NTU revokes former A*Star scientist's PhD for doctoring data

Ms Sabeera Bonala lost her job at A*Star's Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences last year after NTU's probe.
Ms Sabeera Bonala lost her job at A*Star's Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences last year after NTU's probe.

The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) revoked the doctorate of a former Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) scientist in March after she admitted she had falsified data in her research and doctoral thesis.

Ms Sabeera Bonala, who received her PhD at NTU in 2013 for work on myostatin, had been investigated for academic malpractice along with other researchers in one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud in Singapore.

Ms Bonala, whose age is unknown, also had her employment at A*Star's Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS) terminated in August last year after NTU's investigation.

The withdrawal of her qualification was reported on Tuesday in Retraction Watch, a website that monitors retractions of scientific publications, and which first revealed the academic scandal in July last year.

Six research papers were retracted, including three that had listed Ms Bonala as the first author.

As an immediate result of the fraud, NTU professor Ravi Kambadur was sacked from both his post at the university and his role as senior principal investigator at SICS. Dr Mridula Sharma, who was associate professor at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, also left her job. Former NTU researcher Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy had his PhD revoked by NTU.

Mr Lokireddy, who previously held a research fellowship at Harvard Medical School's department of cell biology, has also left Harvard.

In consultation with A*Star and NUS, NTU took the lead in a wide-ranging investigation conducted by a committee of inquiry. In total, 23 authors were involved in the six retracted papers, but these were the four who were punished.

The researchers' work had focused on myostatin - a protein that regulates muscle growth in humans and animals, whose suppression the researchers claimed could keep people in "fat-burning mode" and let them shed kilos. The research had been hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against killers such as obesity and diabetes.

Ms Bonala's retracted papers had been published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and another journal, Molecular Endocrinology. A former graduate student in Prof Kambadur's lab, she is now listed as the executive director and co-founder of the website Biostandups.

Mr Tony Mayer, a research integrity officer at NTU, told Retraction Watch: "PhDs once awarded are revoked only in the most serious cases and this again demonstrates that NTU's policy of zero tolerance was appropriate and necessary in this case."

A*Star said that it is "committed to the highest standards of research integrity and ethics, and has zero tolerance for any breach by its researchers".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2017, with the headline 'NTU revokes former A*Star scientist's PhD for doctoring data'. Print Edition | Subscribe