Issue Date: February 27, 2006
A Magnet For Talent
Singapore has successfully made itself into a manufacturing hub, but this island nation wants to be more than just the place where final products are made. It wants to be the place where those products are discovered or invented.
Singapore, though, knows that success takes more than wishing. Before companies will move existing research operations to Singapore or establish new ones there, the country must show that it has a research infrastructure of its own that can provide a creative community. To build that infrastructure, the Ministry of Trade & Industry has invested in setting up research institutes in the physical and biomedical sciences that can conduct cutting-edge research of their own and develop the scientific talent pool needed to populate public- and private-sector research labs.
The most visible symbol of Singapore's commitment is the research complex Biopolis. It creates a critical mass of scientists by bringing together a large population of biomedical researchers in a single place. This development currently comprises seven interconnected buildings housing the biomedical research institutes of the Agency for Science, Technology & Research (A*STAR), which is part of the Ministry of Trade & Industry and sister agency to the Economic Development Board. It also houses biomedical tenants from the private sector. Commercial space was so popular in the two buildings set aside for the private sector that a second phase, slated for completion later this year, is already under construction.
The researchers themselves, however, are the most important component of this new research environment. Singapore is drawing scientists at all stages of their careers and from all parts of the globe to jump-start the country's scientific enterprise. They come for a variety of reasons, some universal, some unique. The most powerful attractive force is the vast amount of funding-running into billions of Singaporean dollars over the next five years-that Singapore is pouring into basic and applied research.
A number of prominent scientists have taken leadership positions at Singapore's research institutes. Some are doing so without cutting ties to their previous employers. For example, Sir David Lane, the British molecular biologist known as the codiscoverer of the p53 tumor suppressor gene, has taken an extended sabbatical leave from the University of Dundee, in Scotland, to serve as executive director of the Institute of Molecular & Cell Biology (IMCB), the oldest institute at Biopolis, having been established in a different form in 1987. Lane maintains his research group at Dundee. "It's very straightforward," he says. "E-mail, videoconferences, and fairly frequent flying around make it work."
Lane was attracted by the "scale of the opportunity." He first met people from Singapore when he started the biotech company Cyclacel, which the government of Singapore invested in. Through that endeavor he met Philip Yeo, the chairman of A*STAR. At first, Lane served as the chairman of IMCB's scientific advisory board, but A*STAR soon asked him to be the executive director.
"Initially, I thought I couldn't do it, but about a year-and-a-half ago, it became very apparent that it was possible," Lane says. His wife, Birgitte, also a scientist, "was keen and interested" to move to Singapore, Lane says.
Lane has been in Singapore full-time since January 2005 but makes occasional trips back to the U.K. to visit his research group at Dundee. When C&EN visited him, he had just returned the previous day from such a trip, looking none the worse for 12 hours on a plane or the eight-hour time difference.
Lane was particularly intrigued by IMCB's zebrafish facility because he is interested in using the species as a model organism for cancer research. The species is attractive for such work because the embryos develop rapidly and transparently, making them easy to observe.
The zebrafish facility, which consists of row upon row of tanks of varying sizes housing more than 10,000 zebrafish, is just one of the scientific resources shared by the institutes. Other facilities include DNA sequencing, proteomics, and X-ray and microscopy instrumentation.
Lane, as well as the executive directors at other institutes, finds the freedom from writing grant proposals refreshing. Money is instead provided in five-year cycles. "You have a sense, provided you're doing good work, that the project will be funded for five years," Lane says. Researchers can then take on "real challenges" because they're not spending time writing grants.
In line with A*STAR's economic mission, Lane is leading a development group at IMCB that can validate newly discovered targets and assays and ready them for potential application in the commercial sector. As part of that effort, the institute bought a compound collection and has been given access to the natural products library at MerLion Pharmaceuticals, a locally based company.
For Jackie Y. Ying, executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering & Nanotechnology (IBN), the move to Singapore was something of a homecoming. Originally from Taiwan, she spent much of her childhood in Singapore before her family moved to the U.S. while she was in high school. Prior to becoming IBN's executive director, Ying was a professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she maintains her ties as an adjunct professor.
