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A Fresh Start: Young PhD Researcher Sets up Shop in Singapore

With an area slightly more than 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C., and a population of about 5 million, Singapore is one of the smallest nations in the world. But a commitment to pouring major investments into research and development has led many young U.S. researchers to seek opportunities in this high-tech, wealthy city-state in southeast Asia.

Following this trend, Kimberly Kline, MPH ’04, PhD ’05, recently accepted her first faculty position at Nanyang Technological University, a research-intensive public university in Singapore with more than 33,000 undergraduate and post-graduate students.

“I had some really attractive offers in the U.S., so it was a hard decision to make in some ways,” explains the native of Bismarck, N.D. “Ultimately, the resources and opportunities for doing science in Singapore right now convinced me that it was a good time to try someplace new. From a personal standpoint, the chance to live abroad again and in a part of the world I didn’t know much about, was also appealing. When my husband got a good job in Singapore, too, that made the decision pretty easy.”

The university, which is considered one of the top technological schools in Asia Pacific, chose Kline as one of 11 foreign scientists out of 174 applicants worldwide to build a lab at their facility. She will receive $3 million over five years to support her work. Her recruitment represents an effort by the Singapore government to lure talent to conduct cutting-edge research.

Dr. Kim Kline works in the School of Biological Sciences at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Setting up shop

After arriving in Singapore, Kline set up her lab, which studies the bacterium Enterococcus faecalis, an important hospital-associated pathogen that can cause life-threatening infections ranging from endocarditis to urinary tract infections to meningitis. This round bug secretes and attaches certain disease-associated molecules to the bacterial surface at just one or two spots on the cell.

“I like to use the analogy of a navel on an orange – many fundamental molecular processes that are critical for this bacterium to cause disease happen at just one or two little navels, or foci,” she says. “My lab is interested in how and why these foci form, and whether they might be useful antimicrobial targets. In addition, some of the surface structures that are assembled at foci are critical for disease, so we also study the role of some of these molecules during infections.”

While Kline spends most of her time in the lab with three researchers, one post-doctoral fellow, three doctoral and two undergraduate students, she also gives a few microbiology lectures to undergraduate and graduate students each term. Since arriving in Singapore in November 2011, she has built a number of collaborations with microbiologists at her own and other universities on the island, as well as with groups in Israel, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the U.S.

Dr. Kline (third from right) with her lab staff, says it's easy to collaborate in Singapore because of its relatively small size.

Island of diversity

In addition to the diversity of Kline’s research collaborations, her colleagues in Singapore also come from a variety of backgrounds.

“I’m surrounded by Singaporeans, Australians, Indians, Swedes, Danes, Brits, Italians, and Dutch and…you get the idea,” she says. “One of the fantastic things about Singapore is that it is a small place, so it’s easy to meet and interact with like-minded scientists.”

And, she says the transition to life in Singapore hasn’t been difficult since most people speak English and research is a universal language.

“Science is such an international discipline and operates similarly wherever you go,” she explains. “When you are in the lab here, it feels, looks, and operates the same as the labs in which I’ve worked in Chicago, St. Louis, and Stockholm.”

Kimberly Kline, MPH '04, PhD '05, opened a lab in Singapore in late 2011 to study an important hospital-associated pathogen that can cause life-threatening infections.

Choosing a research path

Scientific research, specifically microbiology, has been an interest of Kline’s since her undergraduate education in biology at St. Olaf College in Minnesota when she started working in her advisor’s laboratory.

“That experience clicked with me and I knew that research was something I wanted to pursue. From there, graduate school was the obvious next step, so I came to Northwestern.”  There she worked in the lab of Hank Seifert, PhD, John Edward Porter Professor of Biomedical Research, studying the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhea.

During her time at Feinberg, Kline recalls her training as invaluable.

“I obtained great scientific training from my PhD advisor,” she says. “Dr. Seifert’s expectations were high and he pushed us to think critically and independently from day one. He demanded carefully thought out and controlled experiments, coupled with clear and precise communication about research.”

As she continued on her career as a researcher, she spent part of her post-doctoral fellowship working at Washington University in St. Louis and the rest in Stockholm, Sweden.

Her post-doc advisor at Washington University, Scott Hultgren, PhD ’88, taught her how to manage a lab effectively and mentor trainees in a rigorous and supportive way.

Now, with a tenure-track position, Kline says she has every resource she needs to pursue her research.

“For the time being, I’m quite content. But, who knows about the future? There are many universities and cities in the U.S. and elsewhere that appeal to me, and would be great and exciting places to live and work.”