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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!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fresh Science 29 November 2007

The juiciest posts from the science 'o sphere!

Mosquitoes Demonstrate the Power of Random Mutation and Natural Selection (Hyphoid Logic - USA)
Adaptive trade-offs...

Ministry of Memory Distortions (Mind Hacks - USA)
It didn't happen. Move along now, move along...

Look, it’s not just us! (Rat in the Lab - Singapore)
Training critical thinking skills is difficult...

Study of Intelligence Genes (Science Avenger - USA)
Difficult to find the genes responsible for intelligence...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fresh Science 27 November 2007

The juiciest posts from the science 'o sphere!

Chang'e 1 shoots the Moon / Izod clouds (Bad Astronomy - USA)
Really cool pictures there...

Inevitable and orderly? Hardly! (Laelaps - USA)
A good critique of Paul Davies' "Taking Science on Faith".

Wired's 10 great snake-oil gadgets (Moonflake - South Africa)
They only work when nobody's looking...

Mutation fired outbreak of deadly tropical virus (Ontogeny - USA)
One amino acid change turns a virus into a killer...

Having a science education doesn't make you a scientist (Pro-science - Denmark)
Just like having a scholarship doesn't make you a scholar...

Jane Austen action figure (Sour Grapes - USA)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Silicon Valley: Hungry People And Happy Accidents

Last Thursday, Dr. John Mashey, a Silicon Valley veteran of 24 years, came to the Biopolis and gave a talk entitled "Silicon Valley Scene: Why and How it works".

Dr. Mashey, who considers himself an "ancient" Unix person, has a PhD in computer science from Pennsylvania State University.

Starting out as a software designer in Bell Labs, he moved on to sales and marketing and has visited over 50 countries. He is now half-retired, advising venture capitalists and companies. He has also given over 500 public talks. Dr. Mashey is on the board of trustees at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Here is a summary of his talk:

1. To begin, Dr. Mashey gave a brief overview of California's history.

He noted that the population of California is atypical of the USA - younger, more Asian and more Hispanic. 36 million people live there, which is 12% of the total population, but they produce 17% of the GDP and attract 40% of the total venture capital (30% in the San Francisco Bay area alone!). Its economy is ranked somewhere between 7th and 10th in the world.

California's leadership also departs from the norm. The current governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a Republican, but his wife is a member of one of the most powerful Democrat families (Kennedy) in the nation.

Attorney General Jerry Brown has actually sued the Federal government before. The state of California has immense clout - it sets the emission control rules for the whole of USA, and sometimes can decide its own foreign policy! However, California can be experimental, unruly and chaotic at times.

The people of California are special, because these are the descendants of immigrants who moved there for opportunities or to escape rules. It is like an isolated "island" away from the populous east coast - in fact the population only started to increase significantly after the Second World War.

There is a selection for risk takers.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the selection pressure is even higher, since this was the focal point during the Gold Rush era. As a result, it is a special beneficiary of inward brain drain from all over the USA.

2. Silicon Valley itself is 700 sq km in area (about the size of Singapore). The geography of this region is important, because it is shaped like a bowl that pushes people together. Dr. Mashey noted this is opposite to the other major technology centre in the USA - Boston - where the geography pushes people apart into the suburbia.

There are a few key figures in the history of the Silicon Valley - Frederick Terman, an engineering professor at Stanford University, played a major role by attracting top minds to come to California.

Years ago, Terman himself planned to head east to become an assistant professor at MIT, but had to remain in California because of a bout of tuberculosis, which he later recovered from. As a result, he joined Stanford.

This turned out to be lucky accident.

In 1956 he convinced William Shockley (co-inventor of the transistor) to return to San Francisco, hoping that the Shockley would help to jump start the electronics industry in the valley.

Unfortunately, Shockley was an impossible person to work with - his researchers soon fell out with him. In 1957 eight of them left and formed their own company, Fairchild Semiconductor, which would end up spinning off many famous electronics giants such as Intel and AMD.

In addition, Terman's own PhD students William Hewlett and David Packard would later establish the Hewlett Packard company.

Then Dr. Mashey highlighted some cultural differences between Boston and the Silicon Valley. East coast companies tend to be vertically integrated. In Boston you are expected to be an employee for life, and if you switch companies people will hate you.

In the Silicon Valley on the other hand, it is common to switch companies and the animosity does not last - you may be foes now but friends later. Thus, closely-knitted personal networks is a key feature of the Silicon Valley culture.

The risk-taking, entrepreneurial culture in the Silicon Valley is unique and not a US-wide phenomenon. Sometimes it can be taken to an extreme, when the Silicon Valley acts crazy. The internet boom and bust (dot-com bubble) stems from an incredible sense of over-optimism and belief in perpetual growth.

