by Inez Tan, Izyan Nadzirah and Jason Chua
You notice them around, in the science lab and your classrooms ensuring that your laboratory experiments or science classes go smoothly. But outside of RI, some of our science staff possesses unique and interesting hobbies that go beyond the science syllabus.
We speak to them to find out more about what they enjoy doing outside of school and discover how they too employ their knowledge of science to aid them in their everyday lives.
Ms Linda Lai may have been a senior laboratory officer for the last ten years and counting, but the former part time costume jewellery designer has not lost touch with her creative side at all. In fact, she confides, setting up laboratories and experiments are an art in itself. Born in Hong Kong, Ms Lai started working for her father upon graduation. Her father owned four costume jewellery shops spread across Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and she took great pleasure in interacting with new and long-time clients to understand their interests and preferences better. Talking to clients also gave her inspiration to design costume jewellery more attuned to her client’s interests. Often, shops patrons and passers-by were intrigued by the unique one of a kind design pieces her family’s shops offered.
In 1993 Ms Lai’s husband was posted to Singapore and she and her daughter followed suit. Upon emigration, Ms Lai wanted to seek a working environment that could offer a new challenge for her.
‘A secondary school had just opened near my home and I decided to apply for an administrative position there. Eventually, they offered me a lab position and I took it for a couple of reasons. Working in a school would allow me to improve my English since I was more fluent in Cantonese as a Hong Kong-er, and I could learn something new!’ she shared.
Her first few colleagues in her department were Malay, and she struggled to understand them and their colloquial slang. Eventually she could converse decently with them and her other colleagues, settling nicely in Singapore. Over time she also formed close friendships with her colleagues.
In 2005 she applied for a position as a laboratory officer at Raffles Junior College when it moved to Bishan. One of her first tasks was to figure out a storage solution for all the lab equipment which she diligently designed, maximising space and efficiency simultaneously.
‘When I set up a table for an experiment, I go beyond just laying the apparatus out. With the knowledge I’ve gained over time, I set them up in sequence, ensuring an experiment can be carried out smoothly. That’s where art comes into science.’
Over the next few years the Science teachers noted her eye for design and approached her in their midst of exploring the idea of an open lab. After getting a budget approval from the management, Ms Lai set to work laying out the interior design blueprints on Microsoft PowerPoint, including suggesting the type of material to use for some of the furniture. The teachers were so impressed that she go the green light to work with the Estates department to make the OpenLab a reality!
Today’s OpenLab has not varied much from her original design – the layout, furniture and colour scheme is similar to her original drawing. Thanks to Ms Lai’s sheer dedication and eye for functionality and design, many students and professors are able to take advantage of the conducive lab environment to successfully carry out new research.
A few months later, the department was interested in a new project and sought Ms Lai’s talents once again. This time around the teachers wanted to build a biodiversity pond that could showcase many native species. While this project required landscape design, it also required knowledge of the science behind creating a self-regulating environment and she regularly sought information from her teaching colleagues before finalising her first blueprint.
‘I learnt so much from my colleagues. It was really exciting to be a part of the biodiversity pond project. In design, we cannot just go in blind and assume what we propose will work. We have to do the research, understand the clients who will be living or using the product or space.
In this case, the flora and fauna were the clients we needed to listen to!’ she shared, laughingly.
Ms Lai produced an initial blueprint that was used by the teachers to appeal to the management for funding and when the green light was given, the whole department got together to discuss specific species to include in the pond. With consultation from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in the National University of Singapore, the pond was realised in 2009. Today, the biodiversity pond remains a unique attraction within the school grounds and has been mentioned in publications as one of the best ponds within Singapore.
While there are no more upcoming large scale projects projected for the near future that will require Ms Lai’s design instinct, she is glad to have played such a huge role in developing the resources for the science community within RI. As a person and as senior laboratory officer, Ms Lai feels that she has grown tremendously.
