Settling in, Singapore Week 1

Hello World! (Yes, this programming reference is completely intentional.)

I’ve successfully finished my first week as a visiting research scholar in the Mechanobiology Institute (MBI) at the National University of Singapore (NUS)!

The most important research accomplishment for this week was completing most of the paperwork and safety training required for access to work in the labs here. Safety training was exactly what I expected (and have heard many times previously), but adherence to safety protocols is not quite universal in the labs. I usually wear personal protective equipment/PPE (lab coat, long pants, close-toed shoes, and safety glasses) while in BSL2 (biosafety level 2) facilities… but at least half the researchers in labs here were missing a few of those things!

The spectacular view from Ritu's office and lab.
The spectacular view from MBI

Based on my observations and conversations with researchers here, I think this can be attributed to: 1) The incredibly hot and humid weather that discourages wearing anything but shorts and sandals, and 2) The safety regulations are fairly new and in the beginning stages of strict implementation. I have to admit, it was somewhat tempting to follow their example and wear shorts and sandals in the lab, but attending training reaffirmed the many lab hazards I have to protect myself from! I’ve compromised by changing into lab clothes when I enter MBI.

I shipped several samples and reagents from Illinois, and ordered a few things from our lab manager here, and everything seems to be falling into place (with a few minor mishaps – dry ice has a tendency to evaporate when it isn’t shipped at the right temperature!)

I’ve started a few minor experiments that should help me establish new protocols that I can translate back to Illinois, but I’m forcing myself to “set the bar low.” After all, I’m only here for six weeks, and if two years in graduate school has taught me anything, it’s that six weeks is a very short time to get useful data! Throw in the fact that I’m on another continent, in another university, and biological research makes a point of being unreliable… and, well, you see my point. It’s more important to have one or two well-planned experiments than to try too many ambitious projects that fail simultaneously!

Forest of sustainable “super trees” in Singapore

My mentor here is a post-doc in our lab (PI: Prof. Hanry Yu, Laboratory for Cellular and Tissue Engineering) and he’s introduced us (myself and a fellow Illinois student/lab-mate) to a few of the graduate students here. Apparently, Prof. Yu has three or four different labs spread across campus! I’ve seen two of them so far (the one at MBI and another one at the medical school) and the facilities seem nice.

From my limited observations, I think the equipment is of similar caliber to what we have in Illinois, but there’s just a lot more of it! Ten incubators instead of two, several high-powered confocal microscopes, etc. You would think this would mean equipment is always available, but quite the contrary! It’s harder to book time on these machines than it is at Illinois, which is quite frustrating as I’m used to taking up lots of time/space in the Bionanotechnology Lab at Illinois’ MNTL facility.

I’ve explored all of the main NUS campus in my first week and I love everything I’ve seen! The campus is really beautiful and very well kept and a walking tour of the buildings has completely explained why this is the top-ranked university in Asia. They have a lot of money, resources, and the benefits of being affiliated with a big city and I think I would have been very happy as a student here.

I saw a poster in the Mechanical Engineering building (which was one of the first buildings I explored, like a homing pigeon) that said “NUS students love studying abroad in… the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign!” This made me laugh out loud (and get a few curious stares from passerby… but I’m used to that by now).

Laser light show against the Singapore skyline.
Laser light show against the Singapore skyline

I talked to a couple graduate students here and they seem to think Illinois is a really great place (which it is!) and want to post-doc in “the States.” Some of them even complained that Singapore can get boring after you explore the city and the surrounding countries (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.)… Clearly, they have never been to Champaign-Urbana! I wonder what they would think of our corn fields.

The cultural acclimation has been a fairly smooth process (acclimation to the weather much less so – it’s so hot and humid and rainy!). Singapore is a lot like America in terms of infrastructure, etc., and mainly influenced by Chinese, Malaysian, and South Indian cultures. As a person who has lived in both South India and America, it’s been a pretty comfortable blend of culture!

Finding vegetarian food has been a tiny bit of a hassle, but that’s true pretty much anywhere I travel. I’ve tried to keep an open mind and try different (vegetarian) cuisines, and that’s been working out pretty deliciously (and cheaply!). I keep telling myself that I’ll use this trip as an opportunity to practice speaking Tamil and Hindi with the folks here, but I’ve been too shy to try so far. Besides, I feel like people are more patient with me because of my American accent and obviously foreign ways! Maybe this is a challenge for the upcoming weeks.

View of the Singapore skyline.
View of the Singapore skyline

I’ve bought myself an “Easy Link” pass that lets me travel on the buses and subway and have been using this to get around and explore the city. I’ve seen some absolutely amazing things (the famous Merlion statue, gigantic super-expensive malls at Marina Bay, a forest of sustainable “super trees,” a laser light show against the Singapore skyline, nightlife at Clarke Quay by the Singapore River, and so on…) and can’t wait to keep exploring! It’s great to be here with five other Illinois graduate students who are working at MBI—I have friends to work with and enjoy life-after-work with! We are all also living in the same dorm. Couldn’t ask for more.

My goals for next week are to spend a little more time in lab (jet lag is no longer an excuse) and reach out to Prof. Michael Sheetz (the director of MBI who is also a professor at Columbia and who we have all met during his multiple visits to Illinois) and to get in touch with other Illinois folks who are at NUS. Can’t wait to keep exploring!