Published on 16 Mar 2023

Rising to the top

What does it take to be recognised as a top young scientist? Two NTU alumni under 35 who bagged the national Young Scientist Award reflect on their STEM careers.

By Nur Isyana Isaman

Many researchers spend a lot of their time working in the lab, but not for Dr Bi Renzhe (CCEB/2015). Beyond lab work, he enjoys taking time to interact with the people impacted by his research. By doing that, he gets a better understanding of how his work can make a difference to society. 

“We work closely with healthcare stakeholders to optimise our prototypes and perform clinical trials to validate our hypothesis. I take every opportunity to talk to them. Even when I send my daughter to pre-school, I discuss collaboration opportunities with a fellow parent, who is a clinical scientist," he shared.

Dr Bi Renzhe in his lab, where he works on award-winning innovations. (Credit: A*STAR)

Currently a senior scientist at A*STAR, Dr Bi develops new technologies and devices that use laser-based imaging to diagnose diseases, which are useful in quantitative eczema assessment and skincare product validation. 

Dr Bi’s interest in research stemmed from high school, where he was inspired by a scientist’s talk. He specialised in biomedical optics for his undergraduate studies and by the second year, he knew that he wanted to pursue a PhD. He completed his PhD at NTU School of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering (now known as CCEB). 

Through his work, Dr Bi has achieved three granted patents. In recognition of his efforts, Dr Bi has been honoured with the Young Scientist Award in December 2022.  

Dr Bi pursued his PhD at NTU School of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering (now known as CCEB).

“It takes about three to four years for one patent to be granted and I own three, which have been licensed or assigned to medical technology companies. I am heartened to know that my inventions have significant societal and industrial values, which motivates me to bring research and technology from the lab closer to people’s lives,” said Dr Bi. 

However, success does not come easy. He explained, “The mundane aspect of my work is debugging hardware and software, which can be tedious and time-consuming when we cannot identify what causes the problem. There were times when I contemplated giving up my career in STEM research. But to see my work making a true impact is worth all the pressure.”  

A role model for the next gen

Dr Koh Ming Joo is deeply passionate about organic chemistry research. (Credit: A*STAR)

The other recipient of Young Scientist Award is also an NTU alumnus, Dr Koh Joo Ming (CCEB/2012), who was recognised for his research in sustainable technologies that boost chemical production efficiency.

One of Dr Koh’s discoveries even received the attention of the American Chemical Society’s Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), and he has become the first Singaporean to win the prestigious Talented 12 Class of 2022 award from them. He also co-owns several patents including those licensed by Swiss-based company XiMo AG.

Right after his NTU convocation where he received first class honours in chemistry, Dr Koh flew to Boston to embark on his PhD journey. However, upon reaching, reality smacked him just like the snowstorm there.

“I had never travelled so far away. A different weather. A different culture. It was challenging to survive and thrive. It took me two years to get used to the changes. I spent about six years away from home, working at least 10 hours a day, six days a week to earn my PhD in organic chemistry,” recounted Dr Koh.

But his passion kept him going. “In the initial years of setting up my research group and securing funding, I was unsuccessful in many fellowship and grant applications. Those disappointments gave me extra motivation to improve my proposals and develop better ideas to solve challenging problems in chemical synthesis,” he said. Today, the 35-year-old works as a President’s Assistant Professor at NUS.

Dr Koh (first from left) back when he was doing lab work at NTU.

Dr Koh credits his strong passion in organic chemistry to his professors at NTU. 

“Professor Loh Teck Peng was among the first few people who inspired me to go into organic chemistry. During my time at the chemistry division, I worked with Professor Philip Chan for several years, including a final year project. These professors and others at NTU encouraged and supported me,” shared Dr Koh.

“Organic chemistry is in every part of our lives; humans are made of organic molecules and we eat foods that contain organic molecules. It’s a research field that has major implications for the entire chemical industry, especially as the world moves towards sustainability. Developing sustainable solutions will transform the industry for future generations,” he added.

Now, it’s his turn to support the next generation of researchers. In his role, Dr Koh nurtures talented students, some of whom have won best student researcher awards and established successful careers.

“Be resourceful and willing to learn new things and accept failures along the journey because they will eventually lead to success,” this is his constant reminder to budding researchers and himself as they continue to produce purposeful work with real-life applications beyond academic publications. 

As for Dr Bi, he believes that his journey will continue to be tough yet rewarding. His advice to young researchers is something he would have told his younger self, “Everything that you are afraid of and worried about now, you will overcome it and become stronger thereafter. Don’t doubt yourself and continue to persevere in this field.” 

These awards are administered by the Singapore National Academy of Science and supported by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).