Ying was given freedom to structure the institute as she chose. She had initially been asked to set up an institute focusing on bioengineering, but she asked to add nanotechnology to the institute's purview. "We want to create a niche," she says. She chose six focus areas for IBN: drug delivery, cell and tissue engineering, artificial organs and implants, medical and biological devices, biological and biomedical imaging, and nanobiotechnology. Within the bounds of those areas, the researchers are free to shape their own programs, and several work in multiple areas.
In determining the direction of the institute, she took her cues from her experience at MIT. "We look at problems that have fundamental interest but at the same time also have tremendous commercial potential," she says.
Like Lane, she finds the five-year financial commitments liberating. "If you want to do research and you consider other things as distractions, there are really no distractions [here]," she says. There are no teaching requirements, although many researchers have adjunct appointments at one of Singapore's two major universities.
Ying has been impressed by the speed and efficiency with which A*STAR accomplishes its goals. Within a year of hiring Ying, IBN was up and running at its new digs in, appropriately enough, the Nanos building at Biopolis. "We had a lot of resources to set it up very quickly," Ying says.
Ying sees IBN's mission as providing international leadership in bioengineering and nanotechnology, creating intellectual property, and developing a talent pool. The Singaporean government doesn't expect the institute itself to generate large revenues, she says. Instead, the institute will help foster new industry.
Ying points out that the ratio of expatriate and Singaporean researchers at IBN and other institutes is about three to one, a ratio that training provided by the institutes should help change. "In previous years, there was no concerted effort to push people to do a Ph.D. There was no local industry that required that level of qualification," she says. That's changing, however, and IBN and the other institutes are helping to train those students. In addition to the permanent staff, about 30 graduate students do research at IBN, and the institute works with students in high school and junior high school.
Chemist K. C. Nicolaou is lending Singapore his name recognition through the Chemical Synthesis Laboratory (CSL) at Biopolis. Nicolaou is the director of CSL, which was announced in January 2005 and officially opened in November. CSL is unusual in that it is located in Biopolis even though it is part of the Institute of Chemical & Engineering Sciences (ICES), one of the institutes under the umbrella of the Science & Engineering Research Council (SERC) rather than the Biomedical Research Council, which governs all the other institutes in Biopolis.
As with many of the top leaders at Biopolis and the SERC institutes, Nicolaou was personally courted by Philip Yeo. Nicolaou already had appointments with both Scripps Research Institute and the University of California, San Diego, neither of which he wanted to give up. He comes to Singapore several times a year for about a week at a time, but David Chen, a former postdoc with Nicolaou who moved from Merck, oversees CSL's day-to-day operations.
Nicolaou believes that the "timing is perfect" to start a synthesis lab at Biopolis. "The biology was already here. It was here five years before we came," he says. "If you delayed longer, you would lose opportunities. If you want biotechnology, you can't do it without chemistry these days."
Nicolaou passionately embraces the interface of chemistry and biology. "Our objective is to integrate chemistry with biology. At the same time, we want to make sure we are not only servicing biology," he says. "We want to make sure we are viewed as pioneers in chemistry and to advance the art of chemical synthesis for its own sake."
Like IBN, CSL has moved quickly from idea to reality. Nicolaou's appointment as head of the laboratory was announced in January 2005, when the lab was no more than an empty shell. Now, the lab is tricked out with everything an organic chemist could want, including its own instrumentation lab and an 800-MHz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer. Right now, the lab seems cavernous, as the four postdocs who are already there rattle around in a space outfitted to accommodate as many as 30 scientists, each with his or her own fume hood. "That's quite a luxury compared to the days when I was doing research with two people squeezed into one fume hood," Chen remarks.
Nicolaou and Chen continue to recruit to bring the lab up to its full complement of chemists. They already have acceptances from 15 additional postdocs, who will start at different times during the next year.
Nicolaou has felt no pressure to generate patents and money immediately. "If they want me to discover something that will make money tomorrow, I think they will find that they came to the wrong person," he says. "I'm very happy and motivated to set the foundation for those discoveries."
He's on the lookout for potential drugs as well. "If we stumble upon a drug candidate, we're not going to ignore it. We're certainly going to advance it and put it in the right hands-the biologists and pharmacologists-and move it forward."
