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The Genetics of Grand Rapids

Bin Tean Teh and Sok Kean Khoo are two smart people throwing the notion of Michigan’s inability to lure talented, world-class workers right out the door. All they did was move here. Now the two distinguished research scientists exemplify the intellectual capital driving Grand Rapids' knowledge economy into the 21st century.

Bin Tean Teh was attracted to Grand Rapids in 2000 when the Van Andel Institute (VARI) invited him to start a research laboratory. Teh admits he never heard about GR prior to his recruitment, but that did not stop him from pursuing his career here.

“The thing is that, as a scientist, we want to do the best science,” Teh said. “America obviously provides the best scientific and research environment. And as a scientist, this is the number one concern.”

Born in Malaysia with Chinese descent, Teh was educated in both Australia and Sweden. Teh, 41, received his bachelor’s degree and medical degree in Australia and his Ph.D. in Sweden, specializing in cancer genetics. He also married his wife, Jane, in Sweden. But his son, Gustav, was born in GR.

Grand Rapids was Teh’s first stop in America and he hopes it's his last. He currently runs the laboratory of cancer genetics at the VARI, which involves cancer research with a special emphasis on kidney disease. Teh researches the management of the cancer, how to improve the treatment, diagnosis, and prognosis of the disease as well as its underlying causes and methods. The main goal is to eradicate kidney cancer, he said.

“Hopefully I can contribute to life sciences, mentor students and scientists here, and help build the life science industry,” Teh said. “If we want to build this industry right, we need life science scientists, whether local or foreign. We need to compete [for talent]. GR isn’t the only place pursuing life sciences.”

Teh said a lot of scientists come from overseas and that he and others were recruited to help meet the growing need for scientific talent in west Michigan.

“GR wants to invest and pursue this field so I’m at the right place at the right time,” Teh said. “Everybody in GR is excited about the development here. You can see that with new buildings, our phase II coming up at Van Andel Institute, the medical school, the new children’s hospital, and the new cancer center. This is a good place to be doing science.”

New Neighbors, Modern Industry
Bin Tean Teh's presence in Grand Rapids reflects two community-wide mega trends. One is the region's economic transformation from a manufacturing-based industrial hub to a lean and clean high-tech center of new ideas and technologies. In the new knowledge economy, talented workers like Teh are the essential natural resource to maintain competitiveness, according to economic development experts.

The second trend is about immigration. In the past decade, the City of Grand Rapids has become home to a rapidly growing number of immigrants. More than 10 percent of the city's current population – nearly 21,000 people – was born outside of the United States, according to a recent study commissioned by the Dyer-Ives Foundation. Sixty-two percent of these newcomers have arrived since 1990. And while Latinos constitute the largest percentage (60 percent) of new neighbors, people have come to Grand Rapids from all over the world: Europe (16 percent); Asia (15 percent); as well as Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East.

This wave of foreign-born residents includes everyone from children who lost their families in war to medical experts and others with professional degrees who are helping to reshape the local culture and economy.

Birgit Klohs knows a thing or two about attracting the world's top talent to Grand Rapids. She has served as president of the Right Place, Inc, a regional economic development organization, for 19 years. During that time, Klohs has been on the frontlines of the effort to market greater Grand Rapids to an international audience and sell the region as a superior place to do business.

She said highly educated, highly skilled workers like Bin Tean Teh are the backbone of West Michigan's new economy. And the construction of new facilities such as the VARI, a $70 million research center that opened in 1999, has dramatically improved the region's ability to diversify the local economy and compete for talented workers. The challenge now, she said, is to retain them.

“With the advent of the institute, and additional investment in health sciences on Michigan Street Hill, the ability to attract talent like Bin has become possible,” Klohs said. “The [VARI] has become a catalyst for attracting Ph.Ds like Bin at different levels than what we’re use to. We're now experiencing an increased ability to attract intellectual capital.”

A Place Where Science Flourishes
Sok Kean Khoo is another prime example. Khoo, 38, a research scientist, came to GR in 2000 and has worked alongside Bin Tean Teh ever since. Also a native of Malaysia, Khoo got her Ph.D in Japan. She met her (American) husband there, and later came to the states to do her postdoctoral work. Khoo heard the U.S. was a good place to advance as a scientist and she was thrilled when Teh offered her a job at a premier biomedical research center like VARI.

Khoo never heard of GR prior to that, but now that she is here, she said she has no plans of going anywhere soon. She's attracted by the investment in new medical facilities and the private sponsorship of research institutions. And maintaining that commitment to the life sciences industry, she said, is a smart way for the region to attract and hold on to scientists and other talented workers.

“I hope to stay here for as long as I can,” Khoo said. “Just look at the people here. In six years, so many buildings have been put up – Meijer, DeVos – which show who really contributes.”

As a researcher, Khoo said her primary goal is to get results. The next step is publishing those findings in journals. She also writes grants and pursues funding to maintain independence with her projects.

Khoo also is active in the community and volunteers to open young minds to the sciences. She participates in Science for Girls, a program sponsored by Grand Rapids Community College, where she conducts experiments with students to stimulate interest in research. Khoo is also active in the local Junior Achievement program.

It's her small way of giving back, and strengthening the sense of community that has inspired her and her family's decision to stay here.

“I think GR itself is pretty safe and community-orientated,” she said. “Some say it’s religious, but I don’t mind. It’s safe to be religious.”

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Image descriptions top to bottom:

Sok Kean Khoo near her research station.

Khoo applies genetic material to a GeneChip, manufactured in California.

Exterior View of Van Andel Institute; an architectural gem designed by famed architect Rafael Vinoly.

Sok Kean Khoo is orginally from Malaysia and was educated in both Japan and the U.S.

Abstract view of Van Andel Institute and sky.

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