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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!

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Uniquely Singaporean Letter

Just came across this letter which was sent to the Straits Times forum.

It looks mundane at first glance, but when I examine it closely, it's really an interesting letter that illustrates the uniqueness of our Singaporean biomedical endeavour.

The letter certainly fulfills the old adage of "hiding as much as it reveals", and is a good primer for further discussion.

I'll repost it here for you, followed by a blow-by-blow analysis of its main points:

Limited choices with biotechnology diploma

I REFER to the article, '2 top cancer research groups to set up shop here' (ST, Nov 5). It stated that the arrival of two prominent research institutes was a 'strong validation of Singapore's importance as a research node'.

While the presence of these two new research institutes here further cements our role as a regional hub, we should not neglect the local population.

This year, the biomedical research industry in Singapore came under fire because a large amount of money was invested in this area with little returns in terms of conclusive data.

Relate this to the fact that most research scientists here are expatriates on expatriate pay.

Wouldn't it be more cost- effective to hire local graduates who can do these jobs?

I am aware that one of the most prominent research institutes here does not offer scholarships to polytechnic graduates for further studies and I believe this discounts the fact that there are keen minds in polytechnics today.

I studied biotechnology at diploma level, under the impression that I would have good prospects in terms of future studies and career advancement.

However, the fact is that only the top 10 per cent of polytechnic graduates are accepted by local universities. This leaves the remaining 90 per cent of life sciences students with limited choices.

These choices include going overseas to pursue a degree in biomedical science (which not everyone can afford), or jumping ship and pursuing a degree that has nothing to do with life sciences. I have, unfortunately, opted for the latter.

Also, I would like to point out that most polytechnic students have at least four months of industrial experience, due to student internship programmes that are a prerequisite of most diploma courses.

In fact, one of my former polytechnic classmates, who is currently studying in a local university, often has to guide his classmates, who graduated from junior college, in the correct use of laboratory equipment as well as safety protocol.

Furthermore, I have noted that even with a good degree, job openings in biomedical research institutes are hard to come by.

That said, one question I feel should be addressed is this: Why groom us when there is little intention of hiring us?

Denise Mohan (Ms)


Just a run-of-the-mill grouse session? Let's look at it again...

I REFER to the article, '2 top cancer research groups to set up shop here' (ST, Nov 5). It stated that the arrival of two prominent research institutes was a 'strong validation of Singapore's importance as a research node'.

One thing I observed about how the biomedical research effort is portrayed in the newspapers is that it is always hyped up and overemphasizes the administrative aspects of the field.

The media focuses on the setting up of new institutes, new manufacturing facilities, other new infrastructure investments, and the recruitment of senior research leadership as well as research scholarship holders. Buzzwords like "hub", "node", "giants" and "world-class" are thrown around aplenty.

Less attention is given to the explanation of the science and technology behind the research. Whenever some discovery is made, it is often hailed as some sort of medical breakthrough (even for basic science!) with little or no background knowledge provided to the readers.

The novelty, significance and the limitations of the discovery are not discussed - in one report the language used was unscientific (I recall they said "RNA is a form of DNA", among other gaffes) and frankly quite embarrassing to industry insiders. I guess that this happens mainly because the biomedical endeavour is quite new here, and the media doesn't really understand it yet.

As a result, the newspapers give a suspiciously glowing overview of the field. It's always good news followed by more good news - a discerning reader will smell a rat. If this approach continues, in the long run it will actually produce an increasing number of vocal cynics.

While the presence of these two new research institutes here further cements our role as a regional hub, we should not neglect the local population.

This year, the biomedical research industry in Singapore came under fire because a large amount of money was invested in this area with little returns in terms of conclusive data.

Relate this to the fact that most research scientists here are expatriates on expatriate pay. Wouldn't it be more cost- effective to hire local graduates who can do these jobs?


The author has observed correctly that most of the biomedical workforce in Singapore is foreign - in a recent career fair at NUS, one of the guest speakers estimate that proportion to be 60% of the total.

But the more important question is: Are there enough job opportunities for Singaporeans?

Based on official figures, more than 10 000 jobs were created in the sector in 2006. If we estimate 2000 graduates each from the three polytechnics with biotech diplomas, and 3000 graduates each from our two largest universities (these are overestimates), then they would need 12 000 jobs.

Since I don't have the exact figures, it's hard to say whether there are enough jobs or not, but it does look a little tight. On top of that, many of these positions are open to international candidates, so the field is highly competitive.

Indeed, the low proportion of Singaporeans in the biomedical workforce is a potential sticking point. After all, one of the most important purposes of the entire biomedical endeavour is to create jobs.

In the beginning, we lack senior level personnel so we must employ foreign professionals to help jump start the industry and train our first batch of scientists, but in time proportionally more positions should become available to Singaporeans.

Ideally, data regarding the increasing proportion of citizens employed in this sector will become available to the public, which will help to assuage the rising doubts about their employment prospects.

As for the author's assertion that "the biomedical research industry in Singapore came under fire because a large amount of money was invested in this area with little returns in terms of conclusive data", I have already written three posts about this matter before, so I won't discuss it again.

