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Tales of two Presidents

NTU President Prof Bertil Andersson meets his successor, Prof Subra Suresh, and discovers that they have many things in common. The stars are aligned for NTU’s continued success, they say, half in jest to HEY!
by Eileen Tan

Illustrations of NTU President Prof Bertil Andersson and his successor, Prof Subra SureshFrom left: Prof Bertil Andersson and Prof Subra Suresh
ILLUSTRATIONS: CHRIS FOO

Bertil Andersson: Hello, Subra. Welcome to NTU. So, like me, you will be travelling halfway around the world to come and work here.

Subra Suresh: Yes, I have heard how you left the fine wines at Strasbourg where you were the CEO of the European Research Foundation to be NTU’s first Provost in 2007 and its President in 2011.

A young Prof Bertil Andersson studying at a deskPHOTO: Prof Bertil Andersson

BA: Oh yes, and you had a similar job at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US, managing all of America’s great research, under the auspices of former President Barack Obama.

SS: I was fortunate to do my national service as head of NSF.

BA: So we are both used to being far from home. In fact, I “ran away” from home at 21 to Umeå University, which was the furthest university within Sweden from my home, to pursue my undergraduate degree.

SS: And I was 21 when I borrowed money for a one-way ticket and left Tamil Nadu in India for the US with less than $100 in my pocket. I went to do my master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Iowa State University.

BA: We should have been born in Singapore, where parents long for their kids to go to university. I think young Singaporeans don’t know how lucky they are! I grew up in post-war Sweden. My dad felt I should work on the family farm or in a factory. Fortunately, my grandmother, the matriarch who ran the farm, saw my potential. Since I went against my parent’s wishes, I knew I had to succeed – on my own.

A young Prof Subra Suresh smilingPHOTO: Prof Subra Suresh

SS: For me, it was my mother who gave me a “head-start” in academia. As a toddler, I must have been more than a handful and after my sister was born, my mother took me to the local public school and asked if I could join the first grade. I was four years old. I entered the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras at 16 to pursue an engineering degree. The full scholarship I got from both IIT and Iowa State really helped me, without which I would not have been able to receive my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

That’s why, as a university leader, I’m always thinking about establishing scholarships and programmes that open up opportunities for talented women, minorities and other under-represented groups, as well as those who are first in their families to go to college. At Carnegie Mellon, I established an initiative called the Presidential Scholarships and Fellowships Programme, which provided financial support for talented students. We were able to attract the largest female first-year enrolment in the university’s history in computer science, more than twice the national average for that field for American universities.

BA: Diversity is good, especially for a university, which thrives in an environment of multiple perspectives and talents. Talking about diversity, I can see that there are three women who are positive influences in your life. I have three in mine too… actually, four, including my granddaughter, Elsie, who says she wants to be a scientist when she grows up. My wife, Susie, is an accomplished research scientist in plant biochemistry and has served as an associate professor at the School of Biological Sciences.

SS: Oh yes, I have two daughters, just like you. Nina is a medical doctor specialising in paediatrics and Meera is a global health professional at a non-profit organisation in the US.

My wife, Mary, worked in clinical research nursing and public health administration. She served for five years as the Director of Public Health for the town in Massachusetts where we lived for 17 years. She is passionate about student life and wellbeing, and wellness throughout the entire university campus community.

BA: Tell Mary and Nina that when I was a student, I used to work as a lab technician in hospitals in the summer. I had a big job – cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I also read electrocardiogram reports and was good enough for the hospitals to offer me a job. I have always been interested in medicine, and planning the birth of NTU’s joint medical school with Imperial College London and seeing it grow up well, has been a high point in my career.

SS: My connections to medicine also started about 15 years ago. Although I started as an engineer, I gradually moved to multidisciplinary research work at the crossroads of engineering, sciences and medicine. In recent years, I’ve had increasingly closer contact with medical researchers around the world. Of course, I first came to Singapore in 1983, and have been involved with various organisations and groups here ever since. So I have always felt at home here.

BA: Do you remember that we met in Singapore more than 10 years ago?

SS: I think that was in 2006 when you came to Singapore as a member of the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) scientific advisory board. I was then helping the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to set up the SMART Centre, the first centre in CREATE. It’s still MIT's only research centre outside the US, and also MIT's largest international research programme. We took a picture with Dr Tony Tan when he was NRF Chairman.

A photo from 2006 showing Prof Bertil Andersson and Prof Subra Suresh with Dr Tony Tan and other academics, some of whom are current university presidents HISTORIC PICTURE FROM 2006 (from left) Prof Thomas Magnanti, now President of Singapore University of Technology and Design; Prof Rafael Reif, now MIT President; NTU President-Designate Prof Subra Suresh; Dr Tony Tan, then Chairman of NRF; Prof Bertil Andersson, now President of NTU; Dr Lim Pin, then the former Vice Chancellor of the National University of Singapore (NUS); and incoming NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye

BA: I found the photo recently. It’s quite fascinating that five of us flanking Dr Tan in the photo have become university presidents!

SS: Actually, we could have met much earlier in life when I was invited to give a lecture at Linköping University, where you were the President, and also when I was a visiting professor and honorary degree recipient at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), where you are now on the Board.

BA: How does Mary feel about moving to Singapore?

SS: I’m happy to return to Asia, and Mary is looking forward to the challenge of immersion in a culture new to her. We have always been impressed by Singapore and its citizens’ determination to succeed.

BA: You will love living on campus, just as much as I have. It’s not only a showcase of sustainable living but also a beautiful one too – even if some Singaporeans think it’s too far in the “west”! I think the beauty of the campus makes it well worth the commute from any part of this “big” country.

SS: I have driven from California to the east coast of the US three times by myself. So the distance between the NTU campus and the city centre, to me, is very short.

I have to commend the entire NTU community for having done an excellent job of taking this university so far globally. Over the past two decades, there have been impressive developments in the physical infrastructure of this campus. The Hive and the Wave are fantastic structures that have both form and substance. And to have 57 Green Mark buildings (or LEED-certified equivalents) on the NTU campus is an amazing feat that would make any American or European university president go green with envy.

BA: Nature gave me my first proper job, because I’m a plant biochemist. So I try to make things bloom where I’m planted.

SS: Thank you for passing the baton of this wonderful university to me. So tell me, what’s one skill you think the NTU President must have?

BA: Big ears. It’s a big campus (200 hectares) with a large community of 33,000 students, 5,300 faculty and researchers, more than 3,000 administrative staff and more than 222,000 alumni from over 150 countries. Including all the stakeholders that we have, it’s not difficult to see why the job of a university president is more complex than that of a CEO of a multinational organisation.

SS: I fully agree. I’ve actually started my walking and listening tours, so I can hear the diverse views of the different groups of people. That was also what I did in my previous leadership roles.

BA: Managing a university is both a science and an art. Some even say these are skills that you are born with.

SS: Speaking of birthdays, I just heard that we share the same birthday – 30 May – although you beat me to it by a few years!

BA: Now everyone knows that you were destined to take over the hot seat. The stars are aligned for NTU’s continued success.

SS: Thank you, and you can be sure that NTU will continue to be the young university admired the world over.

BA: And I will always be a proud ambassador of NTU and Singapore from whichever part of the globe I’m in.