Breathing life into innovation

A quick and accurate COVID-19 test is what the world needs in the battle against the global coronavirus pandemic.

As an undergraduate in the CN Yang Scholars Programme, Leong Shi Xuan never dreamt that she would one day, as a PhD student, help invent a technology platform for quick detection of individuals infected with the virulent pathogen.

Together with her senior, Dr Phan Quang Gia Chuong, she is part of a 20-member team that in 2020 developed a COVID-19 breathalyser, which has been tested in Changi Airport and used at Parliament House by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other ministers.

The disposable breathalyser can accurately tell, literally with a single breath, if a person is infected with COVID-19, and in under two minutes.

Shi Xuan admits it takes special effort to breathe life into what might have started out as a pipe dream, as is often the case in research.

“When I’m buried deep under mountains of lab work, you’ll hear me complaining about how challenging research is. But once I finish it, I feel this rush of adrenaline and immense sense of satisfaction and I can’t wait to do it all over again,” she says.

In between regular classes as a chemistry undergrad and time spent in the laboratory, she also led an active campus life participating in contemporary dance practice and performances.

“Working on the breathalyser was a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience. You typically don’t get to work on research of this scale unless you are already part of the industry. I learnt a great deal about how research outcomes can be pushed for commercialisation.”

Like Shi Xuan, Dr Phan Quang Gia Chuong is a fellow dance enthusiast, whose love for research was further piqued when he won a scientific writing competition as a PhD student in NTU.

“One of my goals in life is to solve real-life problems using new technology. To do that, I have to start from scratch, beginning with research and ending with bringing the product to market. I want to break my own boundaries and do better each time,” says the multi-talented GC, as he’s better known in the world of breaking, who also dabbles in virtual reality art.

Shi Xuan echoes GC’s sentiments: “I hope my research and the knowledge I uncover will spark future innovations and help society progress. That would be a dream come true!”