‘In my previous school, there were not many challenges as experiments were status quo. In RI, there is always an opportunity to improve, suggest and try. From working alongside colleagues when the RJC first moved to Bishan to managing them now as a senior, I’ve learnt more about myself and developed a decent knowledge of biology and other sciences while staying true to my creative side. I do not regret not continuing my father’s business,’ she shared with deep satisfaction.
Not many can claim to grow plants or trees just by throwing a seed out the window. Yet Mdm Neo Heok Tee, who has been a senior laboratory officer with RI for the past twenty-five years, has such a great pair of green thumbs that she has been regularly planting and tending to the different plants and trees around the Year 1-4 Campus. While most of the plants are planted at the request of teachers for experiments, she does plant fruit trees or herbs and regularly shares the fruits of her labour with her colleagues. She’s also been known to willingly travel beyond the neighbourhood to pick up seeds, fruits and leaves that have the desired characteristics for experiments.
One of her most recent collections is the broad-leaved mahogany seed which is highly sought after by the elderly for its ability to help control diabetes. Today, there are two trees planted within the school grounds.
‘You can see elderly people pull up chairs and wait for the fruits to drop and hurry to pick them up! You see, what’s on the tree belongs to the government, but what’s on the ground is for anyone and everyone,’ she shared. When Mdm Neo first joined RI, she did not know much about biology as she had only learnt General Science in secondary school. While the learning curve was huge, she never regretted accepting the role.
‘I honestly learn something new every other day. My colleagues, long-serving and new, are very willing to share their knowledge with me. Science is always changing and even the laboratory staff have to constantly update ourselves with the most current method, and experiments.
I like how much knowledge I have of nature now. In the past, all leaves were just part of nature, but now I take time to notice the veins and leave structure!’
She recalls an incident during the Qing Ming Festival many years back when her husband drove by a beautiful sturdy green sugar cane left leaning against a bin. She immediately asked her husband to stop and they both spent a great deal of time trying to fit the sugar cane into their car. Mdm Neo tried to grow it in the school grounds, but unfortunately it would not grow roots.
‘We still have two sugar canes in the school though – one purple and one green. Students these days will never know the joy of cutting open sugar cane and sucking on it,’ she lamented, and shared how her family had grown sugar cane around their kampong.
These days, while she notes that there are fewer plots of land within RI to plant, she still finds much joy in cultivating the plants that she has watched grow from sapling to tree, and helping to plant and maintain rare species of plants provided by universities and museums for the school to plant and research on. Included in the school’s collection are roselle plants, tapioca plants, and even moss!
Mdm Neo shared that a teacher wanted to teach his students how to build a terrarium and she was asked to ‘grow’ moss. She walked around the campus giving it some thought, thinking of the best methods and location to grow it. Eventually she ended up at the Marshall Block at the Year 1-4 Campus and spied a large patch of moss already multiplying where the land was bare – all she had to do was pluck a bunch for the teacher!
Outside of school though, Mdm Neo does not regularly seek nature as she is not an outdoor-loving person. However, when Coney Island was open to the public, she made it a point to head there with her husband to view what possible undiscovered species might be growing on the island itself. She admitted that she was very tempted to pluck some leaves to discuss with her colleagues if they were new species, but decided against it as Coney Island is state land.
Mdm Neo may not have started out wanting a career in the sciences, but she has since been integral to cultivating Rafflesians’ affection for the subject. When asked if there are students to return back to say thank her, she nodded her head shyly before sharing, ‘I’ve seen many generations of Rafflesians, and while each cohort is unique, their curious mind and quick learning capability is a trait that resides in many. They can be really sweet sometimes – I’ve had alumni drop to visit their teachers and remember to ask after me. That is an added perk of working here!’
As an undergraduate, Dr Abigayle Ng once found herself wading into the mud at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve with other members of the NUS Biological Sciences club at the behest of their senior, lecturer Mr Sivasothi. ‘It was apparently a rite of passage, but I found out only when I got there,’ says Dr Ng. ‘I thought, oh my gosh, so terrifying! And when we washed the mud off in the sea, it stung because the mud was full of things like broken shells and we had tiny scratches all over our skin.
