The Pursuit Of Excellence

At A*STAR, the dawn of a new day promises a fresh experience and the possibility of breaking new grounds. We speak to two scholars and find out how they aim to contribute to society and make a difference in our everyday lives.

By Yvette Tan

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) is quite possibly one of the most prestigious and cosmopolitan organisations in Singapore to work for as it is Singapore’s leading research agency with world-class scientists of more than 60 nationalities.

Being able to dabble on the cutting edge of science and engineering has been a dream come true for 22-year-old Kang Zi Han and 25-year-old Jayce Cheng.

After receiving the highly coveted National Science Scholarship (NSS), the duo completed their undergraduate degrees at the University of Cambridge and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Currently back at A*STAR laboratories to build up a solid year of research experience, the two are poised to pursue scientific excellence in their PhD careers.

How did you develop your passion for science?

Zi Han: I was interested in research ever since I went for my first attachment in a laboratory at the age of 15. I spent large parts of my school holidays in various laboratories in A*STAR and the National University of Singapore. However, it was a 7-month long attachment with the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology after my A-levels that truly sparked my interest in the field.

Jayce Cheng: During my days in Raffles Junior College (now collectively known as Raffles Institution), I developed a strong interest in Physics and Chemistry. After my graduation, I decided to read Materials Science and Engineering for my undergraduate studies as it combined the two subjects I am most passionate about.

What sets the NSS apart from other scholarships?

Zi Han: I chose the NSS because it gives the recipients many opportunities to work in world-renowned institutes and to learn from the best scientific minds. Also, it has enabled me to pursue my education overseas, which is an experience in itself.

Jayce: I’ve always wanted to do a PhD in Science and Engineering ever since I was in secondary school and the NSS is the only one in Singapore that prepares its recipient for a PhD education in a wide variety of fields, making it the perfect fit for me!

Do you think the NSS has prepared you well for the rigours of your career?

Zi Han: Definitely. It has provided me with a multitude of opportunities to dabble in research, even before my graduation. Being able to attend seminars conducted by eminent scientists has also greatly broadened my horizons and given me a chance to learn from experienced researchers around me.

What are the career tracks in A*STAR that scholars can look forward to?

Zi Han: After completing our PhD studies, we will spend the next two years working in a post-doctoral appointment in one of A*STAR’s research institutes to build and consolidate our research skills. At the end of the tenure, we can choose between a variety of different career tracks, which can be broadly divided into industry, research or academia.

Jayce: A*STAR actively cultivates the interpersonal skills of its scholars in areas like public speaking, networking and leadership development. We develop facets of ourselves that are usually not the focus of daily research activity, but will definitely help us in our progress from researchers to leaders in our respective fields.

What measures does A*STAR implement to maintain a work-life balance?

Zi Han: I am a member of the A*STAR Scholars’ network, which is run directly by us scholars. The A*STAR Scholars’ Network organise events such as movies or dinners after work to allow us to keep in touch with each other. My institute’s recreational club also organises a myriad of activities, from volunteer work for the elderly to even outings to a fish farm!

Jayce: To add to Zi Han’s points, I personally feel that my social life has drastically improved ever since I joined A*STAR! (Laughs)

What does the future hold for you?

Zi Han: I’ll be starting on my PhD in Virology in Harvard University in August, which takes about five years to complete. After graduating, I will return for post-doctorate research at A*STAR. One of the reasons why I chose Virology is because I hope that my work will have practical real-life implications in the future, be it in developing an effective vaccine or antiviral drug.

What makes the study of viruses interesting for me is the potential to improve public welfare and in this way, do my part for society. In A*STAR, we strive for scientific excellence through our contributions to society.

My current research project involves the study of downstream molecules involved in signal transduction from activated C-type lectin receptors (CLRs – a class of pattern recognition receptors). CLRs are activated by the binding of pathogens such as fungi, bacteria and viruses, and are known to play a role in immunity against infectious diseases. They hence yield a potential in the development of therapeutic drugs against fungal infection or viral diseases.

Jayce: Similarly, I will be embarking on my PhD in Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I hope to be able to continue my research in A*STAR and give back to society.

The work we do here at A*STAR is definitely beneficial to industry and society. For example, our research in engineering must demonstrate that it positively impacts Singapore’s industries. With this in mind, you will develop ideas that could create new products, improve processes, create growth and strengthen the economy.

My area of work entails light extraction from LEDs. In current LED devices, the light emitted is often trapped within the device, which heats up the device and reduces its efficiency. I would be looking at strategies such as nano-patterned growth, surface roughening and photonic crystal structures to extract the light. This could potentially lead to the manufacturing of more efficient LED devices with lower cost and environmental impact.

What kinds of qualities should an A*STAR scholar possess?

Zi Han: Perseverance. In the face of failure, you should regard it as a learning opportunity rather than a downfall. Also, it is beneficial if you possess a questioning mind and a constant thirst for knowledge. If this sounds like you, then the NSS scholarship is the perfect fit for you.

Jayce: Motivation. I think A*STAR looks for visionaries who are strongly motivated to contribute back to society. Most scholars I speak to have a specific goal in mind, and who always have an answer to the question “What lies ahead for you?” A*STAR wants people who can envision a better future and find a way to work towards it.

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