February 2014| ISSUE 10
Meet Our New Vice-Dean, Research

Professor Philip William Ingham FRS, Professor of Developmental Biology and Toh Kian Chui Distinguished Professor, was appointed LKCMedicine’s new Vice-Dean, Research on 20 January. In this email interview with Lisa Li, he shares his vision for the various roles he plays in the School – as researcher, teacher, mentor and part of LKCMedicine’s core leadership team.

Congratulations on your appointments as Vice-Dean, Research and Toh Kian Chui Distinguished Professor at LKCMedicine! How do you feel?
Naturally, I feel honoured and a little daunted, especially amongst such eminent colleagues on the LKCMedicine faculty. As a non-clinician, I had never imagined that I might someday hold a leadership position in a medical school. However, I have spent a significant part of my research career working in biomedical research institutes and my 10 years as Director of a Medical Research Council centre in the UK as well as five years as Deputy Director of an A*STAR Institute here in Singapore have given me some preparation for the tasks that lie ahead as Vice-Dean, Research. I hope that I can bring this experience to bear to the benefit of all at LKCMedicine.

You’re a world-renowned scientist in the field of developmental genetics for your pioneering analyses of the Hedgehog signaling pathway which laid the foundation for the development of novel anti-cancer drugs. Could you update us on your research work?
Over the last decade, we have learned a great deal about the genetic networks underlying the specification of cell fates in developing embryos and the signals that cells use to regulate these networks. However, we still have only a rudimentary understanding of how these signals are deployed in time and space and how the cellular responses to signals are coordinated to build the complex organs of our bodies. With the advent of Single Pane Illumination Microscopy (SPIM), we now have the unprecedented ability to image cells as they respond to morphogenetic signals in a living vertebrate, using transparent transgenic zebrafish embryos expressing fluorescent reporter genes.

Such experiments generate huge data sets that require a high degree of skill to analyse. Fortunately, we have established a collaboration with Dr Timothy Saunders, a theoretical physicist with vast experience of SPIM data analysis who was recently appointed as a Singapore National Research Foundation (NRF) Fellow at the Mechanobiology Institute. Our Zeiss SPIM microscope is due to be installed within the next couple of months – in the meantime, we are preparing an application for funding to support this exciting project.

That’s great. And I’m sure this will be aided by your appointment as the Toh Kian Chui Distinguished Professor. The professorship will provide you with an annual research grant of S$500,000. Could you tell us more about how you intend to develop your research with this grant?
The research funding from the Toh Kian Chui Foundation provides a wonderful opportunity to develop new lines of research. One area I am particularly excited about is autophagy, a process crucial to cellular homeostasis and metabolism that is implicated in a wide range of human pathologies, including neurodegenerative disease, chronic inflammation and cancer. Originally discovered in yeast, autophagy has been widely studied using cultured mammalian cells, but is less well studied in the context of the living organism. By developing models of autophagic dysfunction in the zebrafish, we will be able to model its involvement in a whole raft of human diseases.

As Toh Kian Chui Distinguished Professor, you will help to guide and groom the next generation of healthcare leaders, providers and researchers at LKCMedicine, mentor junior researchers and graduate students, as well as teach in the School’s undergraduate and graduate programmes. What’s your vision for this role?
My vision is very simple – I want to help establish a vibrant, dynamic research-led medical school in which everyone will be inspired by the same key principles of scientific research that have guided my own career – to think outside of the box, expect the unexpected and follow your intuition. These are principles that can be applied equally well to clinical practice as well as to scientific research. By training doctors in such an environment, we will deliver medical practitioners of the highest calibre, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of medical knowledge and nurturing the research leaders of tomorrow.

I understand you have also been involved in the development of LKCMedicine’s PhD programme in conjunction with further developing the research strategy of the School. Tell us more about your
experience of this process.

Developing the PhD programme has been a challenging but interesting experience – training the next generation of biomedical researchers is central to the mission of LKCMedicine and it is exciting to have
the opportunity to shape this process. I have been fortunate to be able to draw on a wealth of international expertise and experience, not only amongst the LKCMedicine Faculty but also from
colleagues at our partner institution, Imperial College London as well through our links with Trinity College Dublin. By combining these influences with our own ideas and incorporating opportunities
presented by the local and regional
environments, I think we have come up with an innovative and unique PhD programme that will offer outstanding training for basic and clinician scientists alike.

As LKCMedicine’s Vice-Dean, Research, you will work closely with the Dean and core leadership of LKCMedicine to develop and drive forward our research strategy. How do you intend to do this?
LKCMedicine has identified four key areas – neuroscience and mental health; infectious disease; metabolic disease and skin disease – in each of which there is a pressing need for new therapeutic
solutions both in Singapore and worldwide. LKCMedicine has already recruited internationally recognised researchers into each of these four themes. One of my roles will be to help build upon these excellent foundations by attracting the brightest and most promising young researchers to LKCMedicine, with a special emphasis on returning Singaporeans while at the same time, encouraging local clinicians to embrace research in collaboration with our established experts.

The small size and pioneering spirit of the School provides a wonderful opportunity to encourage interaction not only within but also across the themes – for instance, exploring the relationship between metabolic disease and neurological disorders. We are already embarking on a series of workshops that will bring together researchers and clinicians whose interests lie within the different themes and I expect these to become a regular feature of the School.

Another of my key roles will be to ensure our research active faculty have the resources necessary to perform groundbreaking research. This means not only setting up the research support infrastructure expected of a world-class institution, but also ensuring a supply chain of human talent, from PhD students to post-doctoral research fellows to early career stage investigators. The establishment of the LKCMedicine Research Training Programme will provide an important part of this chain, but we will also need to establish schemes to attract the most promising post-doctoral researchers from around the world. The best way to achieve this, of course, is to publish in high visibility journals and I will use my extensive experience as an editorial adviser to help guide our faculty in the effective dissemination of their findings.

That’s a lot of things on your plate! In all these areas, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced, and how have you managed them?
The biggest challenge so far has been organising my diary! With so many meetings, grant proposals and committees to attend to, it is essential to keep track of deadlines and prioritise tasks  ppropriately. So far I have managed this by working pretty much around the clock, though my task has been made easier by the tremendous support I have received rom all colleagues, both academic and administrative. Hopefully some order will be restored to my daily schedule with the appointment  of a personal assistant, which  should happen in the next few weeks!

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. We wish you all the best!