Ahead of the Pack

Ahead of the Pack

22 July 2019

In August 2018, NTU announced the creation of 50 new named faculty chair professorships as part of an initiative to recognise outstanding achievement at early, mid-career and senior faculty levels. The chair professorships aim to attract, nurture and retain world-class faculty at the university. Profiled below are six of them, all trailblazers in their own right working to solve some of our biggest problems today while contributing to the building of tomorrow's generation of innovators and problem-solvers.

Building Hi-Tech Warning Bells

When the scenic Mount Ontake located on the Japanese island of Honshu erupted without warning in 2014, 58 hikers died. Bereaved families of five victims have since filed a lawsuit against the local government for its failure to sound the alarm. Tragedies like these are what fuel Associate Prof Fidel Costa's work. A principal investigator with the Volcano group at the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), he is an igneous petrologist and geochemist whose work revolves around understanding volcanoes to create more timely, accurate forecasting capabilities — and reduce eruption fatalities.

Growing up with a love for nature, hiking and mountains, Assoc Prof Costa's work has taken him to various active volcanoes in South America, Europe and South East Asia. But while occupational hazards are very real in his line of work, the real challenge is the technical complexity of building volcano forecasting models, given the unpredictable nature of volcanoes itself as well as multiple parameters which interact non-linearly.

As such, data is a key influencing factor in his work — Assoc Prof Costa is leading the ongoing development of the World Organization of Volcano Observatories (WOVO), Database of Volcanic Unrest (WOVOdat), a global database hosted by EOS that contains information on volcanic unrest from across the globe. With a set of standardised data formats and database architectures, it is now, for the first time, much easier for researchers such as Assoc Prof Costa to do comparative studies of volcanic unrest in order to reduce future volcano hazards.

It is not a simple undertaking, however. More data is needed to create as comprehensive a database as possible, but getting information on volcanic eruptions from international stakeholders and government counterparts is fraught with political fault lines and other sensitivities which may bring legal repercussions. In the face of growing populations in Asia resulting in greater volcanic threat, Assoc Prof Costa's work has never been more important — and urgent.

Making the Golden Years Count

With a rapidly-ageing population not just in Singapore but in many developed nations, it is imperative to find new ways to improve the quality of life for senior citizens. Professor Miao's research focuses on humanised artificial intelligence (AI), synergising human intelligence, AI and behaviour data analytics to create novel experiences and dimensions in game design and other real-world agent systems to solve pressing societal problem

With a rapidly-ageing population not just in Singapore but in many developed nations, it is imperative to find new ways to improve the quality of life for senior citizens. Professor Miao's research focuses on humanised artificial intelligence (AI), synergising human intelligence, AI and behaviour data analytics to create novel experiences and dimensions in game design and other real-world agent systems to solve pressing societal problem

Tell us more about some of the more exciting projects you're working on.

We have many ongoing projects aimed at addressing fundamental problems affecting the well-being of seniors, such as predictive analysis of dementia and Parkinson 's disease; and gamified rehabilitation following stroke or knee replacement surgery. These projects are undertaken in partnership with healthcare providers and the industry. In one such project, we are working towards the early detection and intervention of dementia. Partnering with Tan Tock Seng Hospital, we have designed ADL+, a digital toolkit for cognitive assessment and intervention. Packaged as engaging iPad games for seniors, these are gamified cognitive tests that can help predict the risk of them developing dementia and assess the impact of dementia on their daily lives. In another project, we are carrying out research on predictive analytics of daily activities in ageing in-place environments for the early detection of frailty. Through games designed to encourage physical exercise, seniors can enjoy a guided Taichi session using body motion sensors (e.g. Kinect) or participate in a virtual driving game by using an exercise bike.

What motivates the work that you do?

Age-friendly technologies enable the creation of innovative solutions for active, independent and dignified ageing, and may even help the elderly to continue contributing to their communities after retirement. Fellow citizens will view seniors as a significant national asset.

How do you feel about being awarded the President's Chair in Computer Science?

My greatest satisfaction comes from seeing how people are benefitting from the outcomes of my research work. I am humbled and honoured to be named as President's Chair Professor in Computer Science.

Advancing a Low-Carbon Future

Named one of MIT Technology Review's List of Top Innovators in 2014 for his work on perovskites (a solar material cheaper than existing silicon-based solar cells), Associate Professor Nripan Mathews is a forerunner in the global push toward renewable energy. He talks about his work and his passion here.

Can you share some of the most exciting potential applications of perovskite photovoltaics?

From a technological development point of view, we are looking at scaling up the solar cells to be integrated into windows as this is especially critical for cities like Singapore where areas for installing solar cells is limited. We are also studying perovskites for lighting applications as well — an interesting area of development since lighting consumes so much energy.

How did you decide what field to study and area to major in before zeroing in on material science and engineering?

It seemed to be the area that would enable me to blend my interest in science with the practicality of engineering. Materials really are so fundamentally important in enabling a wide variety of technologies.

You are also the owner/author of several patents; what habits, aspects of your upbringing, or natural inclinations would you attribute your creativity and innovative mindset to?

