SPEECH BY DR LISA NG
SENIOR SCIENTTIST, SINGAPORE IMMUNOLOGY NETWORK, AGENCY FOR SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & RESEARCH
AT THE 47TH GRADUATION CEREMONY
WEDNESDAY, 23 MAY 2007 (SESSION 4)
Members of the Board of Governors;
Principal, Mr Low Wong Fook;
Staff and Graduands of the Singapore Polytechnic;
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. Good morning. It is indeed a privilege for me to be invited to speak to you on this special occasion for two main reasons. Firstly, it is a very important day for all the graduands who will be receiving their Diplomas from the School of Chemical & Life Sciences in Biomedical Science, Biotechnology, Chemical Engineering, Chemical Process Technology and Optometry. May I congratulate you all on this significant accomplishment as you have certainly completed an important milestone in your life after much hard work, perseverance and grit. Congratulations also to your parents, family and loved ones who are here today to share this moment of joy. Secondly, it gives me great honour to be here because exactly 11 years ago, I was like you, sitting there in the crowd with a mixed bag of feelings and emotions - eagerly waiting to obtain my diploma; relieved that I made it through the 3 long years, and thinking hard how and what I should do with the knowledge I had gained.
2. For those of you who are experiencing just that right now, do be warned, as you have chosen a path that is not only both challenging and demanding, but one that will enable you to make a difference not only to Singapore but also for the betterment of mankind. The chemical life sciences field of today is very different from that in the past. For example, the biomedical industry, of which I am part of, is enjoying tremendous growth, and Singapore is recognised as one of the key players in research and development in the region. One of the key missions of the Biomedical and Life Science initiatives is to foster world-class scientific research and human capital for a vibrant knowledge based Singapore. We are now home to several academic institutes and biopharmaceutical companies, and more will be setting up bases in Singapore in the coming years.
3. What I am about to say next may sound technical but do bear with me as it is an important area, one that I am most passionate about. I currently work for A*STAR or the Agency for Science Research and Technology. It represents today's research scientists as well as the future generation of aspiring scientists who are daring to race with the world's best towards the very limits of modern science. Charting the course for Singapore's Science and Technology, A*STAR aims to build up Singapore's intellectual capital and local scientific capabilities that will boost the economic competitiveness of Singapore.
4. The exact place where I work is at the Biopolis @ Buona Vista. A stone's throw away from here, it is a purpose-built biomedical research hub where researchers from the public and private sectors are co-located. The current phase 1 is home to more than 2,000 scientists and phase 2 will bring about more research activities related to translational research. Global biomedical science companies such as the Novartis Institute of Tropical Diseases have set up their research facilities at the Biopolis and are focussing on important diseases in Singapore and in the region. Several companies will also be setting up their research base in the vicinity.
5. Globally, there are several challenges that humankind is facing - terrorism, an aging population, environmental problems such as global warming and food shortages, and the threat of diseases. Singapore has experienced such as a threat. If you could recall, about 3 years ago, patients and hospital staff began to succumb to a mysterious respiratory illness first in Southern China, then in Hong Kong and Vietnam, and finally in Canada and Singapore. Nobody was prepared for the onslaught of this disease. The world was put on high alert, and the culprit was eventually found to be a new strain of a virus called the coronavirus. The disease was named SARS, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome, and for many of us in Singapore, it changed our view of the world of infectious diseases.
6. I remember that day clearly. It proved to be a turning point in the worldwide effort to contain SARS - especially for Singapore and countries in Asia - and it changed the course of my scientific career, if not my life. I was then a post doctoral fellow at the Genome Institute of Singapore, working on the hepatitis B virus to uncover new drugs in an effort to enhance current treatments available to people infected by the virus. It was a refreshing change from my previous research experience in animal coronaviruses, which I spent years working on for my doctorate degree. When the new SARS virus was linked to the family of coronaviruses, my first reaction was one of excitement and trepidation. Excitement because I knew a lot about these viruses from my PhD research, and trepidation because I was aware that the virus had, for years, caused serious damage to farm animals and the agricultural industry. Before I could react further, I was roped into a national effort to identify the new strain of virus and to develop an accurate and reliable diagnosis for SARS which the hospitals badly needed. Although we were under a great deal of pressure and stress, there was also a certain level of excitement in the face of a real-life crisis situation. The early days were the toughest, as we had very little information and were more or less groping in the dark. Long, exhausting hours took over our lives, and on many occasions I felt discouraged and frustrated when the experiments did not yield anticipated results. However, there was no time to be despondent and ponder the vicissitudes of life as more and more people - friends among them - were struck down by the disease. All of us felt the need to work even harder, as we knew we could not afford to fail. After 2 months of hard work, our team managed to develop a clinically reliable detection kit. It was the breakthrough many had waited for.
