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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

5th Life Sciences Career Day

The National University of Singapore organized its fifth Life Sciences Career Day yesterday, giving students a chance to examine a cross-section of their employment opportunities.

(Life science, cross-section... get it? HAHAHA I crack me up!)


It sounds like a boring, serious event doesn't it? Turns out that it was not only informative, but fun and full of laughter as well.

So let's go find out what happened!

Registration was at 8.30am in the morning. I had to get out of bed 6-ish.

Truth be told I haven't woke up this early on a Saturday for, well... many months. A fellow graduate student, who was helping out as an usher in the lecture theatre, agreed.

"I haven't eaten my breakfast yet. I'll go out and grab something when the programme starts," he said.

This year, 14 organizations and companies participated in the Career Day, representing a wide spectrum of career paths.

In addition, the invited speakers were NUS alumni who ventured out into different professions, some very distant from academic science.

So the slogan "One Degree, Diversified Career Opportunities" was very appropriate.

The turn-out was strong. Over a hundred students, mainly undergraduates, arrived at the lecture theatre. Later, a show of hands would reveal that most of them are final year undergrads.

At 9.00am the programme promptly started.

Time to listen to the experiences and insights of the guest speakers.

As usual, despite our prolific note-taking capabilities, Fresh Brainz will only highlight the juiciest parts of their talks for your reading pleasure!

1. Prof. Andrew Wee, the Dean of Science, gave the opening speech.

He noted that science students seldom use the resources at the NUS career centre and encouraged more people to do so. He also invited undergrads to consider graduate school at the Department of Biological Science.

Next up was Mr. Kenneth Lee, a senior officer from the Economic Development Board (EDB) specializing in investments in the biomedical industry. He wanted to show the audience that the job prospects of basic degree-holders are not limited to just research assistants or sales personnel. There are also opportunities in the EDB for people who prefer not to work in a lab.

In addition, he presented glowing figures in the growth of the industry. Biomedical manufacturing increased from S$6 billion in 2000 to S$24 billion in 2006. Drug companies in particular have committed S$2 billion in infrastructure investment. Biotech giant Genentech, the No. 2 best employer worldwide, is coming to Singapore soon to set up a biologics manufacturing facility. In fact there will be a total of 5 such facilities by 2012, providing another 1400 jobs to the current pool of over 10000 jobs in the sector.

Mr. Lee emphasized that the arrival of these companies and their regional headquarters also mean more job openings for those interested in the marketing and business side of pharmaceuticals. He pointed out that the biomedical industry is the top 3 highest paying employer in Singapore.

Finally he encouraged the audience to consider working in this field because it is relevant to their studies, provides good opportunities for career advancement and pays well.

The podium was then handed over to Prof. Peter Ng, the director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. He found it strange that, as an academic scientist, he was asked to give a talk in a career fair. He noted that biology used to be considered a 3rd-class science topic, behind subjects such as physics. However, in today's context, with urgent environmental problems facing the world, biology has become more important. In fact, he believes that the 21st century would be the age of biology.

Prof. Ng pointed out that Singapore, as a small island, is ideal for testing out new environment technologies that are applicable to the world. Career opportunities in this field are now available at the Public Utilities Board (PUB) and the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Prof. Ng ended his talk by emphasizing the importance of the "softer" aspects of biology, such as conservation and ecology, in addition to its biomedical aspects.

2. The fourth speaker was Dr. Christopher Syn, a forensic scientist from the Health Sciences Authority (HSA). He has examined over 590 cases for the Singapore Police Force.

I believe many people in the audience would agree that he gave the most engaging and entertaining talk that morning.

To start, Dr. Syn made the distinction between "forensic medicine" and "forensic science".

"Forensic medicine gets the body of the deceased," he explained.

"We get everything else."

He noted that forensic science, both for better and for worse, has been highly hyped up by TV.

He then displayed a photo of Catherine Willows from the hit drama series CSI (similar to this one) :

"She is holding a 3-watt battery-powered flashlight. In this day and age, why can't you just turn on the lights? Why do they examine the crime scene in the darkness, at night?" he asked incredulously.

Next, Dr. Syn did a side-by-side comparison of "Reel" CSI vs "Real" CSI.

In the TV version, it is portrayed as glamorous work.

Investigators solve 2 crimes within 1 hour. They don't need to wear face masks.

They handle exhibits and then answer handphones or brush their hair while wearing gloves (CONTAMINATION!!!). They appear to be experts in everything and have access to 22nd-century technologies, where magical machines give them exact answers at the touch of a button.

