Virtual Professorship at Work; the SMART Initiative


The days when the physical presence of a professional in the place of work or a meeting was mandatory are gradually becoming extinct, in the same mode that Brachiosaurus faded from planet Earth. Communication technologies have revolutionized the way meetings happen, and there isn’t the need to always physically gather at one place. If meetings can be made virtual, deals struck and businesses flourish without the need for physical presence and proximity, why can’t ideas ignite minds across the biotech world, and why can’t researchers be tracked in remote control?

The Singapore-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) has taken a smart decision in that direction, which I would equate to a “virtual professorship.”

Last year when I dropped in at SMART to meet a friend of mine, I found publications co-authored by faculty from MIT and by SMART, and I came across a lab-manager who had just come from MIT, where he oversaw the work done by Singapore-resident scholars.

SMART has produced a good infrastructure and has gathered many able hands and minds, but its novel system allowing the contribution of ideas and expertise by senior faculty without being physically present. In SMART, the virtual professor from another institute provides “idea-protocol & expertise,” which enlightens the researchers in a remote destination, who share the authorship, patents and other fruits of their joint work.

The physical space is of course important, as there are indispensable components such as the clusters of idea-igniting faculty assisted by a team of researchers, fuelled by the funding agencies and the strategic investors with exit plans after commercialization. There are difficulties, though, such as the delay in arrival of the materials for research or some expats who prefer to have shorter duration of stay.

Still, this novel initiative is worth being studied by new or would-be institution builders, as things have fallen in place fairly well, and in three years the SMART Bio-SYM team has published 45 papers and has 7 patents to their credit. Plus, one company is to be launched for commercializing a cancer drug screening application!

Samuel JK Abraham