‘Looking back, it was quite dangerous; there could have been bits of broken glass in the mud. But it was so fun! On top of it all, Mr Siva was showing us all the plants and animals in the mangrove, and catching fish in the mud. It made me really love nature.’
Dr Ng later joined the Blue Water Volunteers, an organisation founded by her seniors at NUS’s marine biology lab.
‘Our motto is “Conservation through Education, Awareness and Research”; we pride ourselves on basing our activities more on real, hard science,’ Dr Ng explains.
Among the Blue Water Volunteers’ activities are reefWalks (conducting guided walks through reefs), reefFriends (carrying out reef surveys) and reefExhibits (setting up booths at events). Despite feeling shy at first, Dr Ng challenged herself to actively engage visitors who walked past her booth during reefExhibits.
‘Out of ten people you stop, one may be interested in what you have to say, and that would make you feel really happy that you’re there talking about the reefs. This is something I tell my students; you just need to take that step, and when you talk about something you are passionate about, you would get very excited. And speaking out for the shores is how you get people to know about them.’ Some RI students were so inspired by this that they formed an informal nature-guiding group, Walks of Life.
The efforts of groups like the Blue Water Volunteers have definitely paid off, with more members of the public visiting places like Chek Jawa. Alas,this is not entirely cause for celebration. ‘The sad thing is that when some people know about nature in Singapore, they try to catch it and bring it home instead of putting it back, where it would have a better chance of surviving and reproducing,’ Dr Ng sighs. ‘I’ve seen people catching sea horses and butterfly fish. Or collecting seashells—other animals in the ocean, like crabs and snails,actually need the calcium in these seashells to grow their own shells, so they should really be recycled back into the ocean instead.’
All of us have a part to play in protecting Singapore’s natural environments. We can speak out when we see something not correct (for example, writing in when we hear about an activity that harms the environment), or openly praise or affirm actions that preserve the environment. Dr Ng points out that even small actions like sharing posts or pictures about nature on social media can go a long way: ‘It’s something anybody can do; you would be able to reach out to a lot of people who may not be interested in nature at all.’
‘I still remember the first time I coached the girls soccer team. That was in 2006 and their teacher-incharge asked me if I could help to train the goalkeeper so I did. I came down in full gear and to my surprise, I was better equipped than the goal keeper, because she didn’t even have gloves. So I lent her my gloves and we started training. At the end of the training, the teacher came down and asked me “How? Is she ready for match?” I told him that she would be ready in about 3-4 sessions time. His reply – “Cannot la bang, tomorrow is our game”. I thought to myself “Alamak, this teacher what, tomorrow match today want to train to be goal keeper?” And that’s how I started to help coach the girls soccer team.’
To most of the Y5-6 Science population, Mr Sulaiman bin Subali , or as his friends affectionally call – ‘le manz’, is one of several laboratory officers that work hard behind the scenes to ensure that their experiments run smoothly, in everyday lab classes all the way till SPA examinations. But to the members of the football CCAs and especially the female footballers, he is much, much more than that. Coach, mentor, 80s Singapore footballing legend and heart throb, he is all of the above, and more.
Like most boys Mr Sulaiman’s passion for football started as a kid, beginning from friendly kick-abouts with friends with the thought of playing professionally never crossing his mind. ‘Actually, even when I played professionally for Toa Payoh United, I was also conned into it!’ Mr Sulaiman shared.
‘Back then, there was no such thing as a full-time footballer. All of us had full-time jobs, and I was a mechanic with ST Kinetics. I had a friend who was looking for players for Toa Payoh United and he approached me when I was at work. He gave me 3 forms to sign, one for Business House football team which was an amateur league among few businesses, another was for Jurong League, which was another league for the factories in Jurong. After signing the first 2 forms, he passed me another and told me to sign that one too, that one turned out to be for Toa Payoh United, which played in Division 2, the equivalent of Prime League today.’
