NTU holds inaugural Plant Sciences Symposium

Published on: 28-Sep-2016


Address by

Professor Bertil Andersson

President, Nanyang Technological University




Class Room 1, School of Biological Sciences, NTU

Monday, 26 September 2016, 9.05am


Ladies and gentlemen,​

Good morning and welcome to this historic event, the inaugural Plant Sciences Symposium!

I just came from my office, where I had two cups of coffee. I believe some of you might be jet lagged, so a cup of coffee always helps.

This is really my down to earth example that plants are important, and plant research is also very important. Since this is a slightly biased audience so I don't really need to convince you.

I am of course, a plant scientist, or if I were really honest with myself, I was a plant scientist, because now I'm the president of this big university and I have the management position for some time. And when you do this, you're on a slippery slope as you cannot publish (papers) everyday!

But at least in my "previous life", I used to do photosynthesis research, how water splitting was built, and studies on repair and protection against light stress to plants – light is not only good for plants, but it can be bad as well.

I came to Singapore 10 years to take up the provost position at NTU and a few years later I became the University's president. When I had this idea to move here, many of my former colleagues asked, with some European arrogance, "Why Singapore? It is too hot for you, there is no snow there so you can't go skiing. And why NTU?" But I took the chance and faced the challenge. Yes, I found it quite warm here, but it is quite cold inside indoors. In Sweden, it's warm inside and cold outside. But I adapted to that.

I found there was some plant sciences here, and our first speaker Professor James Tam was a pioneer here. We also had a plant scientist in Professor Lee Sing Kong who is now a vice president here at NTU.

There has been some progress at NTU during these 10 years since I came here. We have gone through quite a significant change. In the rankings, which you can take with a pinch of salt but are particularly important here in Asia, we are 13th in the world ahead of many Ivy League universities. We are No 2 in Asia and the No 1 among the young universities in the world. But what I'm most pleased is that we are No 1 in Asia when it comes to citation impact – by far, actually. Ten years ago, we were not on the list at all, and this has been recognised internationally.

I am invited many times to talk about NTU's rapid rise because many people think I have some miracle medicine for this, but I don't. But what's important to a university is its people. A university's most important thing is its people. The second and third most important things are also its people. We've recruited a lot of people and restructured our faculties. We changed the bar and recruited top Singaporean and international people. Singapore also invested a lot in research. It was a quantum leap relative to the size of the country, and that helped a lot.

NTU also broadened its disciplinary scope. In the early days, the University was mostly engineering and business which were very pragmatic for the Singapore economy at that time. Today, NTU has the humanities, arts and social sciences, and a medical school with the Imperial College London.

Since we're talking about the life sciences here today, having a medical school of course changes and increases the profile of life sciences at any university. Before 2010, biology was represented by the School of Biological Sciences (SBS), which was the result of an earlier discussion to give NTU a medical school by the end of the 1990s. That never materialised, because at that time, although strong in engineering NTU did not have a strong science base for a medical school. Instead, there was a big and very successful investment into the life sciences, biology, physics and mathematics.

Ten years later, NTU set up its medical school. SBS could not remain as a "medical school No 2", so we started a discussion at the school, college and university levels on how to diversify its profile. After all, the School of Biological Sciences is about science, and science is not confined to one aspect. So we invested in microbiology, the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering, genomics, food science and of course, the plant sciences.

Related to plant science, we have already started a research centre on the artificial leaf, taking advantage of the detailed structure, function and knowledge we have today on photosystems and combining this with a dynamic approach comprising of interdisciplinary competencies. This centre is led by Professor James Barber from Imperial College London who is one of the pioneers in this emerging area.

We know that plants and photosynthesis are the ultimate solar cells, and that is the basis of basically all energy captured on this planet. Plants are not only prime in energy, but also the best chemists on this planet. The amounts of different chemicals made by plants are enormous, and till this day, chemists in laboratories around the world cannot synthesis as complicated molecules as the plants can.

I've been involved in the Nobel committee for chemistry for many years, and we have been giving the prize to eminent chemists. But we should also give a Nobel Prize collectively to all plants!

The Nobel Prize in 2015 for medicine was given to traditional Chinese medicine. That was actually China's first science Nobel Prize, and they were surprised it would come in such a traditional area and not in one of the new areas that China so intensely invested in.

Chemists are good, but plants are better. But we also have to look to the tropical regions for biodiversity. On my farm in Sweden, there is only a few species – pine, spruce, lingonberries and maybe a few more. But the biodiversity here is absolutely enormous, and biological diversity also means chemical diversity. It is a fantastic potential bank of chemicals that can be used in various ways. This is part of our new initiative here. We are implementing this by creating partnerships, for example, with the Max-Planck Institute in Potsdam and Professor Lothar Willmitzer, and through the proactive recruitment of plant scientists. So if anyone here wants an offer they cannot refuse, just come and talk to me. Needless to say, this inaugural plant sciences workshop is also included in our new initiative.

Dear participants, I have tried this morning to give a small background to the University and our new initiatives in the plant sciences. All that is required of you now is to enjoy the meeting, share ideas and give good advice to NTU on how to proceed. And I also think you could have another cup of coffee.

Thank you.​

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