“To make Duke-NUS a success, I knew that I had to wake up in Singapore thinking about Duke-NUS and not try to build a school from halfway around the world with Duke-NUS and Singapore as an afterthought,” said Professor Patrick Casey, Senior Vice Dean for Research at Duke-NUS, as he reflected on his contribution to the School, as Singapore’s government conferred a prestigious National Day Award for his service to the nation.
That — and excellence — is the commitment Casey asks of himself and the people who have joined the research powerhouse on the little red dot.
Over the years, he recruited gifted researchers and laid the foundations that enabled the School to attract the most talented students from around the world to its MD and PhD programmes. He is, as the first person recruited from Duke University, an early architect of Duke-NUS.
A rock star scientist from the land
For Casey, growing up in South Dakota meant having many responsibilities from a young age since he lived and worked on a vegetable farm. For him and his seven siblings, even school holidays meant waking up in the early hours of the morning. First up was usually milking the cows, followed by hours tilling the fields, helping with the general upkeep of the farm and harvesting crops — from melons to potatoes.
“We didn’t have a summer vacation,” chuckled Casey. “In fact, we looked forward to going back to school in the fall because it meant seven hours when we weren’t doing farm work!”
Observing nature and the unfolding of life lit a spark in Casey that he pursued through his tertiary education, first earning a Bachelors and then a PhD before completing his post-doctoral training in pharmacology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center under the mentorship of Professor Alfred G Gilman who later became a Nobel Prize winner.
From there, Casey joined the faculty at Duke University in 1990 as an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology and Biochemistry. While there, he established himself as an eminent cancer researcher and, according to his colleague and long-time friend Professor Chris Newgard, Director of the Duke Molecular Physiology Institute, a bit of a rock star scientist.
“People sometimes forget that he was a real star researcher here in the United States. I mean, he did some brilliant work on protein modifications and some really elegant work in cancer biology,” said Newgard.
For Casey’s seminal work in cellular signalling, he was awarded the title of James B Duke Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. On top of pursuing his own science, he took on the role as the founding Director of the Duke Center for Chemical Biology. By 2003, Casey had served on numerous editorial boards and led a 15-person strong lab at Duke. Throughout his career, he relied on the discipline, rigour and no-drama attitude that his childhood instilled in him.
With a stellar record and reputation as a salt-of-the-earth guy who gets the best out of the people around him, Casey was in high demand.
“My move to pick Pat to join in the negotiations for a new medical school was part offensive and part defensive,” said Professor Robert Taber, then Vice-Chancellor at Duke. “Because he was constantly being recruited, I knew we had to give him a challenge that was both exciting and was going to test his skill set.”
Choosing the right architect for Singapore’s biomedical success
According to Taber, Casey was the man because he had the foresight and research capabilities to be an insightful addition to the team planning the school. Casey was also at the peak of his career and having him lead the charge demonstrated to Singapore that Duke was committed to making the new medical school a success.
For Casey, the opportunity to build entire research programmes was enticing. But what pushed his move to Singapore was his family. Associate Professor Mei Wang Casey, who is his wife and also a faculty at Duke-NUS, wanted to return to research. On top of that, their children, who are of mixed heritage, would have a chance to reconnect with Asian roots in Singapore.
Casey recalled that the prospect of moving to Singapore was very exciting. “Our kids were young. Jody was two and Kyle was ten and we realised Singapore was a great place to raise them and a good place for Mei and myself to move into the next phase of our careers.”
Coming to Duke-NUS
Once Casey was in Singapore, he found himself in an interim container office with nothing but a few dusty cupboards that had been left behind by the previous occupant.
“It was a time when we did what had to be done,” said Casey. “In the morning, I had meetings with the Ministry of Health. In the afternoon, I was emptying the trash bins to clean out our interim offices.”
Casey (centre) with the pioneer team of Duke-NUS staff and faculty, including Mei Wang Casey (second left) and Dolliss Ang (second right)
This start-up culture, and the sense that no task was too unimportant, marked the early days at Duke-NUS. With a team of dedicated, handpicked new hires, Casey got to work, overseeing construction plans, setting up programmes with an interim committee with representatives from A*STAR, the National University of Singapore, Ministries of Health and Education and, of course, recruiting the first group of researchers to join the School.
With the committee’s advice, Casey mapped Duke-NUS’ research programmes to mirror major disease areas and health concerns in Singapore: cancer, neurology, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, health services and systems and infectious diseases.
In the summer of 2006, an advertisement in Nature for the head of a cancer research programme in a faraway medical school caught Professor David Virshup’s eye. But it wasn’t just the position that piqued his interest. It was the contact person: Casey.
“If his name was associated with this new medical school, I knew it would be an interesting opportunity,” said Virshup, who ended up joining Duke-NUS as the founding director of the Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Programme at Duke-NUS.
“Pat was primarily responsible for recruiting the exceptional cadre of scientists populating our Signature Research Programmes. He has a unique ability to get people excited while, at the same time, inspiring the trust required to convince them to move halfway around the world,” said Duke-NUS Dean Professor Thomas Coffman, who counts himself among the scientists who were persuaded by Casey to make the move.
Casey continues to inspire not just big-name scientists but also all the staff of Duke-NUS. “Pat is a great boss, gracious and patient. When anyone has an issue, he gives good advice and well-thought-out solutions,” said Dolliss Ang, who joined Duke-NUS in 2005 and supports Casey as his personal assistant.
Serving Singapore and beyond
Since then, the School — with Casey's keen eye for talent — has recruited 45 full-time faculty members, who rank among the best in the world in terms of output and international collaboration, a contribution that is particularly evident during the current pandemic. Duke-NUS’ Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme is leading efforts to develop new diagnostics, and find new therapies and even a novel vaccine candidate, whose pre-clinical results were quite promising.
This National Day, the Singapore government conferred a Public Administration Medal (Silver) to Casey for his key role in building and growing the remarkable research programmes at Duke-NUS.
“He’s very much adopted Singapore as his home,” said his wife, Mei Wang Casey. “When he talks to his family in the United States or his colleagues at Duke, he always says, ‘We in Singapore do this, or this is how things are done in Singapore.’ He is very committed.”
Casey hopes to have a chance to share some of his Singapore spirit with family and colleagues in the US when borders reopen. Casey added, “I look forward to the chance to spend some time in our cabin in North Carolina, visit colleagues at Duke in the US and see family — including Kyle, who is nearing completion of his PhD at Northwestern.”
When asked what is next for him, now that he has built a medical school and won a national award, Casey said that he was far from done: “I’m excited to continue adding scientific firepower to our research powerhouse on the little red dot.”