Category Archives: NRoberts

Squid Pro Quo

This morning, after quite the trek across Singapore to SIMTech, at the Nanyang Technological University campus (the streets of which are, perplexingly for anyone attempting to navigate the place, all variations on the theme of ‘Nanyang’- i.e. ‘Nanyang Crescent’, ‘Nanyang Road’, etc), we were treated to a series of talks on manufacturing technologies- everything from polymer joining to 3d printing to laser surface machining. Afterwards, we toured the SIMTech manufacturing labs, inspecting countless 3d prints (including the fused deposition double helix shown below), lathe-CNC hybrids (similar to the 5-axis machines used to great effect by La Trobe University, to create instruments and endstations for work done at the Synchrotron) and roll-to-roll manufacturing equipment (intended to eventually produce flexible electronic devices and displays).

Our afternoon briefing on NTU, given by Prof White, provided an interesting window into the history of Singapore as well as the parallels between the development of higher education in Singapore and in Australia. Evolving out of the need for a counterpart to NUS (due to the increasing saturation of NUS’ preallocated grounds), NTU was built on the former grounds of Nanyang University, a chinese-language university that grew out of the desire of Singapore’s large ethnically Chinese population for a university reflecting the identity of Singapore’s Chinese citizenry; Much like RMIT, Swinburne and UNSW (my brother’s and grandfather’s alma mater), NTU started as an Engineering-only institution, growing outward into the sciences and humanities- the reverse of La Trobe University’s growth pattern.
Amongst my favourites of the afternoon’s PhD talks was Hiew Shu Hui’s talk on a biomimetic material based on the teeth and beak of the utterly horrifying Humboldt squid (named for Alexander von Humboldt, one of the most influential and successful scientists of the 19th century, unfortunately forgotten due to sharing a century and field with Darwin). This particular squid exhibits quite a hard beak (to be expected) as well as razor-sharp teeth surrounding its suckers (also common), however both are entirely made from proteins similar to spider silk proteins, arranged in a structure similar to carbon nanotube forests.


Nature’s Nanotechnology: Singapore Day 3

Blogpost 3:


This morning we set off at the entirely appropriate time of 7:15 am to Republic Polytechnic, where we were hosted by students from the Diploma of Materials Science. After the initial briefing on the nature of polytechnics, their place in Singaporean education and the courses offered by RP, George and Nisha gave us their own take on Singaporean culture, with a few tips (including the three key aspects of life in Singapore- Makan (to eat), Shiok (expression of ‘awesome’, usually relating to food) and Byuan Tahan (expression of being overwhelmed, usually by spicy food).

During our tour through the labs and classrooms at RP, I noticed an unusual number of high end scientific instruments including an SEM, no less than four thin-film deposition machines (sputterers) and an NMR unit. Seeing a few classes in action, I appreciated just how appropriate the problem-based learning environment at RP is for fostering university-ready and industry-ready students.

The last item on the agenda for RP’s facilities tour was the aeronautical engineering building, which contained a number of aeroplane components, inspection equipment and tooling, as well as a 150 simulator view of the Changi airport (with which students study the principles of air traffic control across the full gamut of airfield conditions).

After a brief stopover at UTown to change into casual attire, we headed over to the NUS foodcourt to meet up with a group of NUS exchange biodiversity students hailing from U.Utrecht, UCal(San Diego), UCal(Santa Barbara), Canada, UofPerth and South America and departed for an afternoon at the aquarium on Sentosa Island. While the briefing on the specifics of filter technology was not terribly relevant to us as physics students (our lack of background or use for this knowledge made it difficult to absorb), we were reminded of the relevance of our field of study to the marine biology undertaken at the aquarium by the iridescent skin of some of the fish on display which rely on an array of optical nanostructures, as opposed to pigments.

Like bees to honey:Singapore Day 2

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.


CIBA End Station.
CIBA End Station.

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).

High Commission: Singapore Day 1

Yesterday morning’s visit to the Australian High Commission was a resounding logistical success (despite the need for a groggy 8am start- sans Starbucks 😮 ), with room to leisurely make our way down from Brunetti’s (in my case Starbucks, as even the legendarily expensive cafe chain was outdone by the normally quite reasonable Brunetti’s). Once we had all cleared security, examined the artwork and Colombo Plan history pieces on display and generally cooled down as quickly as possible (suits, public transport and tropical climes don’t mix well with Melbournians), Jennifer Burdick (3rd Secretary, DFAT) and Tracy Harris (Trade Commissioner, Australian Trade Commission (Singapore)) proceeded to brief us on the various aspects of Singaporean-Australian relations as well as internal characteristics of Singapore.