For him, football has always been his first love, having sacrificed a fair amount of career progression at ST Kinetics, simply to continue playing football professionally. Unfortunately, age and injuries took its toll and he eventually retired at age 31, and began his second career in football, this time as a coach to nurture tomorrow’s footballing talent and our Rafflesian football teams on an entirely voluntary basis. Singapore football’s loss, RJC’s (and then RI’s) gain. To that end, Mr Sulaiman credits his wife as being a pillar of support for him as well, her being the one who actually submitted his resume to RJC without him knowing, helping him to get a job in the first place. He also appreciates the school and Mdm Linda Lai’s understanding as he is allowed to leave early on days that the Girls Football have matches.
Like him, his family is also football mad, his wife supports Arsenal, his son, a Home United Prime League player, is a Liverpool fan, his daughter a Manchester United supporter and he even counts former Singapore captain Sharil Ishak as his nephew. So football very much runs in his family.
Closing off the interview with a chuckle, Mr Sulaiman pointed at the pitch and said ‘I’m thankful to Raffles lah. I mean, in a way I still get to enjoy my first and second love – coaching the football teams and the canteen!’
It’s no secret that most store-bought ice creams contain a spine-chilling amount of fat and sugar, so the intuitive thing to do when making your own is to swap the cream for low-fat milk and cut the amount of sugar, right? Mr Jason Tan did just that, only to discover that he had created something that greatly resembled ice kachang.
‘I realised that food preparation actually involves a lot of chemistry, and I want to use it as an avenue to show students how science can be applicable outside the classroom,’ says Mr Tan. ‘Students sometimes see science and life as quite separate, but you can actually use science to understand how to prepare food.’
In his food science elective, students form groups to make nine batches of ice cream, tweaking various variables: fat and sugar content, flavourings, and additives like guar gum. Guar gum can make low-fat ice cream concoctions smoother as it forms hydrogen bonds with the water in the milk. Liquid nitrogen, which can cool the ice cream mixture rapidly before large ice crystals can form, is another popular tool for making that desirable non-ice-kachang-like low-fat ice cream. Unsurprisingly, this class has proven to be quite a hit among the students. ‘I mean, they are very excited about the fact that they get to eat it,’ Mr Tan laughs.
Inspired by chefs like Heston Blumenthal, who consciously applies scientific theories in his cooking, Mr Tan decided to conduct more food experiments outside the lab—past projects include cured salmon, pasta, bread, éclairs, tamagoyaki, and a particularly labour-intensive mac and cheese that boasted a sauce that did not coagulate.
Fascinatingly, Mr Tan has learnt to solve the conundrum of boiling many eggs at the same time— the temperature of boiling water drops drastically once a large number of eggs are placed in it, making it difficult the estimate the time needed to achieve half-boiled eggs with a perfectly runny yolk. One solution is to use a cooking vessel so large that the addition of the eggs does not cause a drop in temperature, but the better solution turns out to be a lot simpler, faster, and rather counterintuitive.
‘Use a lot less water; just 1cm deep, not enough to cover the egg,’ says Mr Tan. ‘It’s been tested by America’s Test Kitchen. And it’s so smart! With less water it reaches 100 degrees again very quickly, and to cook the rest of the egg you just have to put a lid on top, so it would be steamed. They’ve tried this with numerous eggs, and the results are always the same. And that is what we want in Science; reproducibility.’
‘I think my love for wine was a very practical one. I did my PhD in France for about 5 years and in France, wine is actually cheaper than still water. So to save on money and for practical health benefits, I started to drink wine, and slowly explored my way through.’
Unbeknownst to many, Dr Tan Guoxian of the OpenLab is also a connoisseur of wines, possessing a cellar full of wines, and actually having tasted wines from most regions in France. Whilst studying in France, he often visited the various vineyards in Bordeaux with his friends. Like most wine connoisseurs, Dr Tan also has an impressive collection of wines, with the oldest dating back nearly 50 years. He regularly imports wines in with the help of his friends back in France, citing the cheaper prices.
