Today’s visit to NUS was all my favourite things rolled into one continuous stream of activities and presentations. The first port of call this morning was the Special Program in Science (SPS) collaborative study space, where we met our NUS host students and generally had a good time trading backgrounds, discussing our interests and grousing about the various faults of our respective nations (the lack of great public transport in Australia, the overcrowding of the Singaporean MRT, the strange lack of bicycles in Singapore and the innumerable poisonous, voracious or otherwise dangerous organisms in Australia). I found the approach to interdisciplinary study quite interesting, as the NUS SPS students generally stick to their majors, but are exposed as outsiders to other fields within science and in collaboration with industry- essentially asking a biologist to solve an engineer’s biofilm problem without requiring her to have any Engineering training whatsoever (interesting solutions spring from the intersection of perspectives).
Our visit to the Ion beam labs was quite interesting- several researchers (including the most effective salesman for a scientific technique I have seen) walked us through their use of the multi-beamline proton accelerator in fields stretching from semiconductor fabrication and microfluidics (proton lithography, with the advantage over traditional methods of being able to create 3D features stretching up to 60 microns beneath the surface) to fast single cell elemental scans and applications in the characterisation of cancer cells.
The Centre for Quantum Technology briefing was certainly my favourite talk of the day, in part because of the content – quantum cryptography, ion traps and laser cooling (both of which I’d read about but never expected to actually enter a lab working on this kind of physics)- but also because of the way it was delivered. I’m now even more of the opinion that science writing, particularly public journalism, must be a part of every young science student’s education- the work done at CQT was presented in such a way that members of the public would have very little trouble understanding and gaining insight, while still appealing to and providing new information to physics students who have learnt much of the background already. The heavy involvement of Computer Science in the CQT was also quite exciting to see, as the use of computational methods (as well as the creation of entirely new methods and frameworks) in the physical sciences is one of my core interests and something I would like to be involved in.
After lunch with our hosts, we were treated to a briefing on the history, organisation and general characteristics of NUS by Vice President of Global Relations (also, coincidentally, President of the Singaporean National Academy of Sciences) Andrew Wee Thye Shen. Of particular interest to me was the joint venture between NUS and Yale, in the form of a liberal arts college (a model that has seen success in its spread outward from US origins), as well as the presence of Block71, a miniature Silicon Valley (home to an incubator for NUS-based startups).
We finished off our visit to NUS at the Science Demo Lab, a physics-oriented equivalent to Questacon (scaled down, though densely packed with cost-effective demonstrations), an excellent chance to return to the bygone days of playing with physics; I personally found the Lab to be exactly the sort of thing needed for the promotion of science in Australia- because it is inexpensive to set up, flexible and extremely effective at fostering the right kind of questions and problem-solving amongst students (its also a good way to wake up and engage a group of tired physics students).