In real life, investigators face limited resources.

As an example: at the United States Department of Justice, there is a 500,000-sample backlog for DNA analysis alone. Reel CSI has given some members of the court unrealistic expectations and unrealistic demands on evidence.

"They want DNA evidence for a forgery case. Why? They say that there is always DNA evidence on CSI!"

To make things worse, Reel CSI has also helped to educate criminals.

Dr. Syn mentioned a guy who said this when he was arrested:

"But how did you catch me? I watched on TV to wear gloves!"

In closing, Dr. Syn provided an overview of the actual workflow in a forensic lab, and showed some bizarre and gruesome exhibits of previous high-profile crime cases.

There were three more talks lined up.

Ms. Joanne Chio, assistant director at the office of executive education in NTU, recounted her sales and marketing experience in the pharma industry. She said that she enjoyed marketing because she like to idea of "eating the pie" of her business competitors. She then described her later work in designing business education programmes. She highlighted the importance of EQ (not a term I like - "interpersonal skills" sounds clearer) in achieving success.

Deputy Public Prosecutor and State Counsel Ms. Stella Tan talked about how she uses her science training as a lawyer, and reviewed a number of interesting and shocking criminal cases in court.

3. The next speaker was Ms. Karen Tok, director of ScienTec Consulting, a head hunting company.

In my opinion her talk contained the most useful practical tips for job hunters, because of her experience working with employers in many fields.

She noticed that candidates like to talk about their own achievements, but often neglect to research about the company that they would like to work for.

It is important to understand the job requirement and find out from the beginning how your performance will be measured.

She also recommended that candidates avoid job hopping. A minimum stay of 3 years in one place for junior positions reflects better on the person. Employers prefer to hire people who have been promoted through the ranks in the same company, rather than people who increased their salary by jumping ship.

Finally, she cautioned the audience that despite the rosy job market outlook, it is prudent for a candidate to know the competition well. Foreign talents currently account for 60% of the Singapore biomedical workforce. People must put in effort to stand out from a whole stack of CVs.

4. After the talks, Prof. Hew Choy Leong, the co-chair of the Life Sciences undergrad programme, coordinated a panel discussion to allow the audience to benefit more from the expertise of the invited guests.

Specific questions from the audience include the career prospects of PhD students (CEOs anyone?), career opportunities in EDB for foreign students in Singapore (Yes - for NUS students), specific job openings in environment and conservation science (Siemens has some), career prospects for people with both science and law degrees (patent law), and the possibilty of initiating an internship programme with commercial companies (underway).

Throughout the discussion, the panel speakers emphasized the importance of passion (another word I dislike - I prefer "sustained interest") when choosing your future career path.

Dr. Steve Cohen (CEO Temasek Life Sciences) pointed out that you will spend much of your waking hours on your work, for many years - so it would be best to do something that you enjoy.

Dr. Christopher Syn added that it was important to know your own personality. He deadpanned that unlike Ms. Joanne Chio he doesn't like interacting with people, so his current job suits him better.

Ms. Stella Tan agreed - she felt that she couldn't be a successful saleswoman, so she went into law instead. She stressed that her science training is still useful in court.

Dr. Andrew Powell (CEO Asia BioBusiness) revealed that industry people want to see candidates who know the world. He felt that Singaporean students were not sufficiently aware of current affairs and encouraged everyone to "pick up a newspaper".

After the stimulating panel discussion, the scheduled programme was over.

Time for a quick tour around the career exhibition.

And lunch!

The biggest crowds gathered around the EDB and Sigma-Aldrich booths. Some booths were advertising graduate study programs (such as Swiss House, IBN and NUS-DBS) while others like the NEA had immediately available employment positions.

Eager undergrads were writing down their contact information to potential employers, planning to find a job when they graduate next year.

Overall I felt encouraged by the information provided by the speakers and the exhibition. The graduate student volunteer I mentioned earlier thought that the mix of companies participating this year was more diverse than last year.

After I fed myself with pineapple rice and fruit punch, it was time to head back to the lab and feed the cells too!

Have you ever noticed that DMEM has the same colour as fruit punch?

That's why you should always eat first before doing experiments.

Would you like to know more?

- Participating companies
ScienTec Consulting Pte Ltd
Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research
Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology
Department of Biological Sciences
People Search
i-DNA Biotechnology Pte Ltd
Swiss House Singapore
National Environment Agency
Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory
Singapore Delft Water Alliance
ThermoFisher Scientific