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Infusing science with fun

Worldwide, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries are facing a severe shortage of manpower, as well as a gender imbalance. BT speaks with three women in Singapore about their personal journeys, as well as their efforts to educate the youth and support other women in STEM careers here.

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"If we can make science enjoyable by making it 3D, colourful and relevant, then we can make people interested in it," says Dr Rosemary Tan, founder and CEO of Veredus Laboratories.

Singapore

SCIENCE isn't fun - at least, not the way it's taught in school, says Rosemary Tan, founder and CEO of local biotech firm Veredus Laboratories.

Memorising theories and processes with few opportunities for practical experiments is hardly the best way to develop a keen interest in a subject, and it is no wonder that Singapore is experiencing a dearth of graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

"I've realised that people are not informed at a young age of how fun science can be," said Dr Tan, who is Singaporean. "In fact, a lot of people don't know much about science. I thought, life science is so fun. Why aren't more people involved in it?"

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To share her passion for science and excite local students to pursue scientific careers, Dr Tan founded life sciences education business Genecet Biotechnologies in 2001. In her opinion, the key is to teach science holistically, in vivid detail, and link it to real-life applications, so that students will realise that it can be just as creative and practical as any other subject.

Genecet uses experiential learning to bring science to life for primary and secondary school students in its more than 100 programmes, which it conducts in partnership with local schools. Students get to do hands-on work in realistic scenarios like simulated crime scenes, oncology testing and pandemic management. They collect fingerprints and fake DNA samples and run lab tests ranging from simple urine tests to more advanced polymerase chain reactions.

At the same time, they debate social issues like the implications of genetic testing on various aspects of life, from insurance policies to medical decisions like actress Angelina Jolie's preventive surgeries in 2013 and 2015 when she learned of her genetic cancer risks.

From personal experience, Dr Tan understands how science might pale in comparison to arts subjects, especially for girls. Her own deep love of literature and language gave her pause in her teenage years when she was deciding whether to pursue a career that would allow her to flex her writing skills, or a scientific one that would require a different, more technical skill set.

"Girls tend to be able to express themselves better, and being in the arts is a form of expression for them," she said. "Reading some beautiful sentences, in a different language for instance, it's enjoyable. I can understand why people would love to do that."

She eventually chose science because it required intensive practical training she could not do on her own, and she felt her time in university would be best spent receiving such training. But that personal dilemma guided her to emphasise incorporating fun into teaching scientific topics, so that science would not appear dry compared to the arts.

Dr Tan said: "You'll get anyone to be interested in science if you remember how when things were enjoyable for us in school, we wanted to learn more. And when things are boring, you don't want to find out more. So if we can make science enjoyable by making it 3D, colourful and relevant, then we can make people interested in it."

She has since carved out a name for herself as founder and CEO of Veredus Laboratories. Established in 2004, the company took off almost instantly and was profitable within its first year, thanks to what Dr Tan describes as "choosing the right thing at the right time" - Veredus developed a H5N1 testing kit just before an epidemic broke out, and the kits were snapped up like hot cakes.

Since then, Veredus has gone on to specialise in developing biochips that can detect pathogens in food and diagnose diseases like malaria and dengue fever.

Dr Tan described the personal journey of leading Veredus as "fun ... very exciting and very fruitful" and laughed as she added: "I don't know how to compare it to anything else, because I've only done this."

She maintains her passion for literature and languages as a hobby, reading classic works in Japanese, Mandarin and English in her leisure to compare the translations and appreciate the nuances in each language.

While she no longer runs Genecet Biotechnologies directly, having handed over the operations to a dedicated team, she makes time each year to share her passion for science with students by giving talks at schools about Veredus' work and technology.

And although Dr Tan is well aware of the severe gender imbalance in the science industry - she said she feels lonely at times and wishes she had a group of female scientist friends to discuss and develop innovations with - she believes more people need to get involved in science, regardless of gender.

"I can go to my alumni gatherings for my junior college or secondary school and I can't find another scientist easily. It's just so rare," she said.

"I want people to know that science is fun, and science can change the world. And I don't think it matters whether they're girls or boys. You'll have great scientists either way."