Duke-NUS: Ten Years of Growth

The Duke-NUS Pioneers
The Duke-NUS Pioneers

Its glass and steel façade may form an iconic feature of the Outram campus today, but ten years ago in its fledgling days, research at Duke-NUS was represented by a five-foot space on a laboratory bench. Recalling its beginnings, Professor Pat Casey, Senior Vice Dean of Research and one of the founding members of the school, shared: “[My wife] Mei Wang-Casey, was Duke-NUS’ very first clinician scientist and together we started the first laboratory. Even before Duke-NUS settled into its interim campus, Professor Kon Oi Lian of the National Cancer Centre Singapore was kind enough to loan us a five-foot bench to work at. That was where the Signature Research Programmes of Duke-NUS started.”

Ambitious Beginnings

This humble beginning belies the school’s ambitious vision – one that began with Drs. Casey and Mei Wang-Casey and, within six months, three other founding scientists from Durham’s renowned Duke University. The goal was nothing short of being the top medical school in Asia and a premier research institution in the area of translational medicine.

Dr. Casey said, “Mei and I thought it would be a good opportunity to move to Singapore to play a part in setting up Duke-NUS. It was a terribly exciting time, spending each day just tackling a long list of things to do. It was very much a start-up culture; everyone involved that first year just did what it took to get things going, whether it was meeting with senior officials from the government or academia, or cleaning up a storage room to get a little extra space before the interim facility renovations were completed.”

Prof. Patrick Casey and some of the Profs at the old campus
Prof. Patrick Casey and some of the professors at the old campus
Prof. Patrick Casey
Prof. Patrick Casey

The hard work has paid off, Prof. Casey said, looking back on the many milestones and achievements that now distinguish Duke-NUS as a leading medical education and research institution in Singapore and the region. "These achievements," said Dr. Casey, "include appointing the first research faculty, appointing the first Signature Research Programme director and having junior faculty develop vibrant programmes and go on to achieve international standing.” The brand of Duke-NUS has also grown, he said. “Our recognition is quite good across Southeast Asia and even in the US. In fact, over 150 delegations from governments and universities throughout the world have come through to learn from Duke-NUS and its distinctive pedagogy - TeamLEAD. With such strong academic parents, Duke University and NUS, and SingHealth as our primary clinical partner, what we have is a convergence of cultures and stature that facilitates these accomplishments.”

Prof. Patrick Casey soaking up some Singapore sun at the Henderson Waves
Prof. Patrick Casey soaking up some Singapore sun at the Henderson Waves
Going Beyond Expectations

“The school has surpassed my every expectation. I would not have predicted we would be the size we are today nor have the scope of activities we do,” he said. While the medical school’s yearly intake of 60 is still roughly within the size of what was projected, the reach of the school – through its collaborations in research and innovations in education – is extensive. “Our education programme now reaches into secondary schools in Singapore and back to Duke, impacting much more than the training of 60 medical students,” he observed. “Our research programmes have become quite embedded in the fabric of the Singapore research landscape, with dozens of collaborations with major institutions like NUS, SingHealth, A*STAR and more. It has helped us achieve a critical mass that has made us greater than the sum of our parts.”

“The school has surpassed my every expectation. I would not have predicted we would be the size we are today nor have the scope of activities we do.”
- Prof. Patrick Casey

A Culture of Partnerships

“These achievements could not have come about without the passion and innovative spirit of its researchers,” said Dr. Casey. “Our basic and translational scientists all have a disease process that informs on their research projects. They are also all a little daring, they think outside the box and have a strong collaborative spirit. This means they engage the clinical community and employ multiple technologies that extend the capability of their own laboratories.” The collaborations are all coming to fruition as the research is starting to pay off not only in terms of translating it into patient care, but also in terms of economic development and commercialisation opportunities, Dr. Casey added with pride.

Prof. Patrick Casey (seated) and Asst. Prof. Mei-Wang-Casey (left) in a Duke-NUS lab in the early days
Prof. Patrick Casey (seated) and Asst. Prof. Mei-Wang-Casey in a Duke-NUS lab in the early days
Dean Ranga Krishnan (third from left) and Prof. Patrick Casey (third from right) with colleagues during the school's topping up ceremony in 2008
Dean Ranga Krishnan (third from left) and Prof. Patrick Casey (third from right) with colleagues during the school's topping up ceremony in 2008

Going forward, growth will be around partnerships as the school grows its research programmes in terms of collaborations. “We want to intertwine our activities with the research and academic activities in the SingHealth health system. To date, we have over 1,000 doctors who have faculty appointments with us and we are starting to cross appoint faculty and embed them within other institutions.” This will continue to extend the reach and impact of Duke-NUS to bring about greater innovation and enhance the success in translational outcomes.

“These achievements could not have come about without the passion and innovative spirit of its researchers.”
- Prof. Patrick Casey