Thoughts on biotechnology, Singapore Week 4

Hello World!

This week was off to a great start—our journal paper on engineered skeletal muscle based bio-bots (in which I am co-first author along with a fellow lab mate) was accepted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences! It feels great to have our work recognized by such a prestigious journal and hopefully marks the start to many productive years ahead.

Now that I have been through the whole process of taking experimental data and converting it into figures and text that tell a cohesive story, I feel better prepared to turn my other experiments into the realm of published works. Better yet, I have started to develop the “thick skin” that every researcher requires when responding to the mysterious faceless peer reviewers who find flaws in our experiments!

Research is progressing at a pace that I would find quite slow at Illinois, but I have learned to deal with this in the context of working in a new lab on the other side of the world. I’ve reset the research goals for this experience based on the schedule I’m currently following, and hope to have some data to work with and process once I return to Illinois.

More on this next week, but for this entry I want to focus on Singapore’s biotechnology industry and how it interfaces with the National University of Singapore’s academic research. This train of thought was first started at a group lunch with all the students from Illinois and the director of the Mechanobiology Institute at NUS, Professor Michael Sheetz (who is also a professor at Columbia University).

During our lunch with Professor Sheetz, we talked a little “science,” but spent the majority of the time discussing the way the Mechanobiology Institute is run, how academic research is different in Singapore and Asia in general as compared to the United States, and the state of the biotechnology industry in the country at present.

This conversation was very enlightening, as Dr. Sheetz’s perspective on such topics was not very different from my own, based on my observations over the past few weeks. Though the challenges accompanying an administrative role in this field are undoubtedly different than those experienced by a student, the positives and negatives of working in this environment are triggered by the same root causes.

On the positive side, Singapore and NUS have invested a lot of money in hiring professors from internationally acclaimed universities and creating successful labs in world-class facilities. This has no doubt contributed to NUS’s quick rise to the top of the university rankings in Asia, and really sets the stage for the amazing work that can be done here in the coming years.

Counterbalancing this is the really extensive multi-layered bureaucracy that makes it difficult to do relatively straightforward things like buy lab supplies, get trained on a piece of equipment, pass all levels of safety training, etc. While these security measures are definitely important, I think the system we have in the U.S. is a little more conducive to obtaining ready access to required tools/supplies.

Of course, this comes from the perspective of someone who is more used to the American system and hence more comfortable with what seems familiar! However, I think that despite my internal bias, there are some lessons we have learned in the U.S. that would translate really well to creating a more efficient fast-paced system here. Research is becoming ever more globalized, and an integrated system that incorporates all the positive lessons learned from institutions around the world will contribute greatly to advancing STEM fields in the coming years.

I’ve spent a little time this week researching the state of the biotechnology industry in Singapore and, from conversations with students and faculty who have deeper insights into this environment, feel that there is a significant amount of potential for such an industry in Singapore (especially in terms of pure capital).

However, there is a large activation barrier that must be crossed in order to propagate the “start-up culture” that contributes many significant advances to the biotechnology industry in the U.S. Academic research has different goals and moves at a different pace from industry; once an idea reaches a certain stage of maturity, it must be transferred from the lab to an industrial incubator in order to make it marketable.

In the U.S., this culture is often concentrated around large cities and connected with renowned universities and hospitals. Singapore definitely fits these criteria and has the academic labs, facilities, hospitals, and investment capital required to initiate a start-up culture. However, developments in this industrial field are relatively nascent and I am looking forward to seeing how it will develop over the next few decades (and curious to see the role NUS plays in this transformation)!

My closest encounter with the biotechnology industry has so far been a quick tour of the “Science Park” near my dorm, which connects companies/corporations with academic research labs, and a visit to the “Biopolis,” a group of large lab buildings off campus that houses one of the branches of my lab group here. Each Biopolis building is thematically grouped by research field and run somewhat similarly to the national lab system in the U.S., fostering productive collaborations between scientists and engineers of various disciplines.

During my brief trip to the Biopolis, I had the chance to share my research and talk “shop” with one of the post-docs in our lab (originally from MIT) who does work with stem-cell derived engineered cardiac muscle. I have to say, one of the best parts of being a PhD student is talking to other motivated individuals that care about the same things you do! Conversations with people who are truly experts in their field can be both inspiring and enlightening and make me truly happy with my work.

In “fun” news, I went to a Taylor Swift concert this week (yes, there were a lot of twelve year-olds present) and am going to an Ellie Goulding concert next week—it seems like everyone is in Singapore these days!

Even better, I went to Bali, Indonesia over the weekend. It was everything that I had imagined and hoped for—intricate temples on every street, beautiful silk prints and handmaid paintings and sculptures, and soft sandy beaches with giant ocean waves! I’m absolutely astounded by the beauty that surrounds us in the world and feel really lucky to have the opportunity to experience this firsthand.

Ritu