3. Next, Dr. Mashey listed the key reasons for the success of the Silicon Valley.

Education is strong in California, although Dr. Mashey thought that the quality of education at the K-12 level (Kindergarten to Grade-12) is quite variable throughout the state and can be better.

At the university level, the University of California and Stanford University are very strong centres of educational excellence, often ranked within the top 20 in the world today.

Stanford in particular is a hotbed of entrepreneurial spirit. Students look forward to creating their own start-ups, join start-ups, or join big companies when they graduate.

As a private university, Stanford has more autonomy than state schools, and has become very smart about technology licensing. Start-ups nurtured by Stanford get good financial support in return for stock options. In effect, Stanford University acts like a venture capitalist firm, and it is a successful strategy - for example it owns a lot of Google stock.

On top of that, it is common at Stanford for the faculty to start companies during their sabbaticals. When they return to teaching, they earn 20% of the income from the can spend up to 20% of their time working for the start-ups as consultants. As a result, a number of Stanford faculty are actually multi-millionaires, from their stock ownership in these companies.

In addition, the administration places a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary work, using grant policies to encourage members of different faculties to collaborate on a project. Stanford President John Hennessy said that the "first 50 years of the last century belonged to physicists, the second 50 years to us computer folks, and the next century belongs to biologists."

There are other, less obvious reasons why Silicon Valley works.

One easily overlooked feature is the availability of cheap, flexible space for cash-strapped start-ups. Sometimes all you need is a grubby office with an internet connection. Dr. Mashey observed that in some other technology clusters, the workspaces are too pretty and too expensive to be practical. In the Silicon Valley, space is limited - buildings are often recycled to meet new needs.

Also, banks must understand start-ups. How can a new company possibly have five years of receipts in order to get a loan?

The right kind of lawyers is very important. They need to be familiar with start-ups, venture capitalists, patents and technology. Dr. Mashey gave an example of a Silicon Valley law firm that specializes in discouraging companies from fighting costly lawsuits with each other, opting to benefit incrementally from their growth, rather than to benefit quickly from their demise.

Some other quirky reasons: Fry's Electronics, a superstore that sells a wide selection of loose electronic parts for a low price, lets tinkerers assemble their own contraptions on a shoestring budget.

And Weird Stuff, which sells surplus hardware, old computers and other assorted junk - another haven for computer geeks.

Dr. Mashey then offered some advice for governments that are interested in replicating the success at Silicon Valley.

He felt that governments should not only make it easy to start a business (the registration paperwork should not take months!) but also make it easy to end a business. The latter process is difficult in many European countries, impeding their chances of success.

He stressed that governments cannot edict creativity and entrepreneurship. They should try to stay out of the way. But they can promote entrepreneurship by publicizing success stories, hailing entrepreneurs as heroes, and offering prizes as an incentive. A good example of this is the DARPA smart car competition.

4. In conclusion, Dr. Mashey emphasized that Silicon Valley is hard to duplicate. It was a sleepy backwater place just 50 years ago, but due to a combination of lucky accidents of great individuals like Frederick Terman, the risk-taking culture and smart investments, good results have been achieved.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked him if Singapore could make it too.

Dr. Mashey replied jokingly: "No", which drew hysterical laughter from the audience.

He then clarified his opinion by noting that Singapore had also emerged from nearly nothing 50 years ago, and is one of the relatively few places in the world that had many good features in place.

However he cautioned that: "I'm not sure that I see the right amount of discipline and looseness in Singapore," possibly alluding to the strict government control here.

He then ended his talk by emphasizing that nurturing entrepreneurs is a complicated process, but places that want to do better must be prepared to use this strategy.

Friday, November 23, 2007

You Want Creativity? I'll Show You Creativity

That MDA "rap" that I mentioned in my previous post - at first I just felt that it was an embarrassing, campy attempt at connecting with young Singaporeans.

Then I thought about it more and became rather annoyed.

What do a bunch of highly-paid senior managers know about Art?

I'll tell you what Art is NOT.

Art is NOT what you plan in a board meeting, in between a power lunch and a round of golf.

Art is NOT corporate-friendly namby-pamby political correctness.

Art is NOT pastel-coloured inoffensive mass-appeal happily-ever-after.

Art is the expression of a tortured soul crushed by a repressive environment.

The last blood-curdling scream of the fucking nobody who has nowhere to hide and no more energy left to run.

Now I'm supposed to be a scientist - don't make me come down from my ivory tower and teach you what Art is...

It is a product of despair.

The hate-child of angst.

