Duke-NUS newest Provost’s Chairs—Prof Lok (left) and Prof Zhang (right)—have demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and academic contribution on an international level.

Since its inception as an aspiring research powerhouse more than 15 years ago, Duke-NUS has focused on attracting and developing brightest minds to transform medicine and improve lives.

Guided by this vision, the School’s faculty have been setting new boundaries in the life sciences, making an impact on the biomedical landscape, health systems, and biopharmaceutical industries here and beyond.

In recognition of their outstanding research and impactful academic contribution, Professor Lok Shee Mei from the Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) Programme and Professor Zhang Suchun, Director of Neuroscience & Behavioural Disorders (NBD) Programme, have recently received prestigious NUS Provost’s Chair Professorships. They join Professor Wong Tien Yin, Vice-Dean of Academic & Clinical Development, who has been re-appointed as a Provost’s Chair for the second term.

“At Duke-NUS, we are proud of our researchers who are working at the forefront of their fields, advancing cutting-edge science while positively impacting patient care,” said Professor Thomas Coffman, Dean of Duke-NUS. “My heartiest congratulations to Shee Mei, Suchun and Tien Yin, who exemplify the extraordinary academic and research excellence we strive for at Duke-NUS. I look forward to more great work from all our scientists as we continue to make greater things happen at Duke-NUS!”

Provost’s Chairs, which are awarded for three years, are conferred to professors who are recognised internationally in their respective fields of research.

The School’s newest Provost’s Chairs—Prof Lok and Prof Zhang—have demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and academic contribution on an international level.

Leading research in structural flavivirology and Cryo-EM

As a leader in the field of structural flavivirology and a well-respected academic in the cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM) field, Prof Lok played an instrumental role in setting up Cryo-EM capabilities in Singapore. Her Cryo-EM expertise is also much sought after globally. She currently serves as an expert at the annual “Frontiers in Cryo-EM Validation” workshop organised by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory–European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). In that capacity, she is shaping guidelines covering the submission of Cryo-EM-relevant materials into various databanks before manuscript acceptance by any journal.

Prof Lok said the appointment was “nice recognition of the team’s significant scientific contributions to the flavivirus field.”

“It will encourage us to further pursue knowledge and achieve ground breaking discoveries,” she added.

With her focus on elucidating the structures of several mosquito-borne viruses, namely dengue, Zika and chikungunya, Prof Lok has helped put the School’s EID Programme on the global map with her work on structural biology since joining Duke-NUS in 2009. Her group was one of the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus during the recent global outbreak.

 “The next big thing for my team is to understand how dengue viruses invade cells and how some of the non-structural proteins can cause severe disease. Through these findings, we hope to design therapeutics that will block these pathways,” said Prof Lok. “Understanding the fundamentals of dengue viruses enables us to devise new therapeutic and vaccine strategies to combat the disease.”

A trail-blazer in stem cell research

Prof Zhang also dedicated the honour to his team and colleagues from the NBD programme.

“As the programme director, I will work with my faculty and staff to continuously drive excellence in research, teaching, and innovation, steering the Programme to new heights,” said Prof Zhang, who also co-directs the National Neuroscience Research Institute of Singapore.

An internationally recognised neuroscientist, Prof Zhang was the first in the world to differentiate neural stem cells (NSCs) from human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) back in 2001. He also demonstrated in animal models that these NSCs can sprout new neurons after being transplanted. The landmark discovery revolutionised the way the diversification and life cycle of neurons were studied.

Expanding the applications of his stem cell research, Prof Zhang successfully created stem cell-based disease modelling systems and drug-discovery platforms for neurological diseases. Building on these, he has successfully identified potential therapeutic compounds for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

One major goal for Prof Zhang’s research group in the next three years is to take a stem cell therapy for Parkinson's disease to the clinical testing stage.

Having joined Duke-NUS in 2017, Prof Zhang is currently spearheading the establishment of a regenerative medicine platform that provides iPSC extraction and CRISPR services as well as genome editing technology that enables the creation of knockout stem cell lines and transgenic models. He aims to build a stem cell bank in Singapore to better support and promote stem cell-related research within the research community locally and regionally.

“While how the human brain operates remains mysterious, we are now able to assemble a small piece of functional human brain tissue by design through stem cell technology, potentially giving us a glimpse of human neural circuit operation,” said Prof Zhang. “Stem cell technology also enables regenerative medicine, which, I hope, can be applied to improve patient care for other debilitating neurological conditions like spinal cord injury and stroke.”