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A medical school that works – and grows – together

By encouraging collaboration and innovation among its staff, Duke-NUS Medical School is able to bring out the best in them

Duke-NUS strives to bring a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives into Singapore’s biomedical ecosystem. (From L-R):  Assistant Professor Rena Dharmawan, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, CTeD; Associate Professor Ong Sin Tiong, Cancer and Stem Cell B
Duke-NUS strives to bring a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives into Singapore’s biomedical ecosystem. (From L-R): Assistant Professor Rena Dharmawan, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, CTeD; Associate Professor Ong Sin Tiong, Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Programme; Mr Mohammad Faris Mohd Ibrahim, Executive, Health Services and Systems Research Programme, Professor Thomas Coffman, Dean of Duke-NUS and Ms Karen Chang, Senior Vice Dean & Group Director of Corporate Services. PHOTO: DUKE-NUS MEDICAL SCHOOL

At Duke-NUS Medical School, collaboration is not limited to the four walls of the research lab or classroom – rather, it is an attitude on which the whole institution is built. This philosophy also extends to its staff rooms.

This collaboration-centric approach has played no small part in Duke-NUS’ ranking of fourth in the Education category on the Singapore's Best Employers 2021 list.

“We strive to bring a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives into Singapore’s biomedical ecosystem.

"We are very pleased to be included in Singapore’s Best Employers 2021 ranking as we have been focused on nurturing and retaining our talented staff by instilling a culture of inquisitiveness, harnessing diversity and collaboration to achieve greater goals,” says Professor Thomas Coffman, dean of Duke-NUS. 


Prof Thomas Coffman says the school has been focused on nurturing and retaining talented staff by instilling a culture of inquisitiveness, harnessing diversity and collaboration to achieve greater goals. PHOTO: DUKE-NUS MEDICAL SCHOOL

“With the dedication and commitment of our people, Duke-NUS will strive to remain an employer of choice in Singapore as we continue our journey of transforming medicine and improving lives.”

“There is definitely a sense of common purpose that is encapsulated in our school vision,” adds Associate Professor Ong Sin Tiong, Principal Investigator (PI) for the Programme in Cancer and Stem Cell Biology in Duke-NUS’ Office of Research. 

"There is a strong culture of openness in the school,” he notes, adding that he and his fellow PIs all know one another by name and face. 

“We are not only aligned with respect to realising the vision of the school, but also have an inherently high level of trust between one another and other departments.”

This spirit of collaboration is keenly felt by the rest of the School. In Prof Ong’s experience, seniors would voluntarily review the junior faculty’s grants and papers before submission, as well as give them one-to-one close counselling and mentorship when preparing dossiers for promotion and tenure assessments. 

“It is a supportive, collegial environment with a true commitment to in-depth thinking and creating more enduring impact in science and clinical care,” he adds. 

Collaboration is essential in Duke-NUS’ “bench-to-bedside” mission of translating research into tangible medical outcomes, Prof Ong explains. For instance, many scientists and researchers may not be familiar with how to translate a scientific breakthrough into a marketable treatment.

This is where the Duke-NUS Centre for Technology and Development (CTeD) comes in. An essential partner for many scientists and researchers, the CTeD assesses the value of their discoveries and sets them on a pathway to commercial and clinical development.

“CTeD has and continues to be a huge help in guiding the development of translating important findings into treatments that can help patients,” says Prof Ong.


At Duke-NUS Medical School, scientists collaborate across research areas and with people throughout the School to make greater things happen. PHOTO: DUKE-NUS MEDICAL SCHOOL

Spurred to push the envelope

As is to be expected from a medical school at the cutting edge of medical technology and research, innovation is the other hallmark of the workplace culture at Duke-NUS. 

“One important aspect of Duke-NUS’ workplace and educational philosophy is the high level of alignment across the school in the pursuit of excellence and innovation,” says Assistant Professor Rena Dharmawan of Clinical Innovation at Duke-NUS, and consultant surgeon at the National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS).

“Employees and students are encouraged and recognised to push boundaries and pursue their passions in different aspects in support of the development of the biomedical ecosystem here.”

An alumna of Duke-NUS, Assistant Prof Dharmawan is perhaps the best example of the institution’s commitment to innovation.

During her time as a student, she was immersed in an environment where she and her peers were encouraged to pursue interests beyond that of the school curriculum. 

“This nurturing environment and ‘dare-to-be-different’ culture allowed me to pursue my passion in medical device and medtech innovation,” she says.

Under Duke-NUS’ Entrepreneur-in-Residence Programme, she has also been able to work on various medtech projects in an environment in which they could blossom.

Having co-founded two start-ups, Assistant Prof Dharmawan was also instrumental in a collaboration between Duke-NUS, NCCS, Singapore General Hospital and local robotics company Biobot Surgical in the creation of SwabBot, a robot that can perform nasal swabs for Covid-19 tests.

“Duke-NUS offers a very personalised faculty development approach that strongly takes into consideration the faculty’s real interest, and how the school can help in their career development,” she says.

Now, in her role as a faculty member, she is able to pay it forward by giving support to aspiring, entrepreneurial and compassionate future clinicians to create companies that can help address today and future’s healthcare challenges. 


Duke-NUS scientists developed a SARS-CoV-2 neutralising antibody test, cPassTM, which became the first neutralising antibody test to receive Emergency Use Authorisation from the US Food & Drug Administration. PHOTO: DUKE-NUS MEDICAL SCHOOL

Equal opportunities for all

Non-faculty staff also have career development opportunities. One of them is Mr Mohammad Faris Mohd Ibrahim, an administrator at Duke-NUS’ Health Systems and Service Research Programme, who was able to expand his skill set and improve his productivity. 

His job as a grant administrator involves keeping records of budget utilisation and expenditure for over 50 research grants, alongside other tasks such as procurement and events management. 

Always looking to streamline his workflow, Mr Faris frequently makes use of Duke-NUS’ many training opportunities -- the most recent was a five-week data literacy programme. 

The skills he acquired in the programme led him to successfully build a system that automatically tracked budget utilisation, one of many innovations he has since implemented into his daily workflow. 

Mr Faris credits this as part of the reason he was given the institution’s Administrative Achievement Award 2020, despite his position as a junior executive and having worked there for only two years. 

“Duke-NUS recognises the efforts and contribution of each of its staff fairly, regardless of whether you are a researcher or an administrator,” he says. 

“I feel rewarded, that I am being taken care of and that I belong. These are important factors which truly set Duke-NUS apart from others.” 

“We continually focus on our employees’ well-being, value their honest feedback, and support their professional growth and career development,” says Ms Karen Chang, senior vice-dean and group director of the Office of Corporate Services at Duke-NUS Medical School.

“Our faculty, clinicians, staff and students collectively make greater things happen at Duke-NUS every day.”