Another foreign-born talent is Keith Carpenter, recruited to head ICES. Carpenter is from the U.K., where he worked for 25 years for ICI and its descendants. When he first considered the move to Singapore, people asked him why he wanted to leave a highly paid, widely recognized job in a global organization. "The thing that always struck me about research outside of industry was that nowhere was there an organization that had chemistry and chemical engineering, the whole range of scales-from lab through kilogram manufacturing, from synthesis through formulation-all together in one place," Carpenter says. At ICES, he does have that range of scales available. "There are so many advantages and opportunities that you get from being able to do that. Singapore basically gave me the opportunity to do that. You only get that kind of opportunity once."
Singapore is attracting an international talent pool not just for its top ranks but for all levels of research.
When Lance D. Miller was first approached about joining the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) in 2000, he wasn't even sure where Singapore was. He and his wife agonized for months over the decision to move their family halfway around the world. They finally decided they wouldn't go, but they didn't tell anybody about their decision. Less than a week later, with the intense pressure lifted, they reconsidered and reversed themselves.
Now, Miller is the senior group leader in microarray and expression genomics at GIS, where he has been since June 2001. He was recruited by Edison Liu, executive director of GIS, to set up the institute's microarray facility and research group. In the U.S., Miller had already followed Liu from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where Liu was Miller's graduate adviser, to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Miller set up a similar facility at NCI, where he progressed from grad student to staff scientist.
From most viewpoints, Miller couldn't be happier with his decision. "After five years, I love working here," he says. "This is my dream job, in terms of how young I am in my career, the level of science and accomplishment that can be achieved here, and the high position I hold." At 35, he is the youngest senior group leader at GIS. "When I first took that role, my feet barely fit those shoes," he says. "I've had to carefully watch myself from the outside and make sure I was maturing at a fast rate. I didn't want my peers to look around and say, 'Hey, why is that guy a senior group leader? What's so special about him?' I've worked hard to excel in this position. With that has come a lot of rewards."
Miller has been especially pleased with the support for microarray technology, which he says "is the perfect example of an interdisciplinary technology. To truly do it right, you have to combine good scientific practice with strong analytical skills, involving statistics, informatics, and advanced mathematics, which I'm not trained in." He has found collaborators in all those areas in Singapore, in both Biopolis and the nearby universities.
No matter how much they love Singapore, many expatriates find being so far from home a thorny issue. For example, Alan Sellinger, a deputy cluster manager in molecular and performance materials at the Institute of Materials Research & Engineering (IMRE), comments that it takes 23 hours door-to-door when he visits his family in Ann Arbor, Mich. Miller and his wife also worry about how far they are from their families back in North Carolina. For both of these scientists, family concerns are the only thing they see right now that could eventually beckon them back to the U.S. For now, though, Miller feels like he's "on the crest of a wave," and he'll stay in Singapore as long as he's riding that wave.
Singapore is building its research infrastructure in the physical sciences as well. Seven research institutes exist under the umbrella of SERC, which is headed by Chong Tow Chong, who also is executive director of the subsidiary Data Storage Institute.
The SERC institutes, including ICES, have a closer relationship with industry than do the Biomedical Research Council institutes. For example, at ICES, many of the projects are selected with the specific needs of industry in mind. "Our core research programs are in areas that we believe are of significance to the development of chemistry in the region and particularly to the chemical-based part of the Singapore economy," says ICES Executive Director Carpenter.
"We tend to recruit people who are driven by doing science that's relevant," Carpenter says. "For us in A*STAR, it has to have some potential commercial outcome. We always ask the question: When this works, who will be interested? Is it really likely to be relevant to the world and society?"
ICES currently has 186 people on staff, including 179 at its main site on Jurong Island, which was reclaimed and developed for the express purpose of attracting chemical manufacturing. The other seven are at CSL, Nicolaou's lab, in Biopolis. The goal is 220, with 200 at Jurong and 20 at Biopolis, Carpenter says. ICES continues to recruit to meet those levels, with the expectation of about a 10% turnover rate among the younger scientists. ICES treats all of its scientists as permanent staff, making no distinction between postdocs and other researchers. Scientists are initially brought in on three-year contracts, with the expectation of renewing the contracts if all goes well.