The quirks of the otherwise vanilla Westminster political system of Singapore were of particular interest to me, simultaneously providing throwbacks to rare historical exceptions (such as nominative MPs representing sectors of society such as the arts or business- very similar to the guilds corporations that vote in the City of London) and measures rarely seen (even rarer to be enforced correctly) in the most egalitarian corporations and governments (diversity quotas- interesting when viewed in light of the recent Google report on its own unfilled diversity quotas). In addition to these quirks, I found the most interesting parts of the briefing to be the emphasis on the codependency of Australia and Singapore that originates from the complementary nature of our raw materials (arable land and ore) and targeted expertise (the raison d’etre of our visit- LTU’s surface science and condensed matter physics expertise facilitates the ever-strengthening interactions between NUS and LTU) with Singapore’s processing, distribution and financial expertise.

After a brief interlude we visited IMRE, hosted by Dr. Sean O’Shea, who briefed the study tour group on the organisational aspects of IMRE (at a breakneck pace, due to the lukewarm reception of a working scientist of bureaucratic clockwork) as well as the science done at IMRE; Following Dr. O’Shea’s presentation, Dr. Evan Williams presented to us the commercialisation-oriented Materials Centre of Innovation (MCOI), exploring the integration of Singaporean government-funded science with growing Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and the strategies employed and/or designed by MCOI to bring novel materials into viable products and on into commercial success.

Afterwards, we toured a number of labs including techniques such as time-resolved fluorescence confocal microscopy, TEM, STM, NMR and ToF-SIMS. Of particular interest to me was the microscopy lab, which was thoroughly explained by Dr. Nikodem- the elements of system design and scientific instrumentation gave me a sense of the universality and applicability of what I’ve been doing, as the lab development Minh Dao and I have been doing for Dr. C. Q. Tran has involved many of the same software (Labview and Python, technology vendors (Thorlabs and Newport) and challenges as that discussed with Dr. Nikodem.

Meticulous metropolis : Singapore Day 0

Safely in Singapore, I’m composing over a peanut brittle and Starbucks (people really aren’t joking when they say American portions are enormous- I shudder, and jitter, at the thought of what a Starbucks Venti in the US would be like. Perhaps a soup bowl?) a few streets away from the iconic Raffles hotel; Also appreciating the manager’s choice of music (go Lorde & Goldfrapp).

One note on the flight (aside from the minor delay): I have at last gotten the impression that non-Australians of Australia – a red dustbowl (complete with salt lakes and kangaroos). The disparity between the reaction of Australians (me) and tourists (the English lady I pointed out Uluru/Ayers Rock to) never ceases to amuse me- glib ‘oh, one of our national icons. Seen it’ versus ‘wow, that’s amazing’- I’m sure the reverse is true of Stonehenge and the Giant’s Causeway.


So far, I’ve discovered the meaning of compact living (my hostel was quite a bit smaller than I expected- I clearly didn’t get Minh’s (lab partner, former Singapore business student) advice on the compactness of Singaporean accommodation), how not to blend in (first along Pagoda Street and the MRT hauling my suitcase around, then trekking across town with camera bag and satchel in tow), and the courtesy and friendliness of Singaporeans (case-in-point: the concierge at my hostel, who happened to be doing undergrad architecture at NUS, volunteered a wealth of information on the area and NUS).

My perspective on some of the stricter trivial laws (chewing gum, jaywalking, general modesty, etc) is changing- clearly the truly pointless ones are generally ignored (the niggly bits of crossing streets for instance) and rarely enforced, as in any other western/ised society. The policies of the city-state and the environment they have produced remind me of what a social engineer would create- targeted restrictions intended to produce a highly ordered, very clean city (also a little of ‘The Cleaner’ from Blackbooks).  An excellent example of this is the combination of the legion of cleaners patrolling the MRT, extremely clearly delineated traffic flow signs (the red boarding and green alighting areas in front of the train doors, ‘keep left’ zones in corridors, etc) and heavy penalties for public transport nuisances- applying penalties to minor infringements seems to have completely discouraged major infringements (mugging and actual violence) on the MRT, a phenomenon in the same vein as the marked reduction in crime on NYC’s MTA network when heavy fare evasion penalties were brought into effect in the 1990s.

