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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, December 22, 2006

My First Uncyclopedia Entry!

An article that is long overdue. Since no one has written on that terrible scourge of humankind yet, I've decided to do it myself.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cool Weather

Ah... the year end weather is nice and cool, all thanks to the thunderstorms from the northeast monsoon. Instead of a blistering 32 degrees in the shade, we now have a more humane 24 degs.

Here's a picture of low clouds rolling over Bukit Timah hill to give you that rainy day feeling.

I'm only happy when it rains, I'm only happy when it's complicated.

That's a song by Garbage, actually.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Cruel Irony Of Fate

Tomorrow, on the 10th of December, American scientists Dr. Andrew Z. Fire and Dr. Craig C. Mello will be receiving the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine from the King of Sweden at the Stockholm Concert Hall.

They are sharing the prize because they worked together on the same research project, and discovered from their experiments on the worm Caenorhabditis elegans that specific stretches of double-stranded RNA can inhibit the expression of genes effectively (RNA interference). Their finding was published in the prestigious journal Nature in February 1998.

This important discovery increased our understanding of cellular processes, provided an experimental tool for genetics researchers, and formed the basis of a new generation of medicines which have recently completed phase I clinical trials.

We can imagine the mutual joy and excitement of these two colleagues when they receive the prize.

In stark contrast, exactly one hundred years ago in Stockholm, the 1906 Medicine prize was also shared between a pair of scientists, but the mood could not be more different.

The tension in the air was palpable.

That was the first time that the Nobel prize was shared among two recipients. Dr. Santiago Ramon y Cajal and Dr. Camillo Golgi both won the prize “in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system”, but in reality these scientists were rivals of each other who believed in opposing theories.

In the late 19th century, there was a controversy in the emerging field of neuroscience. Some scientists believed that the nervous system consists of cells that are linked together in a diffuse, continuous nerve network. This was called the Reticular Theory. Others believed that the nervous system consists of cells called “neurons” which are physically separated by tiny gaps. This was the Neuron Doctrine.

Golgi had invented a chemical process that only stained a small percentage of the nerve cells, so that fine details can be clearly seen under a microscope. Cajal used Golgi’s stain and further improved it, allowing the nerve cell to be seen in its entirety and used these results to support the neuron doctrine. Golgi, on the other hand, firmly believed in the reticular theory and considered Cajal’s results to be inconclusive.

By 1906, although there was strong experimental evidence from many scientists in favour of the neuron doctrine, the Nobel committee for medicine decided to award both Cajal and Golgi.

When delivering his Nobel lecture, Cajal updated the audience on his latest experimental results and noted that:

True, it would be very convenient and very economical from the point of view of analytical effort if all the nerve centres were made up of a continuous intermediary network between the motor nerves and the sensitive and sensory nerves. Unfortunately, nature seems unaware of our intellectual need for convenience and unity, and very often takes delight in complication and diversity.

Golgi however used his lecture to attack the neuron doctrine. He insisted that:

At this point, while I shall come back to this question later, I must declare that when the neuron theory made, by almost unanimous approval, its triumphant entrance on the scientific scene, I found myself unable to follow the current of opinion, because I was confronted by one concrete anatomical fact; this was the existence of the formation which I have called the diffuse nerve network.

While he respected the older Golgi greatly, Cajal was clearly disappointed at Golgi’s behaviour at the ceremony. He later lamented:

What a cruel irony of fate to pair, like Siamese Twins united by the shoulders, scientific adversaries of such contrasting character!

Sadly, this controversy would not be fully resolved until after the deaths of both illustrious scientists. Direct evidence from electron microscopes in the 1950s finally confirmed the presence of tiny gaps, called synapses. The neuron doctrine is correct – Cajal had laid the foundations of modern neuroscience.

It is easy to dismiss Golgi as a stubborn fool. However, if there can only be a winner in this story, then who is it?

Golgi was no less intelligent, hardworking or productive than Cajal. In addition to his contributions to neuroscience, Golgi had also done important research in many areas such as malaria and histology. In fact, he is better known to most life science students because he discovered the Golgi apparatus in 1898, coincidentally one hundred years before the discovery of RNA interference.

Thus, despite their differences of opinion, Cajal and Golgi embody the same spirit of discovery which is also present in their modern counterparts when they receive their prize tomorrow.

But in a much happier mood, of course.

Would you like to know more?

- about how Golgi shared the 1906 Medicine with Cajal

- about other stories of the second best -
1. Swiss vs British Everest teams
2. Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Science In Singapore: Part II

What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the life science endeavour in Singapore?

Strengths include:

1. Strong governmental support
US$8 billion over the next five years in R&D, mainly in the biomedical sector. This immense investment helps build infrastructure and provide research funding for many projects.

2. Investment focus and strategy
State agencies have worked hard to bring in large pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, Schering-Plough and Novartis, some (such as Novartis) which have a R&D department here in addition to their manufacturing plants . So far most of the economic growth in this sector has been due to these drug companies. A few small biotech companies have also been enticed to come to Singapore.