Well, research is mostly about creativity. We are always trying to attack difficult problems from a new angle or look at how we can best utilise a material's property that we discovered. I guess I am helped by my "greed" for all knowledge (even seemingly trivial), and my efforts to mentally map connections between them. Trying to look for connections between unrelated concepts always results in something new.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Everything except the mind-numbing paperwork! I enjoy the opportunity to pursue interesting ideas, the discussions with students…the whole creative process.

As an engineer and inventor, what keeps you up at night?

The survival of human race in the face of myopic thinking.

Grooming Engineers who Break the Mould

Engineers wear helmets and greasy overalls and work under the hot sun for a less-than-handsome pay — that is the unglamorous stereotype of the engineering profession that Professor Louis Phee wants to debunk. Specialising in the area of Medical Robotics and Mechatronics in Medicine, Prof Phee most recently co-led the development of a weight-loss pill that expands in the stomach to induce a sense of fullness — a novel, non-invasive solution in the global fight against obesity. We catch up with him for a quick chat about grooming the engineers of tomorrow.

The ideal engineer has in-depth technical expertise, connects well with those from other disciplines and is a great spokesperson for the work he does, especially among non-engineers. Engineers must be able to sell an idea. There is no point coming up with the next big technology if nobody buys it. Gone are the days where engineers are seen to be square and even socially awkward.

In the real world no one works alone. Our curriculum ensures engineering students mix and collaborate with students from other disciplines. Our Margaret Lien Centre for Professional Success helps train our students in character, creativity, communication, competence and civic-mindedness to ensure our graduates are armed with not just skills but sound moral values — and that sets them apart when they join the workforce.

My favourite engineer of all time is Leonardo da Vinci, who dreamed of gadgets and machines beyond his time. All engineers should dare to dream big. Da Vinci was both an engineer and an artist. His creativity had no boundaries. This is an important trait with the advent of the 4th Industrial Revolution, where the lines are blurring between humanity, the arts, science and technology.

Amplifying the Unspoken

2018 was the year the Hollywood hit movie Crazy Rich Asians came out. It was also the year another bestseller was launched, tackling a topic squarely at the other end of the social spectrum — poverty and inequality in Singapore. Written by Nanyang Technological University Head of Sociology Associate Professor Teo You Yenn, This Is What Inequality Looks Like is a collection of essays confronting the realities of life for the "invisible" poor of Singapore, and how systemic bias, policy gaps and individual action across class lines perpetuate the cycle of poverty for them.

A scholar at heart with a passion for social justice, Prof Teo has been a regular contributor to public debate for the past decade, but it wasn't until the book was launched that she became a household name. Drawn from three years (2013 – 2016) of conversations, observations and in-depth interviews with people living on tight incomes as well as a decade of research on family, social welfare, gender and public policy in Singapore, TIWILL is both an easy and a hard read — easy because it is written for non-academic audiences, and hard because it challenges us to confront our own blind spots, fears and biases.

The book has sold 29,000 copies in the 17 months since it launched, but more importantly, kindled dialogue on a topic that does not make for easy conversation. It is what you get when you combine the rigours of academic research and critical thinking with unapologetic storytelling. As such, the chair professorship is an encouraging win for her. "It's a signal that Singapore scholarship is important, and hopefully more young scholars will continue doing serious work on Singapore, as well as write not just for their peers, but also for nonacademic audiences. There is a lot of work we can, and need, to do because it is only when we act collectively that we can figure out what we want as a society."

Containing Climate Change

An accomplished Earth scientist and academic leader at the University of Cambridge in UK, Professor Simon Redfern joins NTU as its new Dean of the College of Science in 2019. Below is a first-person introduction from him.

"I am delighted to join NTU as Dean of the College of Science, and am looking forward to getting to know all of my new colleagues in the College. NTU has leapt from strength to strength in the last decade and it will be exciting to see that rapid growth and maturity develop further in Science in the coming years. My aim will be to help support and build an environment where very member of the College has the opportunity to develop and achieve their scientific ambitions. I am also looking forward to helping build cooperative networks within the College and beyond. Addressing some of the biggest challenges that science must tackle in the coming years will depend upon bringing together complementary disciplines.

Science today is at a tipping point, with a step change in the volume and types of data available. This offers a key route for tackling unprecedented challenges which affect us all: security of food supply, sustainable development of society, a shared understanding of our cultural heritage, the challenge of global climate change, and fundamentally of providing shelter, work, food, water, energy and resources for everyone. The sciences will continue to offer key answers to some of the most difficult problems.

I feel honoured to be awarded one of the President's Chairs in Earth Sciences. I am also delighted that I join three other colleagues in the Asian School of the Environment to be conferred this title. This points to the growing strength of NTU in Earth and Environmental Sciences. Like others of the schools in the College, ASE is very young. This summer I leave Cambridge University, which celebrated its 800th anniversary, and is almost 30 times older than NTU. I am moving from (arguably) the best old university in the world, to the best young university in the world — it's exciting!"

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