At The Forefront of Water Technologies

The environment and water industry has been identified as one of Singapore’s key growth areas. To strengthen the country’s research capability, a PhD scholarship offered by EWI of PUB, the national water agency, was set up to groom experts for this burgeoning sector. Meet two recipients who share how the scholarship has allowed them to pursue their research interests.

By Ruth Wong

Regarded as the most intelligent man in Egypt, the current director of the Library of Alexandria Ismail Serageldin had warned in 1995 that “if the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water."

Thankfully, no war has yet been fought because of water. But the lack of access to safe water sources is a problem faced by millions of people around the world. Singapore understands this water challenge far too well.

The Government has been investing heavily in water technology since the 1970s to generate sustainable water solutions and develop self-sufficiency.

The Environment & Water Industry Programme Office (EWI) was set up in May 2006 to drive the growth of the environment and water industry through R&D and talent development. Jobs for this sector are expected to double to about 11,000 in 2015 with the majority created in the professional and skilled categories.

As part of the plan to foster manpower capabilities, the National Research Foundation (NRF), through the EWI, is providing local and overseas PhD scholarships to nurture research expertise in Environment and Water Technologies (EWT).

Building manpower capabilities
One of the scholarship recipients is PhD student Winson Lay Chee Loong, whose passion in water technologies was ignited in his undergraduate days.

“Since my university studies at the RWTH Aachen in Germany, I have developed an interest for research in water technologies. This interest was strengthened after my graduation when I started work at PUB. There, I had the opportunity to participate in interesting R&D projects that involved exciting new technologies,” shares the 34-year-old.

He is especially fascinated with Forward Osmosis (FO) membrane technology. “As the technology is still at its infancy, there is still a knowledge deficiency of the technology, which impedes its larger scale application. I thought that one of the best ways to get to know the technology on an in-depth level is to do a PhD on it. This opportunity came with the NRF (EWT) PhD scholarship,” he says.

He is currently working on the integration of FO membranes and optimised bioprocess – also known as the osmotic membrane bioreactor (OMBR) technology.

Nurturing scholars
Besides research work, the NRF (EWT) PhD scholars are encouraged to participate in overseas attachments and conferences to keep abreast of the latest developments in their field and network with experts and peers from around the world.

“Last year, I was supported by EWI to attend a two-month attachment at the University of New South Wales, where I was able to interact with leading water researchers there, and learned about advanced analytical techniques such as the Liquid-Chromatography Organic Carbon Detection (LC-OCD) and the Electrical Impedance Spectroscopy (EIS),” Winson highlights.

Winson is not the only who appreciates the strong support given to scholars.

A fellow scholarship recipient, Muhammad Fadzli Bin Hassan, notes, “EWI takes pains to support its scholars, and not just in the financial sense. My liaison officers at EWI have made it clear to me that I can approach them at any time I’m facing problems of any kind. I find their moral support to be just as vital as the rather generous financial support that they have given me.” He is currently pursuing his PhD in mechanical engineering in NUS.

From the lab to the industry
Despite immediately embarking on the PhD path straight after his undergraduate study, Fadzli does not feel he would be confined to a life of academia after receiving his PhD.

“I think it’s untrue that one must go into academia after receiving a PhD. There have been a good number of PhD graduates who have gone on to lead successful careers in the corporate world,” the 27-year-old opines. “One good example is Dr Adrian Yeo, the founder and general manager of Membrane Instruments and Technology Pte Ltd. He has proven to be one of the most successful PhD holders in the field of membrane technology and has since gone on to win the inaugural Don Quixote Fund Award in 2009, which was set up by the recipient of the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize in 2008, Dr Andrew Benedek,” he points out.

He is looking forward to contributing his expertise in the industry upon completing his PhD. “I wish to enter the field of water supply and distribution engineering. I believe it’s a field that would genuinely be useful to a lot of people, particularly in poorer locales where access to clean drinking water is a luxury,” he shares.

He hopes to achieve this either by working in PUB’s R&D division or by joining a multinational corporation that deals with water supply, treatment and distribution.

As for Winson, he is currently on study leave from PUB to pursue his PhD full-time and will return to the organisation after graduation. “I would like to contribute in the area of R&D at PUB, in particular on projects that will see the translation of lab-scale research to on-site technical application.”

In the long run, he hopes to play a part in developing capability and fostering greater collaboration within the Singapore water sector.

For university graduates who are unsure whether to pursue a PhD or to start working, Fadzli advises, “They might consider spending one year in the working world, preferably in a hands-on capacity in a related discipline. That experience will allow them to make an informed decision as to whether or not the research world of a PhD would be suitable for them.”

And to those considering the NRF (EWT) PhD scholarship, Winson says, “Anyone who is passionate about making a positive difference to Singapore’s environment and water technologies sector should consider this scholarship.”

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