Directing Natural Product Research in Singapore: An Expatriate’s Experience

I have read the biographies and heard the stories of chemists who obtained their passion for chemistry at a young age from junior chemistry kits or home-made laboratories in the back shed. Maybe they dreamed of growing the largest CuSO4 crystals or planting stink bombs in their classrooms.

Unfortunately, this was never the case for me. But I am sure I would have enjoyed it if I had known more about it! Instead, in school and well into my first year at the University of Melbourne in 1985, my passion was for mathematics. In order to obtain a major in mathematics, I also needed to take an extra subject, which turned out to be chemistry. Ever since my first encounter with organic chemistry, I was hooked.

An Australian Beginning

Although Australia is a huge country, a majority of the population lives near the ocean, and most people spend as much time at the beach as possible. I was no exception and grew up in Geelong, which is near the Great Ocean Road and other great beaches. When I discovered that the university offered courses in marine chemistry, I decided to try to combine a love for the ocean with an interesting chemistry career.

From that time forwards I took as many organic and analytical chemistry courses as possible, with an aim toward working in marine science. I did my third-year and honours projects examining biomarker lipids from fish and sediments and spent a summer studentship at the CSIRO Division of Oceanography in Hobart working on analysis of metals in seawater.

For my PhD studies (also at the University of Melbourne), I stayed in the marine science area but moved away from purely analytical chemistry and into natural chemistry, a discipline that is more solidly based in organic chemistry. From my postdoctoral work at the Cancer Research Institute at Arizona State University in Tempe, US, to the 5 years I spent working at Griffith University's Queensland Pharmaceutical Research Institute (now called AstraZeneca R&D Griffith University) in Brisbane, Australia, my research has gravitated towards the pharmaceutical side of natural product research.

Moving to Singapore

In November 1999, I accepted the position of research leader in chemistry at the Centre for Natural Product Research (CNPR) in Singapore. My role involved leading and managing the natural product chemistry group and co-ordinating chemistry results with our research partners at GlaxoSmithKline and the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. On 1 May 2002, CNPR incorporated to become MerLion Pharmaceuticals, a home-grown Singapore drug discovery company that aims to develop new drugs for human therapy from natural product leads.

Embedded within MerLion Pharma are five groups: Bioprocessing, High Throughput Screening, Information Technology, Natural Product Chemistry, and the newly formed Medicinal Chemistry group, which play key roles in this drug discovery programme.

My current position is director of the Natural Product Chemistry group, which presently consists of 12 chemists (five other PhDs, three people with master's degrees, two B.Sc. graduates, and one technical assistant). The group's main responsibility is the isolation and structure elucidation of bioactive compounds from MerLion Pharma's large extract library, which is derived mainly from fungi, bacteria, and plants. The isolation and structural elucidation has to be done as rapidly as possible, which is achieved by using state-of-the-art techniques and working in close co-operation with the other groups in the company. The Natural Product Chemistry group has evolved into a world-class isolation and structure elucidation laboratory over the last few years. The level of expertise has enabled the corporatisation of MerLion Pharma to proceed with confidence, as this group will be responsible for providing the new drug leads.

Although my role in the group is mostly supervisory, whenever it is possible I like to get back into the lab and purify compounds. I also have a role in the structural elucidation of natural products and implementation of new methods and technologies in the laboratory, as well as the finances of the group. My other research interests involve the separation of compounds using liquid-liquid chromatography, large-scale isolation of natural products, absolute stereochemistry determination by derivatisation, the history of natural product research, and the development of natural product leads into pharmaceuticals.

Why I Came

Although there is no single reason why I decided to move to Singapore, a major incentive was the opportunity to run my own research group. Despite having a rewarding job in Brisbane, I had no realistic chance of becoming group leader in the foreseeable future. Another reason to move was the opportunity to work in a country that is actively promoting science, which is the opposite of what is happening in many other countries. Singapore is an exciting place to do research because science has been targeted as key to the country?s future development. This is especially so in the life sciences area, where many research opportunities are available in institutes, universities, and companies.

On the chemistry side, although most jobs in Singapore are in analytical laboratories, there are more and more chemistry R&D jobs available all the time. This is due to the realisation that novel, small molecules need to be developed to help complement and stimulate the life science initiative. A postgraduate medicinal chemistry course has been proposed at the National University of Singapore that will aim to help meet an anticipated increase in demand for chemists.

In the future, research in Singapore will expand, with an ever-increasing number of new companies and institutes. Coupled with the expansion of many existing companies and institutes, this provides real opportunities for top-quality research and career advancement. The clustering of these universities, institutes, and companies around the Biopolis, Singapore's new biomedical hub, will even further foster the already good environment for scientific work.

Reflections on Life in Singapore

Truth be told, it was not only the professional opportunities that prompted me to move to Singapore. Another thing that influenced my move was the opportunity to live overseas again. I enjoyed my time living in the United States and was keen to experience a new and different culture in Singapore. However, with this change in lifestyle came some inevitable challenges that arise from working and living in an Asian country. Although Singapore is probably the easiest country in Asia to live in as an expat, due the high standard of living and widespread use of English, there is always an inevitable dose of culture shock. One must get used to a slightly different work ethic and dealing with "loss of face" when managing staff. However, exercising patience and learning how to handle oneself usually resolves the problems that arise.

Many people find it difficult to get used to changing from travelling in their own car and living in a house to travelling by bus and taxi and living in a large apartment complex in Singapore. I have coped well enough without a car, but I didn?t particularly enjoy living in a condominium. So late last year I moved into a 'black and white' apartment. These apartments (and houses), which were built by the British during colonial times, get their name from the colours they are painted. The nicest thing about them is that they surrounded by tall trees and lots of space, which is rare in Singapore.

One facet of Singapore that it is impossible to escape is the weather. There are two kinds: 'hot and humid' and 'hot and wet,' which can take a while to get used to. Although I have experienced plenty of hot weather in my time, at least in Phoenix and Brisbane it cooled down enough for a couple of months in a year to be called 'winter.' I have found that I?m adjusting and the heat is becoming bearable. However, if you can?t adjust, you can always spend as much time as possible in air-conditioning.

Another positive aspect of Singapore is the friendliness of most people you meet. I have made many good friends, both local and expatriates, who have made my time here most enjoyable. Finally, I also like eating the local food, which is varied, always tasty, and quite often very spicy. Chili for breakfast is quite common!

So if you?re thinking about moving to Singapore, you can take it from me--it?s definitely a 'hot' place to be!

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