7. From my earlier work, I had a good understanding of coronaviruses, but never had I imagined that I would be able to use this knowledge in designing the SARS virus test kit. The months working on SARS opened my mind, as it did my heart, about the importance of research and of keeping our faith and motivation even in the toughest times. Interacting with some of the best minds in the field strengthened my commitment to a scientific vocation. But even more importantly, it reminded me of the true reasons for and potential of cold-eyed, back-breaking scientific exploration. I feel truly privileged to have been part of the unfolding of a small medical revolution.
8. Infectious diseases account for a quarter of all human mortality and a similar proportion of morbidity. Infectious diseases affecting livestock and crops have cost the global economy untold billions. With air travel and increasing globalisation, sudden outbreaks of new infectious diseases can have a tremendous impact on a global scale. During the G8 summit meeting in St Petersburg, Russia last year, the global fight against infectious diseases was made a top priority. The reasons are clear - the challenge of emerging infectious diseases transcends national borders. Diseases like SARS, dengue, malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and more recently, influenza A (H5N1) can expand rapidly from local to regional or global threats. Since 2004, the highly pathogenic avian influenza A (H5N1) has extended its geographical range, with outbreaks occurring in poultry and migratory birds in many parts of the world which have never experienced outbreaks of such severity in their histories. Human infections have also been reported in 10 countries, and although transmission to humans has yet to be completely defined, the cases have been consistent with bird-to-human, environment-to-human, and limited human-to-human transmission.
9. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated the need for affected countries to put in place robust surveillance systems to detect outbreaks in birds, and for countries to be transparent in disease reporting. However, many countries face serious problems in tracking and containing the disease due to cross-border disease spread, socio-economic issues, and a lack of appropriate diagnostic capabilities. Therefore, it is also in these countries where the impact of infectious disease is the greatest. Better disease detection capability is vital, as earlier detection would buy time to reallocate resources and, in contrast to current reactive approaches, enable proactive disease management. Research agencies and companies, both local and international, have embarked on projects based on these technologies, some of which are generic, including "lab-on-a-chip" screening for a range of infectious agents, or simple tests to differentiate between viral and bacterial infections in order to aid the proper prescription of antibiotics.
10. Singapore is a major aviation hub and an important stopover point between Australasia and Europe, with an average of 30 million passengers passing through annually. This also means that Singapore is vulnerable to any human pandemic. It is vital that we identify and prioritise the list of research areas to fully utilise Singapore's limited resources, in order to ensure that there are no significant gaps in coverage by the various agencies. A*STAR can contribute to possible solutions to pandemic diseases-related problems at the national, regional or global level through capabilities from both the Biomedical Research Council and the Science and Engineering Research Council research institutes, namely in the areas of diagnostics, therapeutics, contact tracing and surveillance, communication and information, and even vaccine development. Some major contributions to date include the avian flu test kit which I developed at the Genome Institute of Singapore. Come to think of it, some of you will likely be working in these establishments in the near future, perhaps even in the same areas of research as I.
11. We have a long journey ahead of us in our battle against infectious diseases, and the current avian influenza outbreaks caused by influenza A underscore the importance of improving our preparedness for the next emerging or re-emerging infectious agent. We will need to understand the importance of fostering interdisciplinary approaches to infectious disease research that transcend traditional intellectual boundaries, such as those between virology, bacteriology, parasitology, medicine, human health and economics. You may recognise that many of these fundamentals are being taught in your courses of study. Such collaborative efforts cannot be carried out without government support, and one hopes that in time to come, Singapore will have broad-based laboratories with epidemiological capabilities, links to wider networks, and strong inter-country collaborations to respond to disease outbreaks. More importantly, many of you will be part of this growing tide of knowledge, and perhaps, among you, is the next Nobel Prize winner!
12. Science - and especially chemical life sciences - is a competitive field, and it is vital for you to cultivate a spirit of lifelong learning. Your education at the Singapore Polytechnic has provided you with an important gift that will propel you forward to play an important role in society. We need more science and more technology to combat diseases and other environmental threats, and you are the face of tomorrow that will make this possible. On a personal level, I never imagined that I would come this far when I graduated from Singapore Polytechnic with my Diploma in Biotechnology, Biotechnology option. I had read about and imagined that people must be brilliant like Einstein and Rosalind Franklin, who were different from the moment they were born, to be able to accomplish such great achievements. For me, I come from an ordinary and humble family, and we lead normal lives like everyone else. It is all within a person's reach. If what I have done is considered extraordinary, then I am sure it is possible for many people out there, especially you. I'll like to share a favourite quote by Marie Curie which has helped me gained strength and optimism in times of difficulties. She said: "Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained."
13. The chemical life sciences industry has been experiencing strong growth since the beginning of the new decade. You, therefore, have a bright future ahead of you. Thank you for allowing me to share this special moment with you. I wish you great success and a happy rewarding life. Once again, congratulations to all on your achievement. Thank you.