Scientist who laid groundwork for infectious diseases research receives Singapore's top science award

Professor Ranga Krishnan received a medal under the President's Science and Technology Award. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - A professor who helped lay the groundwork for research into infectious diseases in Singapore was on Friday (Dec 18) honoured for his efforts.

Professor Ranga Krishnan, 64, received a medal under the President's Science and Technology Awards - the highest form of recognition for exceptional research scientists and engineers here - from President Halimah Yacob at the Istana.

Prof Ranga, who is now chairman of the Health Ministry's (MOH) National Medical Research Council, had helped establish the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School when he was dean from 2008 to 2015.

One of the school's five signature programmes, it has since yielded many breakthroughs during various outbreaks of infectious diseases, including the current Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, researchers there have developed diagnostic test kits, treatments and even a vaccine to help the country tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

"We knew that viruses will cross from animals to humans and this was particularly a threat for our region and could have a major impact on the health and economy," Prof Ranga told The Straits Times.

"We were then lucky in being able to attract the best in this field such as Dr Wang Linfa, whose work on bat viruses, along with building the facilities, turned out to be prescient in many ways."

Prof Ranga also contributed to the development of the health and biomedical sciences sector in Singapore in other ways. For instance, he had helped to promote the translation of fundamental research into beneficial applications by strengthening partnerships between healthcare and research institutions.

Prof Ranga said he was honoured, humbled and surprised to be selected for the award.

"I have been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to build a new medical school focused on building physician scientists of the future who can tackle and solve many of the pressing problems in healthcare," he said, stressing that it had been a collaboration with many different ministries and institutions.

"I am also grateful to being able to work with the leadership at SingHealth in creating a truly world-class academic medical centre and for the opportunity to lead the National Medical Research Council in fostering medical research and funding scientists and for helping create the National Health Innovation Centre," he added.

The centre, established in 2014, provides funding to expedite the translation of an innovation towards a market-ready product.

The President's Science and Technology Awards comprise three different categories: the President's Science and Technology Medal, the President's Science Award, and the President's Technology Award.

During the event, Madam Halimah also presented the President's Science Award to the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's (A*Star) Professor Liu Jianjun, 57, and a trio from the Nanyang Technological University consisting of Professor Nikolay Zheludev, 65, Associate Professor Chong Yidong, 40, and Associate Professor Zhang Baile, 39.

The President's Technology Award went to Professor Dario Campana from NUS, who declined to reveal his age.

The winners were picked by a panel of representatives from industry, academia, and research, and hail from fields like genetic studies, immunology, and nanophotonics (the study of light on a nano scale), and their contributions towards making Singapore a world-class hub for science and technology, said A*Star.

Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, chair of the main selection committee for this year's awards, said nominations had closed in early May this year.

"At that point, many Covid-19 projects were at a relatively early stage of research or development. Next year, we look forward to reviewing nominations for Covid-19 related research, together with all other applications, that have resulted in impactful outcomes," said Prof Tan, who is also MOH's chief health scientist.

Three Young Scientist Awards were also given out by Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing during the event.

Organised by the Singapore National Academy of Science and supported by A*Star, the awards recognise the accomplishments of researchers under 35, who have shown strong potential to be world-class experts in their chosen fields.

Recipients include A*Star's Dr Chew Wei Leong, 35, for his work in gene-editing therapy, NUS' Dr John Ho, 31, for his research on developing wireless healthcare technologies and Dr Tan Si Hui,35, for her research on cancer and stem cells.

She was formerly from A*Star till late this year and is now with Cargene Therapeutics.

Madam Halimah speaking to winners of the Young Scientist Awards, (from second right) Dr Tan Si Hui, Dr John Ho and Dr Chew Wei Leong. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Congratulating the award winners, Mr Chan said the annual accolades underscore Singapore's commitment to continue in science and technology, developing its people and staying connected to the rest of the world.

The science and technology community help to make the impossible happen, he said.

"You're the ones that allow us to compete on the basis of innovation, the quality of our ideas, the quality of our products, and not compete on the basis of our size or resource endowment," he said.

"Because of your contribution to our country, we can not only manage the current Covid pandemic... But more importantly, you have allowed us to establish the foundations for the success of our future economy."

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