviously relate to them all the things mentioned in this article and also the additional benefits of a really fantastic mass transportation system and great technology including the high-speed cable modem access in my flat overlooking the ocean.

After 5 years, Singapore has even more enthusiasm for science than when I first arrived and now also has some of the best infrastructure and support I have seen anywhere in the world. There is a large effort to increase cross-disciplinary interactions and carry out innovative research that is at the junction of different sciences such as genomics, computing, mathematics, nanotechnology, chemistry, and many other disciplines. I am able to concentrate on real science with a tremendous amount of freedom and I have never written anything grantlike more than three pages long. That is why I am still in Singapore and can?t even answer people who keep asking me, "When are you going/coming back to the United States?" The answer is that as long as Singapore is intent on building and promoting good science, I cannot see moving anywhere else anytime soon. It is not a matter of doing science in Asia or Singapore but where facilities and funding are amenable to an environment conducive to good science in the whole world. And how many places are there in the world where you can go running year-round in safe neighborhoods, eat Western, Indian, Chinese, and a host of other cuisines, and at the same time do good science?

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