The last teardrop of anguish.

The unnoticed cry of the desperate - silently and efficiently crushed between the well-oiled gears of bureaucracy.

A gasp of sheer terror - someone is always watching, waiting.

You want creativity? You can't handle creativity!

[/End rant]

*Update (24 Nov 2007):

An interesting letter in the Straits Times forum today, relevant to this topic...

Get S'pore creative? Action speaks louder than words

I REFER to the article, 'Clever video or bad rap?' (ST, Nov 22), which discussed a four-minute video depicting the Media Development Authority (MDA)'s head honchos rapping in an effort 'to get Singapore creative and connected'.

I applaud the MDA for reaching out. However, action speaks louder than words. Thanks to it, Singapore is now known as the only country that banned the video game Mass Effect. Yes, it repaired Singapore's reputation somewhat by retreating swiftly and applying an age rating - but the message is the same.

Singapore has to decide whether it wishes to join the 21st century, or whether it wishes to cling to 'traditional values'.

Creativity promotes economic development, but it also offends. So long as MDA does not accept that fostering creativity can succeed only when it does not reach for its censorship scissors the moment it sees anything remotely offensive to the sexual mores of the supposedly conservative Singaporean society, all its efforts will remain less than successful.

John Rachmat

The only creativity that they want is the soft, sanitized, meaningless and soulless kind. Creativity that can be strictly contained and tightly controlled.

Which when you think about it, is a type of creativity that won't impress the world.

Compare And Contrast

Head up y'all.

This here ain't no rap:

This here the real mofo:


Would you like to know more?
Sing along to the MDA Senior Management Rap

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fresh Science 22 November 2007

The juiciest posts from the science 'o sphere!

More on Japanese surprises (Entertaining Research - India)
Music "on" the road!

DI Fellows-- EXPELLED for plagiarism (ERV - USA)
Twisting other people's work, as usual...

Of Destroying Angels and Death Caps: Understanding the World's Most Lethal Fungi (Hyphoid Logic - USA)
Ooh, tasty mushroom! Munch munch... *erb!*

Jaekelopterus (Pharyngula - USA)
Things were bigger in the old days...

I've heard about omnipresent but omnidirectional? (Pro-science - Denmark)
Just like how your Mom can always hear you...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Induced Pluripotent Cells From Adult Skin

Latest news in the field of stem cell technology!

Scientists have successfully developed a new cell type, called the induced pluripotent cell (iPS) that have many properties of embryonic stem cells, but are produced using adult, rather than embryonic tissues.

Team leaders Professor Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and Professor James Thomson (one of the pioneers who discovered human embryonic stem cells in 1998) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison used slightly different techniques to achieve this goal.

Prof. Yamanaka's group used cells taken from the facial skin of a 36-year-old woman and from connective tissue from a 69-year-old man. Prof. Thomson's group used cells from fetal skin and from the foreskin of a newborn boy.

But their strategy is broadly similar.

Both techniques involved the insertion of stem cell genes (Yamanaka group used Oct4, Sox2, Klf4 and c-Myc whereas Thomson group used Oct4, Sox2, Nanog and Lin28) using retroviral vectors.

The advantage of this new approach is that it circumvents the problem of shortages in human eggs and surplus embryos. It also requires neither cloning nor the destruction of human embryos, considered immoral by many religious groups.

However, both groups of scientists emphasize that their innovation does not render embryonic stem cell research obsolete, nor did they consider such research unethical. They note that the genetic reprogramming technique used could not have been developed without the comprehensive study of embryonic stem cells in the past decade.

Prof. Thomson said that: "This does not mean that it is the end of embryonic stem cell research, if only that we need a gold standard to compare to. It is hardly time to discontinue embryonic stem cell research. But I do believe that over time these cells will be used by more and more labs and human embryonic stem cells will be used by fewer and fewer labs."

Prof. Yamanaka cautioned: "Human iPS cells are similar, but not identical, to human embryonic stem cells. DNA microarray analyses identified differentially expressed genes between the two stem cell lines. Further studies are required to determine whether human iPS cells can replace human ES cells."

In addition, since the iPS cells were produced using retroviruses in both strategies, there is some risk of tumour formation in the recipient.

"We have to be sure the cells are safe," Prof. Yamanaka said. "One of the difficulties about human embryonic stem cells is their tumorigenicity. Because of the usage of retroviruses, iPS cells may be more tumorigenic than human embryonic stem cells. We will have to find a way to avoid retroviruses."

Thus it is too early to consider these cells for clinical applications, but they are useful for the purposes of drug discovery and toxicology.

Other experts in the field are excited by this new development.