3. Educated workforce
In addition to funding research, the government has also spared no effort to provide training opportunities for the people. The good science and maths performance of our school children is already fairly well known, and this strong educational foundation is enhanced with updated life science knowledge from secondary school all the way to the PhD level.

Specialized life science degrees are offered at local universities and students are strongly encouraged to enter graduate school in this field. In fact, A*Star intends to train about 1000 PhDs by 2010.

4. Research focus and strategy
To make the best of our limited resources, identifying niche research areas where we show high competence is crucial. These include genome science, stem cell biology (especially embryonic stem cell research which is severely crippled in the USA), research on infectious diseases common to the region, and clinical translational research. Local research centres have also formed strategic alliances with renowned institutes overseas, such as the Karolinska Institutet.

5. Other strengths
These include the freedom of research projects (within the areas of focus), respect for intellectual property and a well-defined bioethics framework. In addition, scientists who come from countries with bitterly cold winters, will be attracted to Singapore, which has year-round summer temperatures.

The above strong points have already given the life sciences in Singapore promising start. However, in order to reach sustainability, the life science effort in Singapore has to face a number of important challenges:

1. Powerful global competitors
Of course, the United States of America continues to be the R&D powerhouse of the world, producing more than 30% of the whole world's scientific output by publications. However, scientific research in Europe and Asia is on the rise. Recently China has overtaken Japan to become the 2nd biggest R&D spender in the world.

As a small city state we can never match their resources, so the emergence of these new powerful players in the life sciences presents a serious challenge.

2. Talent retention/oversupply
Human capital is of the utmost importance in science, and managing this valuable resource will be a constant headache. Good foreign scientists are attracted to Singapore with generous pay and research grants, but keeping them here will be difficult because our global competitors may be willing to offer even more. Other tangible and intangible benefits gradually become more important.

Also, the flipside of training thousands of PhDs is that they become the most mobile workforce segment, since postdocs are welcome everywhere. They can leave to another country or leave science - either way the talent pool shrinks.

And it is not only the shortage of trained personnel that can become a serious issue - oversupply can be just as problematic albeit in a different way. Some life science graduates are already facing difficulties finding jobs in the life science field. As the entire industry matures, it will no longer grow as rapidly and employment opportunities will get harder to come by, whether you have a PhD or not.

3. High biotech startup attrition
For the life science endeavour to become self-sustaining, some of our scientists will have to quit academia for industry or to start a company. Biotechnology is a new, 20-year-old industry that has seen strong growth in the US, mainly from established biotech firms like Genentech.

Unfortunately, starting up a new biotech company is a very risky venture with a high attrition rate. There are many reasons for this - management issues such as the struggle for control of the company between the businessmen and the scientists, and technical issues regarding the effectiveness of new, untested technologies. I know of a senior academic who had started four biotech firms, which all failed.

Despite government encouragment, venture capitalists and private investors are generally wary of biotech startups. Only a handful (out of a total of about 30) local biotech firms have had significant success so far.

4. Lack of creative milieu
Creativity is an important aspect of science in general. In Singapore, creativity is encouraged on paper, but the actual space permitted for creative expression is limited. The growth of the arts and entertainment industry has been painfully slow - this is relevant to science because the roots of science and the liberal arts are closely related.

Thus while the more "industrial" aspects of the life science endeavour will surge ahead, truly original, bizarre ideas that have the potential to transform the world are unlikely to arise in Singapore. The deeply-rooted pragmatic, industrious spirit here that sparked the spectacular start of the life sciences is a double-edge sword - it is so efficient that it may prune away revolutionary ideas and regard them as useless. Local scientists are obsessed with hard work and are not receptive to fresh approaches.

For the life science endeavour to become entrenched as part of our society, I believe a spirit of playfulness such as the Chindogu spirit is a necessity. This runs counter to the official purpose of the life science industry in Singapore, which is not to produce Nobel prize winners, but simply to create jobs and generate revenue.

5. Other weaknesses
These include lack of entrepreneurial and scientific tradition in Singapore. Our general population is still bewildered by this quickly emerging life science endeavour. Scientists are often confused with doctors and biology is confused with medicine. A sizeable proportion of the people still believe in various superstitions, visit traditional healers and use folk remedies. This is however not a serious drawback since the younger generation of Singaporeans are less susceptible to such beliefs.

As for the weather, visitors from colder climates are often taken aback by the heat and humidity here. They are also surprised at how violent our lightning storms can be. Depending on your personal preference, our weather can be either a strength or a weakness.

We have come a long way since that critical discussion between Mr. Lee and Dr. Brenner more than 20 years ago. The traditional mobile clinic is gone; in the horizon new symbols of our nascent scientific prowess arise.

Where will we go from here? Unlike a work of fiction, this real life story has no predefined ending, and nobody can predict what the turns and twists ahead will be.

But when they happen, you know you can catch it right here.