ICES is a bit behind schedule in recruiting its full complement. Originally, the target of 200 at Jurong was to be met last year, but the organization has deliberately slowed down because it changed some of its research directions, doing more work associated with energy and the environment, alternative feedstocks, and methane conversion. "We are moving further back from process into discovery than we had originally intended," Carpenter says. "We've taken time to recruit the right people."
The crystallization area is particularly difficult to staff, Carpenter says. "That's a very important program for us because controlling the size, shape, form, and nature of surfaces of active ingredients for specialties or personal care or pharmaceuticals is a big, new, developing area," he says. "There aren't many well-trained people with those skills around the world."
Reginald B. Tan, program manager for the crystallization program, echoes those sentiments. There are 22 people in the program, when the target is 30 to 35. Companies quickly snap up the few Ph.D. scientists in the field, Tan says. They are trying to "grow their own" Ph.D. scientists instead. Four students from the National University of Singapore, where Tan is also on the chemical engineering faculty, are involved in the crystallization program. Of course, when the students finish, ICES will have to compete against companies to retain them. For now, Singapore must rely heavily on imported talent, who come because the attractions are many.
Chai Li Lin (Christina) came to ICES after 10 years as an academic at Australian National University, in Canberra. At first, she thought the industry focus might be restrictive, but she has found that it doesn't differ much from modern academia. "If you look at the way academia is now, you can't do completely blue-sky research anyway. You need to have a good reason why you're doing it."
One of the reasons Chai left academia was to escape the constant pressure to find funding. She was tenured in Australia, so she could have remained there indefinitely. "There is a time in your life when you think: 'What if you had the money? Could you really do it?'" she says. "I want to see if I can do this when there are no barriers. There will be no excuse. If I fail, it's not because I don't have the money." In Australia, she focused on medicinal chemistry. Now, she is the program manager for new synthesis techniques at ICES, and she holds an honorary adjunct appointment at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore.
Most expat researchers come to Singapore for the job, but Michael B. Sullivan is a little different. When he got his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, he never thought he would leave the U.S. Then an ideal postdoctoral opportunity came up in Australia. During that postdoc, he met a Singaporean woman, now his wife, while vacationing in Tasmania. That chance meeting changed any thoughts he might have had about coming back to the U.S. Now, he is a research engineer at the Institute of High Performance Computing.
Scientifically, he's happy where he landed. The institute is home to powerful computing resources that Sullivan can use for computational materials research. His group uses as much as half the computer time on the institute's computers. In one project, his group used computational methods to develop a new lead-free solder for the electronics industry. "If I went somewhere else, I might not have that luxury of computer time," he says. "We don't have this computing resource [so that geeks can] run little codes and optimize this and that. It's more application based."
Low Hong Yee, on the other hand, came to Singapore to find a balance between academic and industial research. When Low, a researcher in the molecular and performance materials cluster at IMRE, graduated from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, she jumped at an opportunity to take a job with Motorola back in her native Malaysia. However, she quickly realized that she disliked the environment, which was oriented toward heavy manufacturing and was not conducive to R&D. She came to Singapore because it offered a good environment for doing research. She also received an offer in Japan, but she was uncomfortable with the environment there, which seemed to her quite unequal for men and women.
Low describes Singapore as a "dynamic place to work." She enjoys her work at IMRE, but she doesn't rule out the possibility of moving back to industry if a job with the right "scope" comes along, particularly as companies in Singapore move up the research value chain.
Singapore has successfully attracted scientists from around the world, but it wants to have a supply of homegrown talent as well. One way that it is developing local talent is through quite generous A*STAR fellowships and the A*STAR Graduate Academy. For example, the National Science Scholarships pay for the recipient's entire education from B.S. to Ph.D., up to eight years. (Students are expected to finish their undergraduate degree in three years.) In return, the students must fulfill a six-year commitment to work in Singapore, including a one-year stint between undergrad and graduate school at an A*STAR research institute.
Is Singapore too good to be true? Most scientists that C&EN spoke with had nothing but praise for the country and its current efforts. Will Singapore succeed in turning itself into a scientific powerhouse? The signs look promising, but the answer lies in the future.
Hands-on The Singapore-MIT Alliance gives students practical experience. Here, a student checks on a 30-L microbial fermenter.
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