Professor Azim Surani at the University of Cambridge said: “It is relatively easy to grow an entire plant from a small cutting, something that seems inconceivable in humans. Yet this study brings us tantalisingly close to using skin cells to grow many different types of human tissues.”

Prof. Ian Wilmut at the University of Edinburgh (part of the team that cloned Dolly in 1997) said: "We can now envisage a time when a simple approach can be used to produce stem cells that are able to form any tissue from a small sample taken from any of us."

Dr. Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology is even more elated. He said that: "This work represents a tremendous scientific milestone -- the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers' first airplane. It's not practical to use right now, but it might be in a few years. This is truly the Holy Grail -- to be able to take a few cells from a patient -- say a cheek swab or few skin cells -- and turn them into stem cells in the laboratory."

Prof. Douglas Melton of Harvard University suggested that the way forward is to modify gene expression using small molecules rather than retroviral insertion.

"It is not hard to imagine a time when you could add small molecules that would tickle the same networks as these genes."

Amidst the enthusiasm, there is also relief.

Beleaguered stem cell biologist Prof. Jose Cibelli of Michigan State University noted that "the whole field is going to completely change. People working on ethics will have to find something new to worry about."

Would you like to know more?
Researchers Turn Skin Cells Into Stem Cells (ScienceNOW)
Scientists Turn Human Skin Cells Into Stem Cells (USNews)
- Breakthrough as stem cells are produced from skin, not embryos (TimesOnline)
- Skin cells transformed without embryos (Yahoo! News)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fresh Science 20 November 2007

The juiciest posts from the science 'o sphere!

10 simple rules to be a successful scientist (Bayblab - Canada)
Sounds simple...

Book Review: Evolution by Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu (Laelaps - USA)
Beautiful photos and informative text...

Reflections on the brain of an idiot (Mind Hacks - USA)
How rude! Luckily it's all Greek to me...

Forward-Sloping Alien Earthquake God (The Ethical Palaeontologist - UK)
Dinosaurs are interesting, and if you don't agree you can fuck off...

On the shore of an anthropic sea (Total Drek - USA)
Ooh baby, baby it's a wild Universe...

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).


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.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Descendants of Man

Human beings have been on Earth for less than 500 000 years.

Though some wackos believe that people are specially-made creations from an intelligent deity (who created the entire Universe for us), the reality is that Homo sapiens, like all life on Earth, emerged from a long process of biological evolution.

There is evidence that human beings have been evolving since our ancestors first stepped out of Africa.

But are we continuing to evolve? I know one professor who believes that human beings are no longer evolving.

There are some reasons why this could be the case.

We have eliminated many selection pressures on the global population, such as childhood mortality due to infectious diseases, which could cause gene frequencies to change quickly. Consequently our population size continues to grow at an increasing rate.

In addition, at 6.5 billion strong, there are so many people that neutral drift will take a long time to have a significant effect.

(Actually, the current effective population size per generation (Ne) of human beings is less than 10 000, because we nearly went extinct about 100 000 years ago. Even so, using Ohta and Kimura's formula, a neutral gene will become fixed in the global population in 4 x Ne generations = 800 000 years!)

Suffice to say that in our current environmental and genetic landscape, we aren't evolving much at all.

But environments are changing and new mutations are popping up all the time.

If a group of people were to become reproductively isolated from the main population for many thousands of years, and experience a drastically different living environment, then they could evolve into a new species.

A descendant species of Homo sapiens!

Fresh Brainz is proud to bring you the first in a series of speculative art about the descendants of man.

But first - getting the right tool for the job. My old drawing tablet had been giving me trouble for weeks and it's time to get a new tablet.

Looks more business-like eh?

Now back to the story!

Imagine a dark, scary place that never sees the light of day, but contains a plentiful supply of food.

A small population of animals venture inside to feed, but most of them never managed to find the way out.

Since it is completely dark, they need to depend on their sense of touch to navigate this new environment. Eyes are useless.

Many generations are born, reproduce and die inside. Gradually, the offspring that have the best sense of touch became more successful at surviving and reproducing. The genes that are involved in touch are highly favoured over genes that are involved in sight.

As a result, their eyes disappear.

Is this a true story? Here is a real-life example!

Mexican cavefish lack eyes because the protein involved in enhancing their sense of touch in the lower jaw, called hedgehog (Hh), suppresses the expression of a gene important to eye development, pax6.

In addition, they have larger jaws, maxillary teeth and taste buds than other closely-related species. They also lack melanin pigments in their skin.

Human beings also have hedgehog (such as indian hedgehog in chromosome 2 and sonic hedgehog in chromosome 7) and pax6 (chromosome 11) genes.

