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The journey from NTU student to School Chair

by Louis Phee

NTU Prof Louis Phee with his robot

Like wine, we all mellow with age. Life dishes out hard lessons and it is only through realisation of our mistakes that we can learn from them.

In my younger days, I would have shot off an email and replied straightaway to address some concerns. Now, as Chair of the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, though I have more issues to handle, I take longer to think things through.

Communication is something in which I started off poorly. I didn’t listen enough to people around me. When I was younger, I was what people would describe as “act tough”. I thought I always knew best. But I have come to realise this mistake. We have to communicate, break barriers and listen.

I always wanted to do something in the medical field. I was offered dentistry or engineering. I chose engineering because I wanted to engineer something that could help patients. When I came back to NTU after my PhD in Italy, I focused on robotics. I thought I was a brilliant engineer. My robots were designed to perform surgery better than surgeons. They were engineering marvels – but only in my opinion. The surgeons didn’t like them. Some didn’t like the feel; others said they would not use them.

It was a crucial mistake that I wasn’t listening enough when I started on my earlier projects. Even if my robot had worked and been tried on animals, many things could still go wrong. It took me a long time to learn that customers are always right! In this case, the customer was the surgeon.

I started doing things differently. I did proper surveys and didn’t build the entire system straightaway but did it in parts. I developed smaller components and then asked users what they thought about them before I advanced.

I was impatient. But now I know that doing things step by step is the best way. You can’t hurry, especially when it involves people’s lives.

When I started EndoMaster to market a gastric tumour removal robot with my partner, Prof Lawrence Ho, I was still learning things the hard way. It takes a lot of time and patience to push a complicated medical device to the market. The first time I wanted to try out our robot on patients, even with proper approval, we had to overcome many hurdles. The hospitals were asking why we wanted to test such a device. Nobody in Singapore had done human trials on a made-in-Singapore surgical robot before.

But with great perseverance, we became the first in this country to test a surgical robot on human beings. The result was good. It was priceless to see the patient get up and smile. You cannot find this type of satisfaction anywhere, not even if you get your papers published in the world’s top journal. It was like climbing to the top of Mount Everest.

The robot will hit the market next year. It will be the first of such robots in Singapore and the world! So you can see why research excites me so much. All through school, I was just a good student and never the top student. But the “me” who was never a top student went on to receive the President’s Technology Award – through sheer passion. I would never have reached that far if I had stayed in my first job.

As I am an old boy here, I have great rapport with my students. I know just by looking at their faces whether I have their attention. And I make sure I get their attention by peppering my lectures with jokes.

NTU Prof Louis Phee and family

My first mistake after graduation was getting a job that I had no passion for. I was very anxious to work, so I took the first position offered, as a process engineer. After only a few months, it got too mundane for me. It was the same when I started moonlighting as a pianist in hotel lounges while working on my master’s. I could play the piano since I was ten, having taught myself to play by ear. People said I could earn a living quite comfortably as a pianist. But again, it was not challenging enough for me.

On the other hand, my passion for engineering and research was never stifled. It started when I was a kid. My younger brother and I were always breaking things and fixing them. We modified radio-controlled cars here and there. Our parents never dictated what we should study. They were happy as long as we tried out best.

I learnt a lot from my parents. Now a father myself, I am also never the “kiasu” (afraid to lose out) parent. I don’t compare our kids’ grades. I don’t baby-talk to them. I treat them as adults and I always try to listen to their side of the story.

So far, my children have not managed to make me very angry. But I remember making my parents very, very angry. One time, I was yelling at them and slamming the door in rage. I regret that very much now.

But I guess like most kids, I was naughty. I was playing a lot, perhaps too much, even when I was a student at NTU. But with the tables turned when I joined the university as a junior faculty member, I made it a point to tell my students that there must be a balance.

As I am an old boy here, I have great rapport with my students. I know just by looking at their faces whether I have their attention. And I make sure I get their attention by peppering my lectures with jokes.

Communication channels with my staff are also always open; I adopt an open-door policy at my office. Happy staff and appreciative students always make my day – like patients who smile because of something I have invented.

Prof Louis Phee has come a long way since his days in NTU, first as an undergraduate and then a postgraduate student. A true-blue NTU alumnus, he is now the Chair of NTU’s School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and has won numerous awards for his scientific achievements that have included minimally invasive methods of surgery using robotics.