Two top scientists to step down from key A*Star posts

Professor Birgitte Lane will relinquish her post as head of the Institute of Medical Biology, but she will still run the Epithelial Biology Lab in IMB and serve as Skin Research Institute of Singapore's chief scientist. Professor Jackie Ying will giv
Professor Birgitte Lane will relinquish her post as head of the Institute of Medical Biology, but she will still run the Epithelial Biology Lab in IMB and serve as Skin Research Institute of Singapore's chief scientist.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA
Professor Birgitte Lane will relinquish her post as head of the Institute of Medical Biology, but she will still run the Epithelial Biology Lab in IMB and serve as Skin Research Institute of Singapore's chief scientist. Professor Jackie Ying will giv
Professor Jackie Ying will give up her post as executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, but will continue research as an A*Star senior fellow and lead the new NanoBio Lab.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
American scientist Edison Liu
American scientist Edison Liu
American husband-and-wife team Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins
American husband-and-wife team Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins
Sir David Lane
Sir David Lane
Dr Judith Swain and Dr Edward Holmes
Dr Judith Swain and Dr Edward Holmes

Duo will remain with agency but no longer helm research institutes

Two scientists wooed here to drive Singapore's biomedical push are relinquishing key leadership positions at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) after more than a decade helming major research institutes.

Professor Jackie Ying, executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), and Professor Birgitte Lane, head of the Institute of Medical Biology (IMB), will step down on March 31 next year, an A*Star spokesman said in response to queries from The Straits Times.

While they will continue as senior A*Star scientists and run their own labs, they will no longer have a say in how the institutes are run, or their research direction.

The announcement of the move on Wednesday caught scientists off guard, with some expressing uncertainty over how their own work would be affected.

Both women belong to a pool of top researchers, also known as "whales". Many were wooed here by former A*Star chairman Philip Yeo from all over the world to kick-start Singapore's foray into the biomedical sciences, dating back almost two decades.

They are also among the last big names within this group to be heading research institutes.

The leadership changes come at a time when A*Star - the lead public-sector agency spearheading Singapore's research and development - is undergoing major restructuring, including reviewing its funding mechanism. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had said earlier this year that this will enable A*Star to keep up with a changing biomedical industry.

  • Star researchers from abroad

  • Here are some of the other top-notch hires in the biomedical sciences scene - some have left Singapore while others have remained in other positions.

    American scientist Edison Liu, a world leader in cancer research and genomics, left in 2011 after 10 years of building the Genome Institute of Singapore from scratch. He moved here in 2001, and is considered the first star researcher to land on Singapore's shores. He is now president at the Jackson Laboratory, a well-known cancer research institute in the US.

    American husband-and-wife team Neal Copeland and Nancy Jenkins left the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB) in 2011 after five years. Dr Copeland was IMCB's executive director and Dr Jenkins was deputy director of IMCB's genetics and genomics division. The internationally acclaimed scientists, who have identified hundreds of genes that cause cancer, moved to Texas, where they co-head a cancer research laboratory at Houston Methodist Research Institute.

    Sir David Lane, who is A*Star's chief scientist, was executive director of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology from 2004 to 2007. He and his wife, Professor Birgitte Lane, originally from the University of Dundee in Scotland, came to Singapore in 2005 to help shore up Singapore's biomedical scene. Sir David, who was knighted in 2000 for his efforts in cancer research, is one of the scientists who discovered a tumour-suppressing gene, called p53, in 1979. The mutations in this gene are known to cause almost half of all human cancers.

    Dr Judith Swain and Dr Edward Holmes, a prominent scientist couple from the University of California, San Diego, were recruited in 2006 to join A*Star. Dr Swain, a specialist in cardiology, was founding executive director of the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences for seven years. They are now both senior fellows at A*Star. Dr Holmes is also executive deputy chairman of the Biomedical Research Council, Singapore.

    Amelia Teng

LEADERSHIP CONCERNS

The departure of these very high-profile scientists is regrettable, and I am not entirely clear why this happened... I hope this will not negatively impact the ability of A*Star to attract the best leaders, with international reputation.

PROFESSOR ALEX MATTER, chief executive of A*Star's Experimental Therapeutics Centre and Drug Discovery and Development Unit.

A*Star said it has appointed two covering executive directors for IMB and IBN from April next year - Professor Zee Upton, currently deputy executive director (industry) and a research director at IMB, and Dr Ichiro Hirao, currently team leader and principal research scientist at IBN.

Commenting on her move, Prof Ying, 51, told The Straits Times: "I feel very torn because I have so much vested in this institute. I've been here for almost 15 years, and the labs and institute (have been) all built from scratch."

The US citizen and Singapore permanent resident, who came over from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2003, has led IBN from the start. Under her leadership, the institute has conducted interdisciplinary research across science, engineering and medicine, with the aim of improving healthcare and quality of life.

IBN has more than 680 patents and patent applications, established 13 spin-off companies and published more than 1,300 papers in academic journals.

Prof Ying, who on Tuesday was named a fellow of the prestigious United States National Academy of Inventors, said she will continue research as an A*Star senior fellow and will lead the new NanoBio Lab, which will focus on nanotechnology and biotechnology.

Her own research group - comprising 25 researchers from IBN - will join her in this lab, which remains in the same Biopolis building. She will also be working on raising private funds for an incubator to help spin off companies in the medtech and biotech sectors.

Prof Lane, 66, a skin cell scientist, has been with IMB since its creation in 2006. The institute has played a key role in building bridges between basic science and clinical medicine. She said: "I feel very proud of what IMB has become. The institute now has a superb team of very smart people, very clever women and men from many countries, who have dedicated themselves to building productive biomedical sciences in Singapore."

She and her husband, Sir David Lane - who is currently A*Star's chief scientist - were originally from Scotland's University of Dundee. Sir David was the head of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology from 2004 to 2007.

Prof Lane said she will continue to run her own research programme, the Epithelial Biology Lab, in IMB, and serve as chief scientist of the Skin Research Institute of Singapore.

When contacted, some in the scientific community said they were worried about both scientists' bowing out of key positions.

Professor Alex Matter, chief executive of A*Star's Experimental Therapeutics Centre and Drug Discovery and Development Unit, said: "The departure of these very high-profile scientists is regrettable, and I am not entirely clear why this happened... I hope this will not negatively impact the ability of A*Star to attract the best leaders, with international reputation."

Commenting on the development, Mr Yeo, who is now chairman of Spring Singapore, said: "For any organisation to remain relevant, especially in a fast-changing technology scene, timely leadership succession must be carefully deliberated, consulted and humanely effected.

"It should apply to all appointments at the top tier of the pyramid, for example, in leadership."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2017, with the headline 'Two top scientists to step down from key A*Star posts'. Print Edition | Subscribe