So - what would happen if a group of people were to be stuck in a subterranean enclave for many generations?

You are thinking: "Why would anyone want to live in a cave?"

Maybe there's a nuclear war raging up there (probably started by the same wackos mentioned earlier).

Maybe there's an abandoned military food depot down there.

Maybe they just want to be left alone.

Whether by plan or accident, a large group of people find themselves in an underground network of caves, seeking protection from the chaos above.

Initially dependent on technology to stay alive, the batteries eventually run out.

Then canned food supplies get depleted and the survivors are forced to explore the caves for natural food sources, which is surprisingly abundant and accessible.

A few hundred thousand years later...

Introducing the blind cave hominid - descendants of the ancient human race.

They can't see, but their other senses are tuned into overdrive.

Increased sensitivity to touch, hearing, taste and smell allow them to explore their habitat with ease. Like the cavefish, these hominids have a strong jaw and robust maxillary teeth to chomp down on the non-industrially processed food of the future.

They also have a smooth, glassy complexion - without pigmentation, their skin appears translucent with all the surface blood vessels visible.

Of course, by "visible" I mean visible under light, which is irrelevant to them.

As such, visual appearance is meaningless - the hallmark of a sexually attractive mate is the tactile flawlessness of their skin, and the pheromones they produce.

In order to effectively feel their way around their underground environment, cave hominids crawl close to the ground and listen attentively to their surroundings.

If they encounter another hostile cave animal, they will signal to each other in high-pitched, near ultrasonic shrieks that echo throughout the caves, recruiting more tribe members to join in the fight. They have a complex, hierarchical social organization that makes them deadly towards other animals, and to members of rival tribes.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to be there when a few hundred irate cave hominids turn up to greet an unwelcomed visitor.

Even if you have phasers or whatever.

Would you like to know more?
- Jeffery Lab (University of Maryland research lab, focusing on cavefish evolution)
How the cavefish lost its eyes (by PZ Myers)
- Man after man (by Dougal Dixon - speculative science fiction book. I haven't read it, but it doesn't appear to have details at the molecular level.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Interplanetary War On Sex

When you hear the word "adult", what comes to mind?

Career insecurity, workplace conflict, caregiver woes, taxes, bills, bills and more bills?

No. Somehow the term "adult" = sex and violence.

OK, maybe we should protect innocent young kids from the harsh brutalities of the grown-up world.

(Not that I'm personally familiar with that concept, since I was never innocent. Contrary to popular belief, the kid's world is no less harsh and can be equally brutal.)

"Oooh we must keep all this sex and violence away from the fragile minds of our precious children! What if they learn horrible things from TV?"

Then why is violence always favoured over sex?

I mean, when children grow up, they will eventually have sex.

Or so we hope, else the human race is doomed.

But we hope they will never blow someone up or hack someone to death.

So it makes more sense to shield children from violence, right?

Yet that's not what I experienced as a kid.

Turn the clock back to the year 1992, when a happy, teenaged me was looking for nice movies to watch.

There were two "epic" movies that year, 1492: Conquest of Paradise and The Last of the Mohicans.

Both were rated PG, thus basically suitable for kids of all ages and certainly OK for teenagers.

Let me tell you what I saw.

In the Conquest of Paradise, there was a scene of a person slowly strangled to death using one of these delightful contraptions:

I shall describe in graphic detail what happened, because it's still quite fresh in my mind after all these years.

Bear in mind that the below scene was deemed suitable for children of all ages.

The victim was tied-up and in tears. The garrote was rotated by the executioner, one turn at a time. With each turn, the rope around the her neck tightened. As the rope started to asphyxiate the victim, she began to struggle, kicking her legs around frantically. Her tongue stuck out in a desperate attempt to catch one last breath. Slowly her head slumped to one side.

And then her eyes were stilled.

Not shocking enough?

How about watching a guy get his heart cut out of his chest?

In The Last of the Mohicans, an elderly European general was caught by tribal warriors. They cut him open (off camera) with a knife and ripped his heart out. You can see the dying man on the ground with a bloody hole in his chest, and a warrior raising his bloody heart high above his body.

I didn't expect so much violence - it was almost a heart-stopping shock.

Suitable for children!??!

Now fast forward five years later, when I watched my very first R-rated movie, Stealing Beauty, starring Liv Tyler.

What gave it the R-rating? Two nude scenes, totalling a few minutes of screen time.

Oh and a few seconds of Liv Tyler popping out a boob while sitting under a tree.

That's IT??? I felt seriously underwhelmed.

This sort of unequal affection towards violence is also seen in the regulation of computer games.

Take the Xbox/PS2 game Red Ninja, for example.