In terms of technology, Singaporeans are indeed as enthusiastic about consumer electronics as I thought they were- Fanan Digitallife mall is an excellent place to go (much more so than Sim Lim) if one is looking for electronics; I spent a couple of hours there trawling through the cornucopia of tablets, laptops and other difficult to justify expenditures (looking at you, smartwatches). Also the emoji adorned feedback tablets right after the passport check stations were an interesting, oddly placed touch (apparently wherever there’s an excuse to put a touch screen in Singapore, its been there since CERN invented the touchscreen).

Next on the agenda: try Kopi, hawker fare, Merlions.

Singapore Anticipations

Ever the procrastinator, I’m composing this post 2 hours out from my flight’s departure- in line with the theme of this past month. I expect Singapore will be as fond (or fonder) of technology as I am (at last, a place that reifies the concept of all-pervading wifi), highly ordered and brimming with the broadest array of excellent food I’ve yet (or might ever) come across.

I’ve never travelled overseas before- I’m excited, but not too nervous. Travelling is a family tradition, particularly travelling via and to Singapore, I expect this study tour will at last make me understand my family’s fondness for Singapore. That and I’m looking forward to the new perspective I’ll gain on British colonialism, hearing a little Singlish (creoles are, to me, fascinating) and learning a little more about the history of Singapore.

Yesterday was a day of cramming as diverse a set of ensembles and technologies (after all, the Chromecast could be useful) as possible into my decidedly modest suitcase, making sure everything runs smoothly in Melbourne while I’m away and generally rushing to and fro. Today, however included a delightful (note: sarcasm) hour long PTV trip to the airport (Melbourne may be nice, fantastic even, but this needs to be fixed eventually), many lattes and high-speed blogging (i.e. this post).

From what I understand, Singapore is amongst the most important centres of business in the Asia-Pacific region and possessed of a formal, hierarchical business manner- not too dissimilar to Australia; That said, I’ve been in a grand total of one Australian business environment and zero Singaporean ones, so my comparison may be completely unfounded, I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.

My primary impression of Singaporean science revolves around one word- ‘large’. Everything I’ve heard about science in Singapore has been along the lines of city-block sized labs (except for the SSLS, the room-sized synchrotron). Aside from that kernel of knowledge, I have little else to go on other than recognising world-class semiconductor fabrication plants in Singapore (Global Foundries and Micron, for one). So, with that in mind, I expect to learn a great deal about this aspect of Singapore.

Boarding in five, this should be interesting.

New horizons

The past few years has seen software hubs (Silicon Valleys, if you will) sprouting all across the globe, with the Silicon Roundabout (Kings Cross, London) and India’s Silicon Valley (Bangalore) sending the software engineering sector of their respective nations into high gear- key to maintaining the robustness of their economies. Yesterday afternoon I visited Block 71 to observe how NUS is forging a bright startup future from the ashes of a former industrial estate; as I walked down corridors, peering into offices and poring over lists of companies, I soaked up the atmosphere of the startups around me. Building companies and worlds from nothing, as Google and No Man’s Sky have done and are doing, has always been something I have admired and wanted to do. Passing the workspaces of eager young developers (many of whom were still beavering away, on an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon), I realised why I love coding, what makes these driven individuals work 90 hour weeks and what it has in common with the allure of the practice of science (which brought me to nanotechnology)- it is, to me, more a matter of expression than it is of work. With that thought in mind, I made my way back to UTown past Fusionopolis, wondering which of the brave ventures might one day join Redmond, Mountain View and Cupertino on the world stage.
Afterwards, Eli and I headed out to Chinatown to sample the local fare (roast duck, in this case) and found ourselves searching high and low for Smith Street Taps (which, so we had heard, served exceptional craft beer)- as it turns out, we did not search high enough (given the crowded street, our eyes were trained on the crowd and shopfronts, not on the giant, all but blinking 335 inscribed high on the façade of our target). There, we discovered a Belgian Lambic apple beer (as it turns out, spontaneous fermentation beers were quite common in ancient times)- far better than apple cider and extremely drinkable (a shame about the sin taxes).
Tonight, we’re headed out for crepes in Little India :D.