The Inception of NTU SBS
The 20th anniversary of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS) also marks the 30th anniversary of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). It is my utmost pleasure to share with you about the inauguration of SBS, which was a challenging yet rewarding experience.
As part of the founding team, I witnessed and played a part in how the school was constructed from nothing to where we are today – ranked 33rd worldwide and 6th in the Asia region in Biological Sciences by QS World University Rankings in 2021. It was not an easy journey. But we don’t grow when things are easy; we grow when we face challenges.
From engineering to comprehensive & research-intensive university
Being the first non-engineering and first research-focused school, SBS was the pathfinder for the transformation of NTU into a comprehensive and research-intensive university with a new building dedicated for our school and a research centre focusing on science. Back then, SBS was just a small hill near the Nanyang Auditorium that had to be flattened to pave way for our building. As the first faculty member of SBS, there were neither students, faculty nor a physical building when I joined.
We all knew that research is key to the school’s growth and so, the Biological Research Center (BRC) was established, where I served as its Founding Dean and Founding Director from 2001 to 2007. With the building and research centre in place, we were in a better position to be awarded with research grants for our projects.
To structure our school to be research-intensive for producing new knowledge through discoveries, we used the American university system, placing high emphasis on our faculty to do research. In addition, professors of all ranks have complete independence and start-up packages . We started our first class in 2002 with 99 students and 17 faculty members, with half of these faculty members still present in our school now. Understanding the importance of global exposure and internationalization in the biological sciences industry for our students, we also recruited our faculty members across the globe based on merit.
Over the two decades, I am proud of how we have advanced from having a vertical research structure to one that is now horizontal, comprising of nine different research focuses: 1) Biological Data Science, 2) Cancer and Cell Biology, 3) Gene, Genetics and Genomics, 4) Microbiology and Immunology, 5) Neuroscience, 6) Plant Biology, 7) Proteomics and Protein, 8) Structural Biology and Drug Discovery, 9) Traditional Chinese Medicine
More than just a building
Inspired By Frank Llyod Wright, deemed as the ‘greatest American architect of all time’, we designed the SBS building with his famous “Prairie Style” architecture in mind. Prairie styled buildings are characterized with strong horizontal lines, lengthy rows of windows and interior walls were minimized to create an open floorplan. All these, together with the connectivity of outdoor and indoor spaces, create a clean and modern look that fosters a sense of community and connection.
To adopt this “Prairie Style” architecture, we pushed to have a quad built outside that connects the interior of SBS lobby to the Nanyang Auditorium. To us, having the huge space outside SBS could provide opportunities in creating new experiences and strengthening relationships not only among SBS students but all students in the university.
As the only school with a large space around, the SBS building is now a landmark in NTU where major events like convocation and examinations are held within our building’s lobby, the Nanyang Auditorium and the quad that connects both buildings. Over the past two decades, we had seen so many exciting events held there that housed up to 6,000 people. All these would not have happened without the support of our leaders 20 years ago.
The floor tiles in SBS lobby were also inspired by an artist, Piet Mondrian, who named his painting “Broadway Boogie Woogie”. Now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the piece of art comprises of simple blocks of colours that symbolizes the restless motion and liveliness in the city. We envisioned everyone in SBS to have a vibrant experience, just like how one feels when looking at the painting – full of life and colours.
Coincidentally, Broadway Boogie Woogie was on the cover of October 2004’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal too, after our building was completed in May 2004.
Constantly looking for opportunities
When we first started, SBS offered only the basic Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree and Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences. Shortly after, the double-degree program in Biomedical Sciences and Chinese Medicine was introduced and the NTU Chinese Medicine Clinic was established in 2009 as a TCM Board-approved teaching clinic for the program.
Ever since then, the clinic that is located at level 1 of our school building, brought students, faculty members and their families together. We have transformed the way medicine is taught in Singapore, and that helped us distinguish ourselves from the other comprehensive universities. In our journey to becoming a comprehensive and research-intensive school, we forged many partnerships and collaborations and eventually, expanded to include a total of six second and double majors programs for undergraduates. The newest addition to our programs is the Master of Science in Biomedical Data Science, where the need for biologists to also be well-versed in computer science was identified.
It has been 20 years since the inauguration of NTU SBS and I am more than thankful to embark on this journey with everyone in the school throughout my time here. 20 years is a long time, and I am still enjoying what I do in NTU SBS because of the challenges that I am still taking up every day in my research. Back then, building the school was the biggest challenge I accepted and I’m extremely proud of the outcome. Where we now, as a comprehensive school, would not have been possible without the support from all faculty members, alumni, students, and leadership team across the two decades. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Prof. James P Tam
Founding Dean, Year 2001 to 2006,
Chair, Year 2006 to 2007,
School of Biological Sciences