In this game, the main character has a wire weapon called a Tetsugen. She uses it to decapitate her enemies, or even slice them into two. Throughout the game, heads and body parts are often sent flying with blood spraying everywhere.

Yet it is approved for sale here.

So when the new Xbox 360 game Mass Effect ends up getting banned in Singapore - was it because it featured excessive, graphic violence?


This is the official reason given:

The "Mass Effect" game, a futuristic space adventure, contains "a scene of lesbian intimacy... as such the game has been disallowed," the deputy director of the Board of Film Censors said in the statement.

But how can it be a "scene of lesbian intimacy" if one of the game characters is an alien?

(What about a "scene of bestiality" instead? Can you consider an imaginary alien species to be an animal?)

The authorities state that:

Under local guidelines, video games sold in Singapore cannot "feature exploitative or gratuitous sex and violence, or denigrate any race or religion," the official said.

Well, that must be some torrid, spectacular love scene in order to warrant banning the game.

Thus, Fresh Brainz is happy to bring you that forbidden scene of "exploitative or gratuitous sex"!

Warning: Prepare to be underwhelmed...

They banned the game because of this.

I don't get it.

*17 Nov 2007 update: Mass Effect has been un-banned by the Media Development Authority. It will be released under an M18 rating.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fresh Science 15 November 2007

The juiciest posts from the science 'o sphere!

A good time to be a gene hunter (Bayblab - Canada)
Some bizarre genetic disorders...

Placebos and Nocebos (Entertaining Research - India)
The opposite of placebo is nocebo - inactive substances that can have a negative response...

Neanderthals and mtDNA (Evolutionary Middleman - USA)
Humans did not evolve from Neandertals...

Bat Bugs: females that mimic males that mimic females (Ontogeny - USA)
Anything you can fake I can fake better...

Imposter phenomenon - Are you just faking it? (Rat in the Lab - Singapore)
Yes. *sniff*....

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fresh Science 13 November 2007

The juiciest posts from the science 'o sphere!

Scientists still can't write good (Biocurious - USA)
Improve your writing with these tips...

'Marlborough Marine' fights post-war trauma, depression (Mind Hacks - USA)
Over the hills, in the valley...

Potpourri (nanoscale views - USA)
A small collection of delights!

From ants to people, an instinct to swarm (Ontogeny - USA)
I suddenly feel like going to a crowded shopping centre...

Anti-global warming hoax (Science Avenger - USA)
"Q³uct + 3Ψ = XFº x Δjy {(∑y,ct79 + θtq-1)- λjc +2}Δ³-¾Φ²,Ω13b" says I'm smarter than you...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Universe Was Not Designed For Us

Was the Universe specifically designed for human beings?


[end of post]

"Wait!" you exclaim. "You haven't explained why yet!"

Must we really go into the details? I've been typing all morning and my neck hurts.

Alright alright, here are some reasons why...



1. The vastness of nothingness

The Universe is very, very big. By current estimates, the observable part of the Universe is bigger than 70 billion light years across.

Sure there are colourful planets, shiny stars and beautiful swirly galaxies.

But there are mind-bogglingly huge distances that you have to traverse in order to get there.

The nearest planet, Venus, is about 40 000 000 km away, at closest approach.

The nearest star (excluding the Sun) is Proxima Centauri - 39 921 200 000 000 km away.

And the nearest galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy is 23 650 000 000 000 000 000 km away.

It is also very, very empty.

Even the interplanetary space near our Earth is disturbingly empty. Only 5 particles per cubic centimetre of space.

"How empty is that?" you ask.

Imagine a small cup of water.

In order to catch enough particles to fill that cup, you'll need to scoop up a volume of space approximately 1000 km tall, 1000 km wide and 1000 km deep.

In that gigantic volume of space, you can drop more than 400 000 Mount Everests and still have room to spare.

It gets even thinner as you go further away from the Sun.

Needless to say, the vacuum of space isn't good for health. An unprotected human being will die in a matter of minutes in space.

(In contrast, bacteria can last for at least a few years in a vacuum.)

If it was created specifically for people, why is most of the Universe inaccessible and inhospitable to human life?

Maybe the stars and galaxies were made primarily as decorations to inspire mankind - like a pretty painting.

Then why put them so far away that you would need to wait for the invention of optical instruments (indeed even a space telescope) in order to see them?

Many years ago I was in an astronomy club, showing the wonders of the sky to fellow students and other curious members of the public. The Moon and the planets are always popular because they are near enough to reveal some details in a small instrument.

But almost everything else looks downright boring to the public.

For example, when I showed them a double star system, many would quip:

"Just dots only what."

