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

Ms Sabeera Bonala had her PhD revoked after admitting that she had falsified data in her research and doctoral thesis.
Ms Sabeera Bonala had her PhD revoked after admitting that she had falsified data in her research and doctoral thesis.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/BIOSTANDSUP

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

Ms Sabeera Bonala, who received her PhD from NTU in 2013, has been investigated for academic malpractice and had her PhD revoked in March, The Straits Times understands.

This is the latest fallout in one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud in Singapore, which first came to light in July 2016. The withdrawal of Ms Bonala's qualification was first reported in Retraction Watch, a website that monitors retractions of scientific publications, on Tuesday (Oct 31).

Six research papers were retracted then, including three that had listed Ms Bonala as the first author. Two other researchers have left their posts and another one had his PhD revoked in the earlier episode.

Ms Bonala, who had been working with A*Star's Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, had her employment terminated in August last year after NTU's investigation.

The trio involved in the 2016 scandal are Professor Ravi Kambadur, who was with NTU; Dr Mridula Sharma, who was associate professor at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine; and former NTU researcher Sudarsanareddy Lokireddy, who had his PhD from NTU revoked.

Mr Lokireddy, who previously held a research fellowship at Harvard Medical School's department of cell biology, is no longer with the university.

Their 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 earlier published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, and another journal, Molecular Endocrinology. She had been a former graduate student in Prof Kambadur's lab. She is also listed as the executive director and co-founder of the website Biostandups, which publishes articles on science and biotechnology and provides information on jobs, education and training opportunities in the field.

In total, 23 authors were involved in the six retracted papers. But scientists had pointed out that not all of them may be guilty of wrongdoing, as a large-scale scientific study typically has many components and collaborators.

A wide-ranging investigation into this case of academic fraud conducted by a committee of inquiry at NTU wrapped up last year.

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".