An avid cook, Dr Tan also experiments incorporating different types of wines into his cooking, helpfully suggesting the use of Sauternes, a French sweet wine from the Sauternais region of the Graves section in Bordeaux, in Japanese food such as Tempura batter and Japanese curry. While the pairing of food with wines is fairly established, most of these tend to focus on more western styled dishes, such as cheese, or steak.
Pairing it with local delights such as bah kwa, char siew on the other hand,is something less ventured into. To that end, Dr Tan enjoys exploring this less ventured area, especially during Chinese New Year with friends and family. For the record, he recommends pairing bah kwa with dry white wines, hei bee hiam with sweet wines and even our local spicy mee pok with dry sweet wines.
Beyond food, however, wine is than just an atas beverage enjoyed by many for its health benefits (increasing research has shown that tannin in red wine helps promote heart healt). Wine is also intricately tied in with culture and has grown to become part of the national identity in France. Dr Tan shared that, ‘In recent years, the Chinese have began to invest in wines and wineyards, buying them at rapid rates. This has led to some unhappiness with some French people who feel a sense that they are selling away their national culture.’
Nationalistic pride aside, like Singaporeans debating over where the best Roti Prata, Nasi Lemak or Chicken Rice can be found in which parts of Singapore, the French also have very strong opinions about which parts of France produce the best variations of red, white or sweet wines. On a personal note, Dr Tan’s personal opinion is that wineyards in the western regions of France tend to produce better wines that have heavier flavours, while those in the Eastern parts of France vinify wines with lighter flavours better.
Closing off, Dr Tan shared the last wine he would drink and his dream wine ‘actually, if its my last wine, it doesn’t really matter what the wine is, as long as I’m in the company of family, especially my wife. So it will probably be one that she enjoys. But in terms of a “dream” wine, I’ve always imagined trying out wine that has been dug out from the wreckage of Titanic.’
Like Mr Jason Tan (who teaches Year 5 and 6 Chemistry), Mr Jason Tan (who teaches Year 3 and 4 Chemistry) started baking because he was dissatisfied with the cakes and desserts available in the Singapore market. However, the source of his dissatisfaction was totally different from his colleague’s.
‘You know how some people say they have a “sweet tooth”? I joke that I have a mouth full of sweet teeth,’ he laughs, explaining that he finds many of the better local baked goods small and costly. Realising that newer cooking programmes and celebrity chefs with affable, down-to-earth demeanours have made home cooking more accessible to the average viewer, Mr Tan decided to ‘try it, modify it, and have the best of both worlds – something with the creamy texture I like, and that satisfies my sweet tooth.’
Mr Tan has made an all-white cake (it has to be butter-based, he emphasised) and a chocolate ganache cake. He has also tried his hand at making soft cookies (with a high butter content, he again emphasised).
‘The layman can sense when food is just that little bit more special, like when you eat really good zi char and exclaim, “wah, this one has wok hei, you know!”, or when the crust of a cake or toast tastes better than usual. There are chemical reasons behind this that make a whole lot of difference, like the Maillard reaction. The right temperature sparks a reaction between a carbonyl group and an amine group to form a compound that we recognise as that brown substance on meat or toast, or on the crust of cakes. It’s a simple reaction but it makes a whole lot of difference to the food experience.’
While knowing so-called hard-core science is undoubtedly useful, Mr Tan shares that when it comes to actually baking or cooking dishes, one still has a lot to learn through trial and error. ‘And then, over time, you will start to use your intuition—how much of each ingredient to add, or how long to let it stand for after you first open the oven. I enjoy cooking and it’s related to chemistry, but it’s not so much a science to me in the end.’
Although cooking is more of a personal pastime, Mr Tan reaches out to students through another hobby of his—drawing comics. ‘It’s easier to explain concepts by talking about funny things and relating them to daily life,’ he says while producing a comic about unreactive spectator ions who refuse to pull their weight in a group project. ‘I’m sure the boys taking Research Education can relate to this,’ he says with a laugh.