If the visible Cosmos is an amazingly huge and beautiful painting specially designed to inspire mankind, why do most people not give a shit?

2. The long, long brewing process

The Universe is very, very old. Current estimates put the age of our Universe at 13.7 billion years old, give or take 200 million years.

Our own Sun wasn't formed until 9.1 billion years later, which was probably a good thing since the heavier elements that make up our bodies, such as carbon, must first be made in the fusion reactions of other stars, scattered throughout the galaxy when some of them exploded as supernovas at the end of their lives.

We are made of star-stuff.

But it took a long, friggin' time.

Although the Earth was formed shortly after the Sun was born (if 30 million years can be considered short), for over a billion years the Earth was unsuitable to any sort of life.

It was too hot.

It was constantly bombarded by other planetoids and fried by deadly solar radiation.

And it had no air and no water.

Then as it cooled, one thing led to another.

The consolidation of the Earth's core into a giant spinning ball of molten metal generated a magnetic field, shielding the planet from most solar radiation and preventing surface gases from boiling out into space.

Water arrived when icy asteroids from the outer region of the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt pelted down onto the early Earth.

Then something happened 3.5 billion years ago.

The first bacteria appeared.

Without these bacteria there wouldn't be any oxygen in our atmosphere.

But even after this incredibly long time, eukaryotic cells (containing a nucleus) would not appear for another 1.5 billion years.

And multicellular organisms would not appear for yet another 800 million years (1.2 billion years ago).

Then, life on Earth started to diversify and accelerate in complexity. About 500 million years ago the first plants and animals appeared. Insects and sea vertebrates came onto the scene about 400 million years ago. Next came the amphibians, reptiles, mammals and so on.

Finally finally finally, Homo sapiens appeared - just a scant 500 000 years ago.

We have been around for less than 0.004% of the age of the Universe.

If the Universe was specially made for people, why did it take so painfully long before human beings appeared?

And if human beings are the pinnacle of creation, then why did we nearly go extinct 75 000 years ago?

(Our susceptibility to large-scale infection pandemics highlights our limited genetic variation caused by the near extinct event.)

3. Not at the centre of anything

During the Dark Ages, people thought that the Earth was the centre of the Universe.

Then, with improved astronomical observations, they proposed that the Sun was the centre of the Universe.

Poor Earth was demoted to planet no. 3.

Even later the Sun was demoted to an average joe star, on an unremarkable whorl of the Milky Way galaxy.

Now, the current cosmological model tell us that the Universe doesn't even have a centre!

In addition, astronomers have also found planets circling more than 170 other stars.

In summary, we are living on planet no. 3, orbiting a middle-of-the-road G class star, located in a far flung part of the Milky Way, situated in the middle of nowhere in particular.

How's all that to make you feel real special!

If the Universe was purposely made for people, then our Earth should be absolutely unique.

We should have colourful sparkly-glowy things circling us, VIP-treatment befitting the regal status of the true centre of the Universe.

4. This dangerous Universe

When engineers design something for a particular purpose, they try to make it safe. It should fulfill its function effectively without becoming a health hazard.

You shouldn't put sharp metal bits in a baby teething toy!

However, the Universe can be a violent, dangerous place.

Galaxies collide.

Black holes suck the life out of neighbouring stars.

Supernovas send deadly blasts of radiation throughout the galaxy.

Luckily we aren't near any of those events (at least not yet).

But our own Solar System is not that safe neither.

The Sun produces bursts of dangerous radiation that can affect communications and harm people in aeroplanes or space vehicles.

Stuff can still fall out of the sky - sometimes they do it in a spectacular way.

Even the Earth itself can be a dangerous place to live in.

Natural disasters kill tens of thousands of people every year.

If the designed function of the whole Universe is to serve people, then why does it contain so many dangerous phenomena?

Winds can be dampened. Flood water can be channeled. Lightning can be conducted away safely.

A human team with sufficient knowledge and resources will be able to render many natural disasters harmless.

But why do we have to do this if the Universe was already designed for us?


1. Bacteria

Bacteria have been around ever since life first appeared on Earth. As biologist Stephen Jay Gould once observed:

We live now in the "Age of Bacteria." Our planet has always been in the "Age of Bacteria," ever since the first fossils—bacteria, of course—were entombed in rocks more than 3 billion years ago.

On any possible, reasonable or fair criterion, bacteria are—and always have been—the dominant forms of life on Earth. Our failure to grasp this most evident of biological facts arises in part from the blindness of our arrogance but also, in large measure, as an effect of scale.

Bacteria are hardy organisms.

High temperatures, high sulphur, high acidity, high pressures, high radiation and low water - they can survive and thrive under the most extreme conditions.

