People / Unplugged
The Fast and the Curious
Shooting stars, tender green shoots and shooting straight – just some of the things NTU President Prof Bertil Andersson is known for
By Mabel Lee

At the University of Edinburgh, receiving his fifth doctorate in three years.

What is the one question you are asked everywhere you go?
In the past, the most frequently asked question was: “How do you think my country can produce a Nobel Prize winner and how long will it take?” In the last two years, it has become: “Can you tell me the secret of NTU’s success and its rapid rise in rankings?”


NTU is making dramatic leaps in global rankings. Tell us, in three words, what’s driven this rapid success?
People, people, people. Good professors doing world-class research and inspiring great students.
If there’s one thing you could change or add to NTU overnight, what would that be?
A light rail system that lets students, faculty and staff traverse the undulating and beautiful terrain of this lush campus.


You have received five honorary doctorates since becoming NTU President, including two last month (June) from Hanyang University and University of Edinburgh. What gives?
An award not only honours the recipient, but also the community he or she stands for. I’m humbled by the honorary doctorates, and share the credit with the rest of the NTU faculty and researchers, and all scientists in biochemistry. The degrees are a recognition of NTU’s marked progress over the years and the importance of chemistry in the world.


Korean ties: With Hanyang University President Dr Lim Duck-Ho (centre) and Prof Park Jae-Ok, who read the citation.


Singapore is now home to six universities. Do you think that’s one too many?
I used to be a competitive skier, so I believe that strong, hard competition drives one to greater heights. NTU is not just competing locally but also internationally, and the great leaps forward in the last two years show we are on the right track. We may have had to make some hard and unpopular decisions, but in the long run, NTU and Singapore will benefit from having a university that is on par with the best in the world. 

For students, a diversified higher education environment is also a good thing as it means more wide-ranging academic routes for them to fully explore their passions and professions.


As a longstanding member of the Nobel Foundation, which awards the Nobel Prizes, you have met and worked with many great minds. Tell us, what is the stuff of genius?
Curiosity, patience and a dogged determination to find answers to the unknown. It used to be that scientists worked in their own fields, but I have witnessed so many times how new knowledge is found in the overlaps between disciplines. The Berlin walls between disciplines need to come down, which is what we are moving towards at NTU.


Are you more of a dreamer, thinker or doer?
Equal parts for all. I dream, then I think of how to make the dream come true and work on making it happen. Putting NTU up there in the global league is one of my dreams! All change-makers, no matter which field of endeavour they work in, are first and foremost dreamers. They’ve dreamt of a better world to live in, thought deeply about the possibilities, and acted on their impulses.


Was being a rock star ever one of your dreams? You belted out a Beatles classic with the NTU Provost at the campus event, Celebrate NTU!… are you fond of rock music?
Oh yeah, I'll tell you something,
I think you'll understand.
When I’ll say that something,
I want to hold your hand…


Yes, classic rock songs have an invigorating effect on me, not unlike the feeling I get from my morning and nightly runs! Celebrate NTU! was a fun opportunity for staff and students to let their hair down, and I look forward to it again next year.


What were you like as a boy?
Very inquisitive. I would “spy” on plants that grew around the farm I lived on in Sweden to observe their reactions to the environment. Plants are the smartest creatures: they can cope with light and heat stress, and solve their own energy problems through photosynthesis even under extreme conditions. Nature inspires my research.


Have you always had an eco-conscience?
Yes, it is deeply rooted – it might have something to do with growing up on a farm. On my annual vacations, I disappear into the Swedish pine forests and have minimal contact with the outside world to be at one with Nature.


Any advice for this year's freshmen and graduating class?
This Swedish proverb struck a chord with me when I first read it as a young boy: When a blind man carries a lame man, both go forward. Work well with others, use each other's strengths and the best will follow.