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an online version of the magazine Fall 2005
Features
The Heat Is On
 
  As the medical school’s most ambitious outpost takes wing in Singapore, it’s courting more researchers. But why would a top-flight lab scientist want to work on the other side of the world?
BY RAMSEY FLYNN
 
 
 
  Ian McNiece looks like he's in a hurry even when he's sitting down. A restless bear of a man, he appears uncomfortable crouched at his desk, though his mood improves as he bounds from the chair and launches into an impromptu tour through the spanking new hallways of the School of Medicine 's part of the central Singapore biosciences complex called Biopolis. McNiece, a hematology stem cell researcher who's been a Hopkins professor of oncology since 2003, has moved to Singapore to head this operation.

“I hate the bare walls,” he says, apologizing for the thinly decorated expanses that show traces of his institution's vaunted ancestry. There's an image of the famously distinctive dome on the Baltimore skyline, a splash of red brick townhouses, a few plaques to break up the alabaster lobby. “We need to set up a presence,” McNiece says, even as he comes upon small huddles of research scientists flanked by microscopes and pristine lab equipment.

The phrase you'll hear most often around Johns Hopkins Singapore these days is “critical mass.” Seven years after Hopkins launched both a clinical and research facility in this ambitious equatorial city-state, it employs 127 people. But although the clinical part—an outpatient center and a 30-bed inpatient wing—is staffed up and overflowing with patients, the research wing is still itching to attain a certain sweet spot in faculty appointments.

For faculty, this gleaming science building with 40,000 square feet of Hopkins space, based 10 miles from the clinical site at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital , will be part of the lure. McNiece sweeps a hefty arm toward “the one thing a hungry research scientist would kill for in Baltimore —prime lab space.” And indeed, more than a dozen unscarred lab benches stretch around the building' s curved outer flank, backlit by swatches of tropical jungle on the horizon beyond the windows.

McNiece is ready for the center to take its place in the leading ranks of biomedical research—and he feels sure it can do it. An official branch of the School of Medicine 's division of biomedical sciences since last year, it will offer a Ph.D. in both stem cell biology and immunology through a partnership with the National University of Singapore. The first graduates, McNiece says, should appear sometime around 2010.

Meanwhile, what McNiece needs is several more top scientists. Right now each of the six Hopkins labs is run by a principal investigator who's arrived here from a top-flight institution. Four are transplants from the East Baltimore campus. McNiece wants to boost the number of labs to 14, which will give him a total of nearly 120 researchers. And he wants to finish this primary recruitment campaign within two years, so he's running ads in magazines like Nature and Science. He's also worked the phones of his own professional network and beaten the bushes at the headquarters campus in Baltimore . His efforts have brought 150 very strong applications. The hiring committee has looked at 30 of them “very seriously.”

Still, despite his missionary zeal to recruit scientists, McNiece won't fill this prime research space with just anybody. “The challenge,” he says “is that we have to bring in scientists with credentials consistent with what we'd expect on the Baltimore campus. And they have to be willing to do it in Singapore .”

But why would a respected scientist want to work in such a far-flung place?

 

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Singapore’s Biopolis campus. Hopkins resides in the Nanos building, center.  
> Singapore’s Biopolis campus. Hopkins resides in the Nanos building, center.

When Singapore 's founders tried to chart their nation's course soon after breaking away from Malaysia 40 years ago, they quickly divined that their great location as the busiest deepwater port in Southeast Asia wasn't going to sustain a population headed toward 5 million on an island of 34 square miles. At first they cast their lot after Japan , producing consumer electronics at lower cost. But when other Asian climbers like Korea began to outrun them, Singapore tried to establish itself as a global banking center. After the Japanese quickly dominated that sector, Singapore homed in on yet another niche, something that a small and well-educated population could really resonate to—the life sciences.

Singapore has placed an enormous wager on this gamble, sinking $290 million into the seven-building Biopolis complex alone. National leaders envision a scientific micro-township community of 1,500 top-quality minds, with nearby housing for their families. And they've already induced major international science players to get on board. The biggest of these is pharma powerhouse Novartis, with more than $28 billion in annual sales in top-selling cardiovascular and oncology drugs like Diovan and Gleevac. Novartis manages some 60 researchers at its Institute for Tropical Diseases in a building next to the one that houses Hopkins . The other global pharmaceutical superpower, GlaxoSmithKline—manufacturer of 1,400 brand-name health care products, ranging from toothpaste to antidepressants like Paxil and the anti-migraine drug Imitrex—has 35 researchers at Biopolis studying new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and schizophrenia.