They live around us, on our bodies and even inside our bodies - an amazing 10% of the human dry mass is made up of bacteria!

Some strains of bacteria are essential for human life. Others, such as the bulbonic plague bacteria, are deadly.

And they are everywhere.

Despite their tiny size, the total biomass of bacteria exceeds the biomass of all other forms of life on Earth.

If the Universe was designed for us, why are bacteria so successful - sometimes at the expense of human lives?

2. Beetles

There are more species of beetles than any another type of animal. So far, 350 000 species of beetles (25% of all animals) have been described - out of an estimated total of over 5 million.

In contrast, there are less than 60 000 species of vertebrates, including all the fish in the sea.

Geneticist J. B. S. Haldane once said:

The Creator, if He exists, has a special preference for beetles.

Why are there so many species of beetles? We don't usually eat them and we can't really use them to make stuff.

And if beetles were created for us to enjoy their beauty, then why are so many species hidden in the middle of tropical jungles?

3. Animal Supersenses

People often think of their own senses as pretty acute.

Unfortunately, human senses pale in comparison to the senses of what many people consider as "lower" animals.

A dog has a sense of smell 40 times better than people.

An eagle eye has 5 times the visual resolution of a human eye.

There are many other examples.

On top of that, some animals can sense stimuli that we are completely blind to.

Insects can see in the ultraviolet spectrum. Migratory birds can detect the magnetic field of the Earth. Electric fish can probe their environment using pulses of electricity.

If human beings are the pinnacle of creation, then why do we have such second-rate senses?

More importantly, if the Universe was primarily intended for us, why equip "lower" animals with top-of-the-line sense organs?

4. This dangerous human body

Last, but definitely not least - the human body itself.

The human body is an amazingly sophisticated living system, employing principles of physical mechanics, chemistry and biology to function properly.

If the Universe was tailored-made for people, then their own physical bodies should function as well-integrated units.

Unfortunately - even without external dangers like natural disasters, pathogenic bacteria and wild animals - the human body can sometimes turn on itself!

Cancer cells are the body's own cells which are dividing uncontrollably at the expense of surrounding healthy cells.

Autoimmune disorders occur when the body's immune system attacks its own healthy cells.

Stroke occurs when the blood vessels in the brain are blocked or broken, leading the lack of blood flowing downstream. When neurons die due to lack of nutrients and oxygen, they rupture, releasing an excitatory neurotransmitter called glutamate into the surrounding area. This overactivates neighbouring cells, causing more and more cells to die in a cascading wave of injury, called excitotoxicity.

The fact that the human body can turn on itself is very disturbing.

Cancer kills millions of people a year. Autoimmune disorders kill tens of thousands, worldwide.

Stroke kills millions of people and leaves millions permanently disabled.

If the human body was specifically designed, how can it possibly turn on itself?

And what would be the purpose of using components that are basically ticking time-bombs to construct the human body?


Now you know why the Universe was not purpose-made for human beings.

Just like how the blogosphere was not specifically designed for Fresh Brainz.

The formatting will never be quite perfect, the layout looks different in IE and Firefox, and old photos keep disappearing from the blog.


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

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Fresh Science 8 November 2007

The juiciest posts from the science 'o sphere.

First HD Moon video! (Bad Astronomy - USA)
Coming soon to your high definition TV!

So that's how humans evolved! (Microarray and bioinformatics - India)
We're different from each other by big, wobbly chunks...

Evolution comes to SA schools (Moonflake - South Africa)
Except that no child would be compelled to "adopt" or "defend" or "subscribe" to it...

Academia starting to recognize Web 2.0 (Orbital Teapot - USA)
But Wiki et. al 2007 says it isn't so yet...

Swimming Opossums (The Lord Geekington - USA)
Did you know that giraffes can't swim?

Moved to

We have just moved to!

I've just fixed a number of formatting issues - if you notice some problems with the blog layout, please inform me.

You can update your bookmarks if you like, but Blogger will automatically redirect any previous links, so they should still work.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fresh Science 6 November 2007

The juiciest posts from the science 'o sphere!

Fresh Science will now be a regular feature on Tuesdays and Thursdays, every week.

Cat genome (Computational Biology News - India)
Meow... kitty DNA sequence.

A rare and truthful glimpse inside the world of chiropractors (Hyphoid Logic - USA)
An insider's account!

Walking with dinosaurs, LIVE! (Laelaps - USA)
We're not computers Sebastian, we're physical.

We are losing our primate cousins (Science Avenger - USA)
Monkey jokes aside, this is bad news.

A rare nut (The Biology Refugia - Singapore)