17/02/2014

Interview with EMBO member Prof. Philip Ingham

Categories: Meet the researchers


In 2011, the Singapore government signed a cooperation agreement with the European Molecular Biology Organization – or EMBO for short - an organization of more than 1500 leading researchers in Europe and worldwide that promotes excellence in the life sciences. EMBO’s major goals are to support talented researchers at all stages of their careers and to stimulate the exchange of scientific information. Support for EMBO programmes and activities comes from the European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC). The EMBC, which was founded in 1969, is an inter-governmental organization that comprises 27 Member States, including most of the European Union and some of the neighbouring countries. EMBO has also signed cooperation agreements with a selected number of international partners including Singapore. Through the Singapore-EMBO agreement, scientists based in Singapore can benefit from a plethora of EMBO activities including, amongst others, EMBO short-term and long-term Fellowships, funding for EMBO workshops, or participation in the EMBO Young Investigator Network. EMBO Members and Associate Members are more than 1500 of the best researchers in Europe and around the world. Election to EMBO membership is recognition of research excellence and the outstanding achievements made by a life scientist. Susanne Rentzow-Vasu was lucky enough to meet with EMBO member Prof. Philip Ingham, who is currently Professor of Developmental Biology at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University and at Imperial College, London.

About Philip Ingham

Philip Ingham is Professor of Developmental Biology at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University and at Imperial College, London. A graduate of Cambridge University, he has used genetic approaches to analyse developmental processes both in Drosophila and zebrafish. After ground-breaking studies of the Drosophila segmentation hierarchy, he pioneered the elucidation of the hedgehog signalling pathway, a process that remains a major focus of his current research. He is an elected member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) and Fellow of both the UK Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society. In 2005 he was awarded the Medal of the Genetics Society of Great Britain and in 2007 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.

Interview

Prof. Ingham, could you tell us a little bit about your current research?

A central focus of my research for many years has been understanding how cells in the developing embryo communicate with one another. Such communication underlies the generation of cell diversity that is essential for the development of the different organs that make up our bodies. Many years ago we discovered one such signal, quirkily named Sonic Hedgehog (SHH), which plays a crucial role in a range of processes, including the specification of the identity of different neurons in the neural tube. How SHH signals are received and interpreted by cells has been my major preoccupation ever since. We study this process in the zebrafish embryo which has many advantages for this type of research: zebrafish embryos are easily accessible and are transparent making it possible Philip Ingham is Professor of Developmental Biology at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, Nanyang Technological University and at Imperial College, London. A graduate of Cambridge University, he has used genetic approaches to analyse developmental processes both in Drosophila and zebrafish. After ground-breaking studies of the Drosophila segmentation hierarchy, he pioneered the elucidation of the hedgehog signalling pathway, a process that remains a major focus of his current research. He is an elected member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) and Fellow of both the UK Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society. In 2005 he was awarded the Medal of the Genetics Society of Great Britain and in 2007 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. to follow the development of internal organs without the need for surgical intervention. Another interest of my lab has been the differentiation of muscle fibre types, a process controlled in part by HH signalling in the zebrafish. More recently we started to look at the role of autophagy – a process by which cells turn over damaged or excess proteins in response to external stimuli - in the zebrafish embryo - and we are now extending these studies into the role of autophagy in post embryonic processes such as metabolism and aging.

You have studied and worked in Europe and are currently working in Singapore. How important has this international dimension been for your career?

Science is an international activity that knows no national boundaries, so for me it was natural to move to another country to do post-doctoral research (in France) and, more recently, to set up a new research lab (in Singapore). Such moves are always enriching because they bring you into contact with a spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives that you are unlikely to encounter in your home country. It is this confrontation of cultures that drives intellectual progress and which makes science exciting and fun.

You became a member of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in 1995. Can you tell us a little about this organisation and its goals?

EMBO – the European Molecular Biology Organisation - was established in 1964 in response to proposals by the eminent British biologists John Kendrew and Conrad Waddington to promote greater collaboration between molecular biologists throughout Europe. Since then, EMBO has grown into arguably the most influential organisation of its kind, providing funding for postdoctoral researchers, as well as practical courses, workshops and conferences across the continent. At the same time, it led to the creation of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), now one the world’s premier life sciences research institutes. My own career provides a good illustration of the breadth and impact of EMBO’s activities: as a PhD student I was awarded an EMBO Short Term Fellowship which allowed me to undertake collaborative research at the CNRS Laboratoire de Genetique Moleculaire in Gif-sur-Yvette, France and where I also participated in the first EMBO Practical Course in Drosophila embryology. The following year, I attended my first international meeting, the now legendary EMBO Drosophila Workshop, which is still held every two years in Kolymbari, Crete and is THE meeting for Drosophila researchers. Subsequently I did post-doctoral research in Strasbourg funded by an EMBO long term fellowship as well as a Royal Society European Exchange Programme Fellowship. I have also co-organised and taught on numerous practical courses over the years as well as organising two EMBO sponsored workshops in Singapore and Shanghai. All of these experiences have had a major influence on my “Science is an international activity that knows no national boundaries, so for me it was natural to move to another country to do post-doctoral research (in France) and, more recently, to set up a new research lab (in Singapore). Such moves are always enriching because they bring you into contact with a spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives that you are unlikely to encounter in your home country. It is this confrontation of cultures that drives intellectual progress and which makes science exciting and fun.” Prof. Phil Ingham EMBO is an organisation of more than 1500 leading researchers that promotes excellence in life sciences. research, helping me build up an enduring interaction with scientists from around the world as well as exposing me to the very best science.

In 2011, Singapore and EMBO signed a cooperation agreement which will run until 2014. What does this cooperation entail and how can the local research community benefit from it?

The cooperation agreement has opened the door to Singapore participating in the full range of EMBO activities, including its Course and Workshops Programme, the EMBO Young Investigator Programme and the Short and Long Term Fellowship schemes. This gives young Singaporean scientists the opportunity to work in world class European labs and all Singaporean scientists the opportunity to organise and participate in world class scientific events.

As a European working in Asia, how important is the scientific cooperation between these two regions?

I think it is crucial. Europe has been the source of some of the brightest minds and the greatest ideas and is still an intellectual powerhouse; at the same time it has a wealth of experience in the organisation, practice and governance of scientific research. These are all qualities from which Singapore can profitably learn; at the same time the tremendous drive for innovation and application in Singapore should be a source of inspiration to European scientists. My experience of interactions between European and Asian scientists has been extremely positive – the free thinking of Europeans in my own lab has always had a positive effect on my Asian colleagues, and the Europeans have always returned home transformed by the optimism and dynamism of the Asian “can-do” culture.

What motivates you as a researcher? Which impact do you think does your work have to improve the lives of ordinary people?

As a student I was motivated exclusively by curiosity about nature and a passion for experiment and abstract thought. Over the years, other motives have come into play, including a desire to improve society through knowledge generation. I would like to think that my work could enrich people’s lives both through providing a deeper understanding of the natural world as well as through the practical application of this knowledge, for instance in drug development.

As a scientist which goals are you still hoping to achieve?

I hope that I can continue to contribute to our understanding of how embryonic cells send and perceive signals – hopefully by the time my career is over we will be approaching a complete understanding of animal development. Beyond that, I have always been fascinated by human behaviour – I originally intended to study psychology before being seduced by genetics - and would be curious to understand the impact my own genotype has had on my life.

Thank you very much for the interview!