Updated on 6 March 2013
Professor Siew Hwa Ong, director and chief scientist, Acumen Research Laboratories, Singapore
I decided to pursue a scientific career during university days and I was fascinated by the field of cell signalling that I started to learn about in Year 2 at National University of Singapore (NUS). I started PhD studies in 1995 at the Institute of Molecular & Cell Biology under A*STAR and was also a visiting student at New York University (NYU) Medical Center. I then pursued a post-doctoral fellowship at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, affiliated to University of Toronto (UT).
I chose to work at these places because Professor Joseph Schlessinger and Professor Tony Pawson, my mentors at NYU & UT, respectively, are pioneers and gurus in cell signalling. I have always been very inspired by these two mentors, they both also started biotech companies to commercialize the intellectual property developed in their laboratories. Professor Schlessinger started three companies over the past 25 years, including SUGEN, Plexxikon and Kolltan, resulting in the targeted anti-cancer drugs Sutent and Zelboraf currently in market.
I tremendously enjoyed my work and spent 90 percent of working hours in the lab, so each day was about 12-14 hrs in the lab, weekends would be about 4-8 hrs, and that went for a period of about 10 years. I have always been very grateful that as a young person then with such huge commitment in the pursuit of my passion in science, my parents were so supportive and my siblings stepping up to fulfill my family duties while I was away from home. I did very well and published 11 papers as a student and six as a post-doctoral fellow, all in the area of cell signaling in cancer, becoming very versatile in genetic and protein mechanisms in initiation and progress of the disease.
I came back to Singapore in 2004 and joined Institute of Molecular & Cell Biology (A*STAR) as an assistant professor in research, and concurrently as a lecturer at the NUS. I still maintain this teaching role, I give lectures on tumour biology to Year 4 life science students. I had my first experience of setting up a new lab and supervising a research team. My own lab continued on cell signaling in Cancer, covering the area on metastasis, ie. spreading of cancer and filed my first patent from that work.
During 2007, I felt a strong urge to do applied research than basic research, as the way technologies develop was very rapid and powerful in enabling development of drugs, diagnostics and medical devices, and I had done about 13 years of basic research by then. At that time, I chanced upon a recruitment advertisement by Eli Lilly for an experienced person in cell signaling in cancer for drug discovery and development. The job description read like it was talking about me. I applied and then went to the US again to work at the headquarters of Eli Lilly at Indianapolis. Being able to apply my background in cancer research in drug discovery and development was really exciting; I learnt a lot about the pharmaceutical R&D and about business at Lilly headquarters. I was one of the scientists to initiate drug target identification and validation in epigentics enzymes, at that time a new cancer program in Lilly.