The new Oz

U.S. scientists follow yellow brick roads overseas

Leigh MacMillan, Ph.D.
Published: January, 2009

Illustration by Dave Cutler
In a southern corner of Singapore, there is a biomedical research metropolis—fittingly named Biopolis—that wasn’t there 10 years ago.

Science magazine dubbed the complex a “scientific Emerald City,” conjuring images of the sparkling city in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

Biopolis appears to offer that same sense of promise. Scientists from around the globe are following the yellow brick road to Singapore, where they are finding modern research space, excellent shared resources and secure funding.

Neal Copeland, Ph.D., laughs at the Emerald City image. “That might be a little strong,” he says, “but it’s certainly a beautiful place to work.”

Copeland directs the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology—one of Singapore’s research institutes, similar to the National Institutes of Health in the United States. He and his wife and research partner Nancy Jenkins, Ph.D., moved their program to Biopolis in 2006, after 22 years at the National Cancer Institute.

Neal Copeland, Ph.D., in Biopolis
Courtesy Neal Copeland, Ph.D.
What lured them away?

It was a number of things, Copeland says, perhaps chief among them the growing frustration of dealing with the government bureaucracy at the NCI.

“It seemed to be getting worse every year,” he says. And added to that were the uncertainties of the annual budget cycle.

“We had an operating budget that didn’t mean anything, and all of a sudden—six months into the fiscal year—we’d get a budget that included cuts,” Copeland says. “That’s not a way to run anything.”

In Singapore—an island nation the size of Chicago—Copeland and Jenkins found a place where biomedical research is buzzing. The government has a vision, and the funding to back it, for vaulting Singapore into the upper echelon of biomedical research performers in one generation.

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