“My story is a little bit soppy,” Dr Richie Soong says.
It’s an understatement of a tragedy, an understatement that may come from an identity forged growing up in the 1980s in a far removed urban fringe sitting atop the Outback, surrounded by the stoic, silent, ‘nothing personal’ attitude of Australian beer drinking, football-playing, men.
With calm and confidence, the 47-year-old Darwin-born research professor and Pacific Laboratories chief executive officer, Soong sits down in his Singapore home to explain innovative medical treatment called personalised medicine and his ignoble beginnings in the still frontier-like Darwin of the 1980s.
Through a cracking and pixelated Zoom meeting Soong responds thoughtfully and deliberately.
His fondness for Darwin is evident through his eager nature to share his description of growing up in the city.
“It was a wonderful upbringing to have … one of the best childhoods anyone could ask for,” he said
“There was a full diversity of people, everybody was friendly to each other [and] everybody had good intentions to each other. It was a wonderful atmosphere to grow up in”.
But there is a great stab of tragedy underneath his “soppy” reference, which pivoted Soong’s life mission and took him on a cross continental path to be a leader in his field.
His father died of cancer when Soong was just 14-years old. One of the problems was that his father was misdiagnosed.
“Because [he] was misdiagnosed I was determined to do new research, make new medicine, improve medicine around the place, not just in the big cities but in the region and so that’s kind of being the thing,” he said.
“Even though I had the grades to get into medicine I choose science. Science is the fall back but I actually put science above medicine.
“So that’s an interesting choice, you could say it was driven from Darwin but that’s probably a sad reason its driven from Darwin.”
This declaration encapsulates Soong’s willpower which is apparent throughout his medical success and our conversation. His unwavering attention is nicely complimented with pockets of passion that show throughout our Zoom call and is reflected in his career path.
Soong’s lifelong friend Duncan Redwood said the death of Soong’s father was beneath his decision to study a Bachelor of Science.
“I think it had a big influence on it. I think it lead him to go onto research in terms of the diagnostics. He could have gone off and done medicine initially, or law, or something else but he went down this path here,” Redwood said.
“I think he had it in the back of his mind all mapped out.”
With the emotive decision to preference a “fall back” degree Soong moved almost 3,000km away to Perth where his sister lived.
“There wasn’t any opportunity [to stay in Darwin],” Soong said, “at that time [in 1989] there was no university.”
A smile lingers when he explains how he wanted to go to Adelaide where his friends were going but his mum said no.
“I fought with my parent about this but my eldest sister had gone to Perth, and when she’s there it’s easier to take care of somebody and look after them,” he said.
This decision saw Soong complete a Bachelor of Science and PhD at the University of Western Australia, before travelling to Germany in 1998 to undertake a postdoctoral fellowship. Soong worked on developing instrument systems and applications on real-time polymerase chain reaction technology that is used to copy DNA. He chose Germany to break into the industry, to build his career, and immerse himself in the European culture.
This culture, Soong said, was very different to Alabama, where he travelled next, to work on pharmacogenetics, which uses genetic information to “choose the right drug for the right patient”. Soong spent two years at the University of Alabama in Birmingham in the early 2000s as an Assistant Professor. Soong’s mentor Bob Diasio, who is the former director of the Mayo Clinic Cancer Centre, worked at the university and was very well connected, he said.
“[Alabama was] very American… uncompassionate, uncultured, coming from Europe, and unequal,” he said.
But he said the friendliness of the people and willingness to help was unconditional.
“Alabama was like Darwin [in that regard],” he said.
“I remember breaking down on the highway near Talladega between Birmingham and Atlanta and seven cars stopped to help including a giant guy, who would have scared me in a dark alley, offering to provide water”.
However, it was his objection to America’s gun culture that drove Soong’s decision to leave.
“After hearing on the morning news every day about children getting shot by drive-by shootings … we looked to come home,” he said.
This move led Soong to Singapore where he’s been living for over 15 years.
“Singapore was heavily funding their biomedical industry at that time, so I rode the wave back,” he explained.
Soong compared all the places his lived and said: “Singapore won out easily for career development and savings [and]… was a good travel hub for reaching out to Asia”.