I am aware that one of the most prominent research institutes here does not offer scholarships to polytechnic graduates for further studies and I believe this discounts the fact that there are keen minds in polytechnics today.

This statement strikes me as rather odd.

It is true that scholarships in the biomedical sector, such as the National Science Scholarship (NSS) are intended for junior college (JC) students.

It is also true there are keen minds in the polytechnics - I know of one extremely conscientious researcher who studied biotech at a local poly, went to Australia to do her bachelor's, worked for a year in a research institute, and is now a PhD student.

People who care enough about science will strive to get there, whether a scholarship is available or not.

So this is really a matter of scholarship opportunities, rather than about "discounting" anybody.

Things may change in the future, but I hope that secondary school students are aware that the JC route currently provides more opportunities for scholarships than the polytechnic route.

I studied biotechnology at diploma level, under the impression that I would have good prospects in terms of future studies and career advancement.

However, the fact is that only the top 10 per cent of polytechnic graduates are accepted by local universities. This leaves the remaining 90 per cent of life sciences students with limited choices.

These choices include going overseas to pursue a degree in biomedical science (which not everyone can afford), or jumping ship and pursuing a degree that has nothing to do with life sciences. I have, unfortunately, opted for the latter.

When I read this, I feel very gek seem (Hokkien, Chinese=, English = heart pain).

Why?

A long, long time ago, before the biomedical initiative started, I studied science because I thought it was really curious and cool.

Oooh the mysteries of the human mind!

When I graduated and returned to Singapore, I realized to my disappointment that most people I met here treated science just as a job they did to pay the bills.

I can count on my fingers the number of people who really gave a shit.

Since polytechnics train people more in technical skills rather than subject knowledge, perhaps it's not surprising that someone would choose to study biotech because of "study prospects and career advancement".

But if that is your only goal, why not go for business studies or even better, law?

Thus when the author writes "I have, unfortunately, opted for the latter", I wonder what is so unfortunate about her decision.

Since she's not that interested in biotech anyway, it's a prudent move to choose another degree programme that fulfills her career aspirations.

Also, I would like to point out that most polytechnic students have at least four months of industrial experience, due to student internship programmes that are a prerequisite of most diploma courses.

In fact, one of my former polytechnic classmates, who is currently studying in a local university, often has to guide his classmates, who graduated from junior college, in the correct use of laboratory equipment as well as safety protocol.

I have trained polytechnic students as a research assistant and taught undergrad modules as a teaching assistant. Based on my experience, the author is correct - poly students have a much better command of bench techniques and lab equipment than their clueless JC counterparts.

What a relief to see a student handle a pipette properly, instead of holding it backwards (counter display facing palm) all the time!

Even so, students should understand that doing scientific research is not only about knowing the techniques.

I know a poly-trained senior technician who looked down on anyone who doesn't have as good a technical skill as she has.

But scientists are not super-technicians - you also need to have deep interest in the subject and the ability to plan your own research project, among other essential skills. Having a comprehensive technical training doesn't guarantee suitability to a research career.

I should also point out that the internship programme that the writer mentioned is one of the best opportunities for seeking entry level employment into various biomedical research institutes in Singapore.

Students should make best use of their time to find out what doing science is like, do their best to get a good grade for their project, and establish networks with the scientists so that they can join the lab when they graduate. If they performed well they should also request reference letters from the lab personnel, which will be very helpful for their future employment.

Furthermore, I have noted that even with a good degree, job openings in biomedical research institutes are hard to come by.

That said, one question I feel should be addressed is this: Why groom us when there is little intention of hiring us?

What the author say is true - job openings in research are highly competitive and not easy to get.

I have faced my own fair share of rejections. Once I was even mocked by an interviewer who told me up front that my qualifications were nothing.

"You got honour degree so what? There are honour degrees running everywhere out on the streets!"

Starting out is always difficult.

I can only offer some advice from pioneering Singaporean scientist Dr. Lee Kum Tatt:

The world is interested only in what you have to offer.
It does not care for what you lack.

Getting the job that you want takes more than just a good diploma. Good communication skills and a clearly-written resume is a must. Candidates should also research about the company or institute they want to work for.

They must try to stand out from the crowd with their enthusiasm and attention to details.

Even if a person is unable to find a job in a research institute, in today's favourable employment climate, he or she should be able to land a job in a related field.

I know of a diploma-holder who joined a research equipment company as a salesperson. She started out as a product specialist six years ago, promoting liquid chromatography devices.

Today she has risen through the ranks to become the Head of the Asia-Pacific office in the company.

In contrast, I'm still in school.

So you can never tell how things will turn out.

2 Comments:

shangjun said...

I fully agree. Singaporeans have always been a pragmatic bunch. back when i was in JC, i saw many of my contemporarires suffering in the science stream because their parents wanted them to be there. some ditched the sciences and went to the arts after JC and i really respect them for that.

it takes guts to do what you love and pursue it because singapore is still not yet the most friendly place for bohemian cultures.

interesting blog you've got here. perhaps i'll comment on one of your science postings after my exams... (:

cheers

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Welcome to Fresh Brainz!

it takes guts to do what you love and pursue it because singapore is still not yet the most friendly place for bohemian cultures.

Yes, people make it difficult sometimes.