David is not only a pioneer, but also the first and only biosafety professional from Singapore on the WHO’s international advisory panel.

When David Lam joined Singapore General Hospital 15 years ago, it was mostly to help the hospital consolidate and move its many diagnostic laboratories into custom-built facilities in Academia.

Not only were the laboratories dispersed in different buildings on the sprawling SGH Campus, the team tasked with the move also needed to ensure that the more than 120,000 samples — in containers of different sizes and shapes, requiring different storage conditions, anything from -80°C to room temperature — were moved safely and without incident.

“Some of these were very high-risk pathogens, and we could not afford to have an accident transporting them and have these biological agents spilt on the road. So the main job was to contain all these biological materials from getting out of intended areas, basically the lab,” says David, Assistant Director, Biological Safety, Workplace Safety and Health.

He has come a long way since. Today, David, 61, has built a wealth of knowledge and experience in the discipline, and has even been acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an expert in the field.

The native Hong Konger literally stumbled into the job when he was working as a project manager for a biomedical research firm in Singapore. When his then boss asked if he could take on the role of biosafety officer for a project, David recalls with a chuckle: “My exact response to him was, ‘What do you mean by biosafety officer?’” He decided to take on the task anyway — and the rest is history.

To become a biosafety professional, David attended a five-day course overseas but found that theory and practice were quite different. “When I was stuck, I had to go around and look for people more knowledgeable than I was to ask for their opinion,” he says. Coming onboard SGH, he also learnt on the job. 

Working in SGH gave me the opportunity to polish my skills. Every case is unique, and you get to practise a lot. It’s a different kind of skillset,” he says, describing work in SGH as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “People ask me where I get my job satisfaction. It’s when I see staff enjoying working in a safe environment — that’s when I know my job is done.”

On a day-to-day basis, David advises diagnostic labs and clinical areas at SGH on matters related to biological safety.  He inspects all labs at SGH and Academia, and SGH satellite labs in the polyclinics. He typically tests our negative pressure labs — which he helped design — once a year for MOH certification. These labs are used to study contagious and dangerous bugs like tuberculosis, anthrax, and coronaviruses that cause SARS and COVID. 

Additionally, David gives technical advice on the operation of lab safety equipment and devices such as biological safety cabinets; disinfection and decontamination of laboratory and patient care areas such as isolation rooms and waste management; and reviewing new lab protocols and practices.

He also participates in the design of new diagnostic laboratories, reviews the designs of any new (bio)containment devices and facilities such as isolation rooms, and supports on lab emergencies, such as spillage of hazardous materials.

He currently consults on biosafety matters ahead of the opening of two new buildings, the SGH Elective Care Centre and National Dental Centre Singapore, and the SGH Emergency Medicine Building. 

David was also named to the WHO’s international advisory panel as a biosafety expert — the only one from Singapore, and one of four from Asia (Indonesia, Thailand and China). “The group advises WHO and other international organisations on issues from biosafety risk assessment to transfer of biological agents. It encompasses containment, disinfection, decontamination and all the new biosafety-related technologies,” he says.


David made this wooden lamp stand.

Now a Singapore citizen, David spends his leisure time with his wife and two daughters, and occasionally on his carpentry hobby. He has been making items like shoe boxes and shelves for the past six years. “Long time ago, I wanted to get a new desk. Instead of buying, I decided to make one,” explains David on how he got started on carpentry. “I just like it – putting things together and creating something out of nothing.”


Another of David’s wood work – a shoe rack.

Excerpt taken from Singapore Health, Mar-Apr 2024 issue, p10. Read the full story here

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