The smallest of things may have the biggest impact on environmental sustainability. That's why microbiologist Prof Staffan Kjelleberg takes a keen interest in a ubiquitous community of organisms known to us as slime. In fact, research on slime, or biofilm, has taken centrestage at the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE), headed by Prof Kjelleberg.
NTU leads the development of the centre, which is harnessing the power of micro-organisms to solve critical water and environmental challenges. Located at NTU, the centre has been identified as Singapore's fifth Research Centre of Excellence by the National Research Foundation and the Ministry of Education. It will receive funding of over S$200 million in the next 10 years.
Prof Kjelleberg plans to develop this upstream research centre into a world leader on biofilm research, and to transfer knowledge to the industry so as to create a more sustainable earth.
"It's very exciting, extraordinary, and a wonderful situation to be in," he says. "I can't think of any other country or place where a research programme is of this size and capacity, where you can build it from scratch so it’s optimal, and it also addresses really meaningful questions."
"For us to be able to do this at that scale and to drive excellence which we know would have an outcome that absolutely matters, is a privilege, isn't it?"
Formerly a Research Fellow with the Swedish Research Council and Head of the Department of General and Marine Microbiology at the University of Göteborg back home in Sweden, Prof Kjelleberg holds multiple roles at the University of New South Wales in Australia and NTU today.
A co-founder of the Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation and Professor of Microbiology at the University of New South Wales, Prof Kjelleberg has been a Visiting Professor at NTU since late 2008.
He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and was awarded the Scientia Professorship at the University of New South Wales in recognition of his scientific achievements.
It was the possibility of making a difference that won him over to science. "Science matters and it’s a beautiful expression of activity. You make a change and you're surrounded with very talented people who are enthusiastic and driven… it’s just a very intellectually enjoyable environment to be in."
"But to get to science, for it to be meaningful, you can’t just do it yourself. It often has to be interdisciplinary," he says.
And that is the premise behind SCELSE, which merges the two tracts of technology and life sciences.
Prof Kjelleberg's professional experience includes positions on national and international scientific societies, research councils, governmental committees, advisory boards of biotechnology companies, and editorial boards of scientific journals. He has published more than 230 original papers in international refereed scientific journals and 30 books or book chapters.
Among positions held, he was President of the Swedish Society of Microbiology (1987-1992) and Vice President (2001-2004) and President (2004-2006) of the International Society for Microbial Ecology.