By: Associate Professor Antonius Van Dongen (Tony), NBD Program

Our home country, the Netherlands, is currently covered in a blanket of snow. The southern part of Holland, where my wife Margon and I grew up, is preparing for “Karneval”, a four day party in which everyone dresses up in crazy costumes, and meals are replaced by French fries and beer. Outside my office in Singapore it is currently 32 degrees Celsius and the temperature is expected to drop down all the way to 24 tonight. Instead of Karneval, my fellow Singaporean citizens are celebrating Chinese New Year. How did we end up working in Singapore, 10,494 km from Amsterdam? Decisions were made; opportunities seized. Let’s pick up the story in high school …

Studying Biology meant moving from the small town we grew up in to Utrecht, a major city. Biology at the college level turned out to be much more exciting than I had anticipated. After obtaining a degree in Biology (with a minor in Physics), I had pretty much become a ‘science nerd’ and was only interested in pursuing a research career. For my Master’s degree, I had spent a year studying how network activity develops in cultured hippocampal neurons. Unfortunately, there was no Ph.D. project available in the subject of cellular neuroscience, so I (grudgingly) accepted a project studying the effect of the anti-epileptic drug Valproate on sodium channels. However, as I delved into the subject matter deeper, ion channel biophysics really grew on me. There appears to be a universal lesson here: there are no boring disciplines in science.

Tony with the love of his life, Margon (Photo taken in 1975 during their university days)

As I worked towards my thesis, Margon moved to Utrecht to live with me and pursued a college level degree in Medical Technology. When my Ph.D. project ended, a new problem presented itself: to find a job in science. At the time, postdoctoral positions did not yet exist in the Netherlands: graduates would go straight into positions at one of the five Universities. Since those positions were all filled, the only option was to look abroad. After sending out several letters, I got an offer for a postdoctoral fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX in the laboratory of Arthur M. Brown. We made the (difficult) decision to move to the USA, thinking that after a few years a position would become available allowing us to move back to the Netherlands (we were wrong). The postdoctoral period was a wonderful time: there were no real responsibilities, except producing publishable data, so that you could focus completely on doing experiments. After several years of postdoctoral work, my ‘scientific portfolio’ appeared suitable to look for a faculty position.In 1991 I was recruited to the Department of Pharmacology in Duke University in North Carolina.

I asked Margon to help me set up the laboratory, since she had been trained in Molecular Biology in two different labs while we were in Houston. Our laboratory turned out to be quite popular with graduate students, so popular in fact that there were never any funds left to hire a postdoc. Although our research projects were proceeding wonderfully, dark clouds started to gather at the horizon. Starting around 2005, funding levels at the National Institutes of Health, the main source for scientific research funds, started to go south. Laboratories are closing down around us, the future looks grim. Just around this time Duke has started a new initiative in Singapore, the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, spearheaded by my colleague Pat Casey. When I expressed my interest in this new endeavor, Pat invited us to Singapore in July of 2007, and by December we relocated our laboratory to Singapore. Several new research directions were started after moving here, including a project in which we are studying how information can be stored in neuronal networks formed by hippocampal neurons growing in culture. With this project we have come full circle to my favorite undergraduate subject.














Tony with Margon, his wife and partner in research at their lab in Duke-NUS. (Photo by: Erna Tandiana)

L: Tony with his fabulous research team (Photo by: Erna Tandiana)
R: T
ony is also a thesis mentor with the PhD Program in Integrated Biology & Medicine - seen here with MD/PhD student Nicodemus Oey)

The two major relocations we have made, first to the USA then to Singapore, were both prompted by negative circumstances, but in both cases the move significantly improved our mental and emotional status. Being exposed to a new culture and emerging yourself in a new society is refreshing and expands your horizon. Change is good!