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Thank you, teachers

How does a rebellious student go from near-dropout to graduating with First Class Honours? Chrystal Chan finds out more as Koh Boon Hwee Scholars Award winner and budding scientist Steven Cheng chats with the two mentors who turned his life around

Mr Zhang Pengchi, Steven Cheng and Asst Prof Oliver Mueller-Cajar posing for a photoFrom left: Mr Zhang Pengchi, Steven Cheng and Asst Prof Oliver Mueller-Cajar
PHOTOS: RAY CHUA

Steven: Asst Prof Mueller-Cajar and Mr Zhang, thank you for meeting me. I’ve organised this catch-up session because I’ve been conferred the Koh Boon Hwee Scholars Award and I would like to thank you both in person. You are the two teachers I’ve nominated under this award, which recognises influential teaching.

Mr Zhang: Thank you for this honour. As your biochemistry lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, I’m so proud of you.

Asst Prof Mueller-Cajar: Yes, very well-deserved!

S: Maybe, Mr Zhang, let me give you an update on what I’ve been doing. As you know, I entered university with the idea of finding a good professor to mentor me in the field of plant science. That led me to Asst Prof Mueller-Cajar. I spent much of my three years assisting him in his research alongside my studies. I was also the president of Earthlink, an environmental club in NTU, for a year. I’ve been accepted into a PhD programme in Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, where I’ll be continuing my scientific journey.

Z: That’s great to hear, congrats! What were some things you learnt as the president of the Earthlink club?

S: Management skills. Managing people is tough, but managing your own emotions is even tougher. As the president, I had to have good emotional intelligence as you’ll meet some who doubt or question you. People tend to judge those at the top more and I learnt how to manage my reactions.

M: This experience of running Earthlink is very useful as you will probably need these soft skills later on in your career. As a scientist, you can’t just rely on pure research ability.

Mr Zhang Pengchi, Steven Cheng and Asst Prof Oliver Mueller-Cajar having a discussion over coffee and cake

Z: Steven, did you join Asst Prof Mueller-Cajar’s lab soon after you entered NTU?

M: Yes, he did. Steven contacted me saying he was interested in plant science and conservation biology. At that time, I was about the only one in the School of Biological Sciences working on plant research, and I needed someone to assist with experiments.

S: To be honest, I don’t think I did that well in the lab at the start.

M: You did well and, in fact, got some very interesting results when you purified an enzyme from the leaves of banana trees and also from the bird’s nest fern. I’m sure you’re the first one who got this enzyme from the bird’s nest fern.

S: I’m not sure if Asst Prof Mueller-Cajar knows this, but I first got interested in plant science during my polytechnic years. I went to Vietnam to do my internship in stem cells, and there I had to kill over 60 mice. I decided I didn’t want to kill any more lab animals. I also got to know my wife then. She was a researcher in the same lab and her family owns a farm. That’s when I got interested in plant science with the dream of ensuring food security in the future.

Z: I understand now why you chose to do your PhD at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, which focuses on plant and agriculture. Singapore doesn’t produce much of our own food, so food security is very important.

M: Steven actually considered a few other institutes.

S: I got accepted into Cambridge University, but I picked Temasek because I believe it is the best outcome for me, my wife and my mum. Going overseas might be too much of a financial burden.

M: You made a good decision. If you’re studying for your PhD in a smaller institute, you might get more time with your professor. It is a good step to take to launch your scientific career, especially when you’re still young.

S: I’m 26 this year. In secondary school, I did so badly that I was retained a year. I failed English and only passed two other subjects. I was a rebellious student who always went against the rules and talked back to teachers. While everyone was walking to school, I was walking out of school to the LAN shop.

M: Actually, in science, it’s often good to be “rebellious”.

Z: Yes, creativity comes from not following the rules.

M: It is good to not follow everyone else and attempt something from a different angle.

Z: I told Steven to do that too, as long as he doesn’t cross the line.

Mr Zhang Pengchi, Steven Cheng and Asst Prof Oliver Mueller-Cajar posing for a photo

S: That’s hard to do sometimes when the regions are grey instead of a clear black line that I shouldn’t cross. I’ve made some tough decisions while following my moral compass. My father passed away when I was in secondary two, and I think I was spending more time gaming than studying, not knowing my focus in life, until I got into a car accident. Nothing serious happened to me, but after that, everything got clearer. I was able to study things a little easier. When I went to Temasek Polytechnic, I knew that learning was more important than the grade itself. I started to try to understand what I was learning instead of memorising everything.

Z: I’ve noticed Steven has a very strong sense of self-awareness. He asks for help when he knows something is wrong.

M: I recall how he came into my lab with a book on plant hormones he’d found in the library. He came with the mind of a scientist.

S: That’s what I want to be! How can I excel in an academic career?

M: Here’s one tip: Doing your research carefully and correctly is better than solely focusing on getting published in big, prestigious journals. Getting the science right is your best bet to succeed in the research marathon.

S: I’ve always been ambitious, but what you just said makes me think.

M: It is more important to consistently publish solid, good research.

S: I’ll definitely keep that in mind. This brings me back to what I believe in. My current career goal is to get my doctorate first. After that, I might go into academia or business. But right now, I want to learn the scientific method and enjoy the process. In four years, I will make my decision.

Z: I agree. The answers will come at that time so you don’t have to worry about them now.

The Koh Boon Hwee Scholars Award

Great teachers inspire great students. The Koh Boon Hwee Scholars Award recognises this virtuous cycle. It is awarded to top graduating NTU students seen as role models, but goes further by recognising the positive influence of the educators in their lives. The winners each acknowledge an NTU faculty member and a teacher from their pre-university institute who have inspired them. The honoured teacher then nominates a student from his or her school to receive a S$5,000 cash grant upon admission to NTU. The award was first presented as the University Scholars Award but was renamed the Koh Boon Hwee Scholars Award in 2010 in recognition of a gift to NTU from Mr Koh Boon Hwee, Chairman of NTU’s Board of Trustees.