For Professor Patrick Tan, receiving the Research Recognition Award at the 2023 National University of Singapore (NUS) University Award ceremony felt like a homecoming.
"It is always extra special to be recognised by one's peers and close colleagues," said Prof Tan, who officially commenced his term as Duke-NUS Senior Vice-Dean for Research in July after having spent some four years leading A*STAR's Genome Institute of Singapore. "It was a very pleasant and unexpected surprise."
He accepted the award from NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye during the ceremony which was held in the Jubilee Ballroom at the Raffles Hotel on Friday, 8 September.
A renowned cancer geneticist, Prof Tan spearheaded the development of genomic approaches that have brought to light the molecular and clinical diversity of gastric cancer, a leading cause of death worldwide; work that has laid "the groundwork for developing improved diagnostic and precision medicine strategies," said NUS Deputy President for Research and Technology Professor Liu Bin in her citation.
Adopting a "team science" approach, Prof Tan brought together clinician-scientists, biostatisticians and researchers from various institutions in Singapore and beyond. Together, they identified significant genetic and molecular pathways that impact disease progression and predict treatment response in patients. Among their contributions are the largest and highest-resolution atlas of gastric cancer and, through the National Precision Medicine programme, the largest genetic data bank of Asian populations, containing almost 100 million genetic variants that had not been reported in public databases before.
The NUS Research Recognition Award is a testament to the strong support he received from Duke-NUS over the years, said Prof Tan.
"I also want to recognise Steve Rozen from the Centre for Computational Biology and my long-time SingHealth collaborator Teh Bin Tean," said Prof Tan. "Because this award is really an acknowledgement of the importance of team science."
This collaborative approach had previously earned the trio awards such as the President's Science Team Award in 2015 as well as the American Association for Cancer Research Team Science Award in 2018, which they won with their partners.
The investigative group has also made headline news with their sequencing of the genomes of the durian and the national orchid Vanda Miss Joaquim, but Prof Tan's favourite discovery is the pervasive use of alternate promoters in cancer.
"This is because it was not my idea but was suggested by a graduate student. It is always wonderful when a younger colleague comes up with a terrific new concept," said Prof Tan who supervised more than 20 PhD students during his time at Duke-NUS.
While the Research Recognition Award celebrates his achievements, Prof Tan still remembers the challenges he had to overcome along the way. And it was often the challenges that yielded important lessons: "All of us have encountered challenges in our career and found our own ways to make progress when the going got tough," he said.
And his one piece of advice to young scientists? "None of us have all the answers and there is still a huge amount to do," he said. "So talk to as many people as possible."
Duke-NUS Dean Professor Thomas Coffman congratulated Prof Tan: "This award recognises Patrick's scientific brilliance and the broad impact of his leadership. Scientifically, he is the world's expert in the genomic analysis of gastric cancer. With his team, he has advanced our understanding of the genetic drivers of gastric and other cancers common in Asia and has parlayed his discoveries into highly translational tools that are now being validated in multi-centre clinical trials, demonstrating the real-world impact of his work."
Prof Tan's impact on clinical care extends beyond improving individual patient care into developing whole new services. For example, under his leadership, genetic screening has become accessible to the public whether that is through the Precision Health Research Singapore initiative or one of the dedicated clinics set up under the SingHealth Duke-NUS Institute of Precision Medicine that he leads. Collectively, these efforts have established Singapore as a regional leader in genomic clinical care.
In receiveing a University Award, Prof Tan joins past recipients from Duke-NUS and the wider SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre including Associate Professor Ashley St John, who received the Young Researcher Award in 2020, and Clinical Professor Ivy Ng, who received the Outstanding Service Award also in 2020.
This year, six members were recognised with awards, which honour members of the NUS community who set new benchmarks in the fields of education, research and service.
Earlier this year, Prof Tan received the Exemplary Leader Award at the 2023 Public Sector Transformation Award for his exemplary leadership at the Genome Institute of Singapore where his "team science" approach was key to many of the Institute's successes and accomplishments.
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