His success, from being a leading scientist in medical research, to a chief executive officer of his own medical company, is neatly embodied in his humble attitude towards Darwin and attribution of these achievements to his Australian education.
“It’s a lot to do with the Australian education and the Australian attitude to things,” Soong said, “I think it’s really a matter of this whole ‘nothing personal’ attitude of Australians.
“I think [Australians’] make up is that you can bash each other on the footy field, or the rugby field, and then you can be shaking hands having a beer afterwards… that sort of optimises the whole attitude of Australians and why they’re successful.”
Soong’s love of AFL and sport encompasses his own laid back Australian nature, from playing cricket at the Waratah Cricket Club with Redwood, to taking this same attitude into his high level medical career.
“He’s a fun guy [and] studious but loves sport,” Redwood said.
“He’s very passionate about cricket and Aussie rules, he’s a mad Collingwood supporter.”
From his public schooling foundation of Parap Primary School and Darwin High School, Soong describes his “fantastic education”.
“I’m pretty proud of my background, I think I got a fantastic education from Parap Primary and Darwin High School. When I’m in high level meetings I proudly say I’m from Darwin High School,” he said.
“I know a lot of people that grew up down south or overseas and a lot of them were bullied, had miserable upbringings, had nasty people all around so it was a wonderful upbringing to have.”
While Soong tributes his success to his education, Redwood speaks of his ambitious and intelligent nature.
“[He is] very intelligent, very driven… In terms of driven he lived abroad in a number of countries in terms of pursing his career, it was strategic, he goes to various places to further his career,” Redwood said.
“He is very well renowned; I didn’t realise how well renowned he was in terms of like cancer diagnostics and the [research].”
The attributes of ambition, intelligence and drive noticeably shine through when talking to him.
These qualities are coupled with his ability to patiently and meticulously explain personalised medicine, and how it can be used to prevent and better treat diseases such as cancer.
It is also a delicate reminder of Soong’s past and the emotional, passionate origin of his career choice.
“Many will argue [precision medicine] is not new,” Soong said, “if you look at it down to the definition, it’s giving treatment to patients or individuals based on their unique biological makeup,” he said
“So technically it pertains to looking at your genes, your proteins and all this which is different from everybody and customising treatment, according to this information, and that’s the main thing, that’s opposed to doing treatment on mass.”
This treatment challenges the traditional method of managing everyone on mass and was enabled through the 2003 breakthrough in human genome sequencing.
“That really broke the mould for things,” he said, “before sequencing technology, you couldn’t do precision medicine because you couldn’t scan somebody’s genome”.
This breakthrough allowed precision medicine to progress and was popularised by Angelina Jolie in 2013 when she announced she carried the BRCA1 gene which places the carrier with up to a 60 – 80 per cent chance of developing cancer, according to Cancer Australia.
Jolie underwent preventative surgery which dramatically reduced her risk of developing cancer. With a focus on prevention and personalised treatment for diseases such as cancer it is evident why Soong chose the path he did.
Soong is the chief executive officer of Pacific Laboratories, which offers quality tests and services for both clinical and research needs. The company focuses on the regions unique health issues and optimising the delivery of precision healthcare in the region.
This includes testing genetics for cancer and other health conditions, and maternity tests, as well as consultation, laboratory and education services. As CEO Soong leads a team of doctors, scientists, informaticians, and business and marketing professionals with his technical and commercial knowledge in molecular diagnostics.
From his modest Parap Primary origins Soong has gone on to become the head of an international healthcare company, study and work on four continents, and attend a United Nations scientific conference in Paris, which he said was a career highlight for him.
“I would have to say the biggest highlight was I did attend UNESCO in Paris… a conference on BRCA… trying to harmonise how it is performed worldwide and also trying to get more people around the world to be tested, you know it’s a human right.”
This genuine and aspiring attitude goes hand-in-hand with his work and is refreshing.
With the success and achievements launched from Darwin, Soong’s story is a reminder of the possibilities that can emerge from this small city.
“You can’t replace Darwin,” he said, you can’t find the laidback attitude and people anywhere else.