With each of its partners, Singapore has forged an agreement giving the local government a meaningful percentage of the intellectual property rights. It therefore makes sense, says Steve Thompson, senior vice president for Johns Hopkins Medicine, that Singapore found itself attracted by Hopkins ' preeminence in biomedical discovery. But partnering with the School of Medicine held other attractions for the island nation. Besides a cadre of top researchers, it would gain a faculty of respected American scholars who could offer both clinical care to local patients and training to growing numbers of young Singaporean medical students.

For Hopkins , all of this was just fine, because it had its own expectations for the relationship.

 

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One of the biggest lures for faculty who've made the leap from Baltimore to Singapore is the promise that they will hold (or retain) a faculty appointment at the School of Medicine . But other benefits also make laboratory science there appealing: Younger would-be principal investigators looking for their own labs find fewer restrictions. Not only is the government committed to biomedical science, it maintains none of the harsh U.S. guidelines limiting embryonic stem cell research. Research protocols approved by the School of Medicine 's international review board move forward quickly because they are not dependent on U.S.-based funding.

Meanwhile, the big concern confronting many—that moving to the other side of the world would put them out of touch with U.S. colleagues 12 time zones away—ends up not being a problem. Researchers exploit every conceivable e-tool—e-mail, PowerPoint, PDF exchanges and carefully scheduled teleconferences—and find that collaborations work surprisingly easily.

Azlinda Anwar, a postdoc researcher raised in Singapore and schooled at Vanderbilt and Hopkins, has even equipped her computer with “Skype,” a program that gives her free voice exchanges with similarly equipped machines all over the world. But even in Singapore , Anwar—who works in former pharmacology chairman Tom August's immunotherapy lab—satisfies her appetite for spontaneous collaboration by tapping into the Biopolis sense of neighborhood. Tackling a problem related to the particular viruses behind dengue and West Nile fevers, Anwar recently walked next door and found herself deep in conversation with a virology expert who works for Novartis. They were soon comparing notes at one of the small cafes situated in the quadlike area between their buildings.

Even principal investigators, like oncologist Richard Ambinder—who spends most of his time in Baltimore —have come to delight in the ease of conducting transglobal teleconferences. As the director of the Hopkins Singapore Tumor and Virology Lab, he talks from his Baltimore kitchen at 7 a.m. local time—a reasonable 7 p.m. for his crew in Singapore.

The first School of Medicine faculty member to establish a lab in Singapore , Ambinder studies the nettlesome behaviors of the Epstein-Barr virus, which manifests itself in every case of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, one of the scourges of the East. Singapore 's patient population has proven especially attractive to him. The move, he says has paid great dividends. “My patient population is in China , not East Baltimore .”

 

*****

 

But the magic of Singapore reaches beyond the heady pleasures of working with full government support on new frontiers in disease for young researchers. Take Erik Petersen, a former California surfer whose feverish need for science led him six years ago to Hopkins and then tethered him to biomedical engineer Kam Leong's tissue and therapeutic engineering lab. Sometime in 2002, feeling a bit restless, Petersen picked up some scuttlebutt. “Kam has a lab in Singapore ?” he asked colleagues. “I want to go to Singapore .”

Three years later, Petersen is there doing stem cell research in Leong's lab during the work week and spending the weekends paddling ocean outrigger canoes around the beaches of Singapore's Sentosa Island with his longtime girlfriend. He acknowledges an affinity for the expat's life, but Singapore , he says, makes it easy. One of its stunning advantages for U.S. transplants is that speaking English is necessary for citizenship. The easy living has led Westerners to think of Singapore as “Asia Lite,” a new buzzword. They delight in the island enclave's appeal as a jumping- off point for the rest of the region's more exotic riches and find it easy to hopscotch to the mountains of Nepal or the optimal surf off the coast of Bali.

It's a great life, Petersen says. But he makes clear that researchers gathered at the Biopolis come first for the science. “There is absolutely no better place to do it than right here.”

Building the research wing will be all in the timing, McNiece says. Already, in the last couple of months, he's hired four faculty—a husband-wife team of Russian immunologists and two young women fresh from their postdocs in London and at Hopkins . Three more scientists are finalizing details of their appointments.

“I'm confident we're going to be successful here,” he says. Then, he remembers a secret benefit of working for Hopkins on the other side of the world—the 24-hour Baltimore-to-Singapore flight. He makes the trip some dozen times a year. And he likes it.

When you're as rushed as many of us in science are, McNiece says, the idea of leaning back in a business-class easy chair while attendants ply you with wine and cheese whenever you're not dozing is a vacation all its own.

 

 
 
 
 
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