By Sufian Suderman, Senior Executive, Research Administration and Support Services
In August 2016, Assistant Professor Sanjay Chotirmall was one of two LKCMedicine clinician-scientists to receive top national career development awards, marking a milestone for the medical school. Asst Prof Chotirmall and Assistant Professor of Infectious Diseases Yeo Tsin Wen are the first clinician-scientists at LKCMedicine to receive such National Medical Research Council (NMRC) awards. Asst Prof Yeo received the
Clinician Scientist Award to tackle dengue haemorrhagic fever, while Asst Prof Chotirmall received the Transition Award (TA).
TAs are given to aspiring clinician-scientists to embark on the journey into research and hone their research capabilities through mentoring and research funding support.
The LKCMedicine talks to Asst Prof Chotirmall to hear his thoughts about being one of the School’s pioneer recipients and what he plans to do with the award.
The LKCMedicine: Congratulations on being awarded the TA! How does it feel to be breaking new ground as the School’s first recipient?Sanjay Chotirmall (SC):
I am very honoured, proud and privileged to be given an opportunity to be in NTU and to be given such an award by NMRC to conduct research on Asian patients. I think this is only the beginning. Being awarded is one thing, but producing good work is the greater challenge. Nevertheless, NTU provides me with the perfect environment for my research to progress successfully.
The LKCMedicine: Why do you think your grant application was successful?
SC: The first reason is having a good question. I wish to address the mechanism of respiratory disease within the context of Singapore and Asia. The second reason is good mentorship, which I have received firstly back in Ireland and more recently here in Singapore. Two mentors were crucial to my grant application success - LKCMedicine's Professor George Chandy and Associate Professor Allen Yeoh from National University Hospital. The third reason is that not much is known about Asian respiratory disease. We can gather good data from our multi-racial population, which may have impact across Asia.
The LKCMedicine: What led you to become a clinician at first and subsequently, a researcher?
SC: I always wanted to be a doctor since I was a child. It is intriguing how the body works in a coordinated fashion with the right balance when it is functioning normally. What is even more intriguing is when it acquires disease and that is the reason I pursued medicine.
I always had a lot of questions at the bedside for my trainers, the kind of questions they probably couldn't answer. The reason they couldn't answer them? Because we didn't know the answers and that made me think. If I want to find the answers to these questions, I need to go and research them.
The LKCMedicine: How does this award helps to reinforce your decision to be a clinician-scientist?
SC: This award has come at an ideal phase of my career, because it allows me to explore Asian disease. It has allowed me to benefit from mentors such as Assoc Prof Yeoh, who has guided me through the local system very effectively as he is a very successful clinician-scientist. I also have the privilege to get advice from people like Prof Chandy, who is an internationally recognised scientist and has done amazing things in his field. To be able to bring some of that experience into respiratory medicine in Singapore is very valuable in the context of this award. That is why I think this award reinforces my decision to be a clinician-scientist. You get to study the questions you want in the right context with the right mentors from a nice blend of international and local faculty.
The LKCMedicine: Your research has a strong Asian focus. Why Asia? How does your award help you to better research the extent of the respiratory disease burden in Singapore?
SC: Most of the literature that is available is conducted in Caucasian and European populations. This is an issue as the same result may not be directly transferable to an Asian population. The best way forward is to generate data from our own Asian population to see if the disease develops and displays in the same way, as well as to evaluate the efficacy of the drugs currently used in Europe on the Asian population.
The award will bring awareness of the importance of respiratory disease in Singapore, especially in the context of our ageing population. As the lung ages the same way as the body, this brings about a significant number of problems including chronic respiratory problems, which need to be recognised and studied before we can address how to improve the outcome and quality of life for these patients, whose numbers will increase as the population ages.
The LKCMedicine: How will the award contribute to the development of translational solutions for respiratory diseases?
SC: I think the award will be an important first step to making contributions to translational approaches in Singapore’s respiratory medicine. There is a lot that needs to be done but with excellent clinical partners, excellent collaborative partners and scientific colleagues, I think we are very well positioned to generate solid, lasting translational solutions for respiratory patients in Asia. However, we need to understand the disease before we can fix it.
The LKCMedicine: Why did you return to Singapore, considering that you had established yourself well in Dublin, Ireland?
SC: Chronic disease is becoming a much bigger problem for Singapore in view of our ageing population. We need to understand this better and I always knew I wanted to return home one day.
I was very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to return home to a very rich research environment not just in NTU but also on a national level. Singapore allows young investigators to develop well with excellent funding schemes. In my case, I am able to study Asian respiratory patients in Singapore as this is an area which has not been studied well internationally. And personally, I want to be closer to my family after being away for 16 years.
The LKCMedicine: What would you like to achieve in your field of research?
SC: I would like to do two things. The first is to improve the quality of life for respiratory patients in Asia. Patients are at the centre of everything that our lab does.
The second thing I would like to do is to mentor and train the next generation of clinician-scientists for Singapore who can continue to work on and address respiratory problems that are likely to increase exponentially as the population ages.