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Speech by Minister Gan Kim Yong at the A*STAR Scholarship Award Ceremony

Speech by Minister Gan Kim Yong at the A*STAR Scholarship Award Ceremony

Excellencies,

Ms Chan Lai Fung, Chairman, A*STAR,

Mr Frederick Chew, Chief Executive Officer, A*STAR,

Scholarship recipients and family members,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,

1. Good morning to all of you.

2. I am very happy to join you at this year’s A*STAR Scholarship Award Ceremony.

3. First, let me begin by extending my warmest congratulations to today’s scholarship recipients.

4. Looking back in 2008, 2012 and 2017, I had the privilege of presenting these scholarships in person but with the pandemic, we have to adapt and host these events online. While the experience may be quite different, the spirit of the event remains and will stay with you for a long time to come. 

Science, technology and innovation are key enablers for Singapore’s growth and competitiveness

Supporting our fight against COVID-19

5. Steady investments in research and innovation over the years have paid off for Singapore. Our strong capabilities in biomedical sciences and engineering enabled the speedy development of innovative solutions to support our fight against COVID-19.

  a. First, these investments allowed us to develop a range of COVID-19 test kits quickly that can be deployed across various use cases. The Fortitude test kit, which has been deployed in over 45 countries to date, is able to quickly detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus with high accuracy. Another innovation is cPass, a serological test that can rapidly detect neutralising antibodies in COVID-19 patients without the need of containment facility or specimen. cPass was also the first COVID-19 antibody test kit to get U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval.

  b. Second, we were able to deploy highly complex modelling tools that helped us to understand the impact that various preventive measures have in combating community spread of the virus. A*STAR researchers developed a computational fluid dynamics framework, which accurately models the spread of droplets in Singapore's tropical environment. Using these simulations, A*STAR researchers worked with public agencies and business owners to develop recommendations on mitigation measures and help reduce overall transmission.

  c. Third, A*STAR has published 80 international papers on COVID-19 research to date. This, alongside other research from our Institutes of Higher Learning, have contributed to putting Singapore on the world map for COVID-19 research. According to Elsevier, a Dutch information analytics company, Singapore is ranked among the top 12 globally in terms of citation impact for COVID-19 related research.

Supporting Singapore’s next stage of growth

6. Besides combatting COVID-19, the government’s investments in science, technology and innovation will enable us to create new growth engines to support Singapore’s next stage of economic development.

7. For instance, A*STAR collaborated with Westcom Solutions, a local waste management company, to develop a unique microbial treatment, which allows their food digester machines to convert large amounts of food waste into organic fertiliser. These machines are now used in several locations in Singapore, including schools and hospitals, contributing to a more sustainable future, in line with the Singapore Green Plan 2030.

8. Last December, A*STAR launched its pilot Innovation Factory @ SIMTech, supported by Enterprise Singapore, to help local Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) transform ideas into commercially viable products that are ready for market adoption. To date, 21 local SMEs have joined the Innovation Factory.

Developing a globally competitive R&D talent pool

9. However, all the examples I cited above could not be realised without one key ingredient – talent. Talent development is a key enabler of our Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) plans.

10. To develop a globally competitive R&D talent pool, we must continue to build and nurture an agile local talent base, support research work on challenging problems of global importance, and remain open to international talent and ideas.

  a. First, Singapore will continue to develop a collaborative R&D community that supports the development of our future economy.

  i. Sustainable food supply is one of the new areas that A*STAR’s talent initiatives are focused on. A strong pool of R&D talent in this field is key to supporting our broader national food security efforts.

  ii. In April this year, A*STAR, in collaboration with Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) launched the Future Ready Food Safety Hub, or FRESH, to drive multi-disciplinary collaborations and contribute to Singapore’s “30 by 30” food resiliency goal.

  b. Second, we will maintain our strong support for fundamental research, to sustain a critical mass of top scientific talent to drive future innovations.

  i. A good example of how fundamental research has led to advancements in health outcomes is the Vitreogel innovation. Vitreogel is a safe, stable and biodegradable thermogel material that serves as a vitreous substitute during eye surgery, such as retinal detachment repair.

  ii. This innovation was co-developed by Dr Su Xinyi, a clinician-scientist and ophthalmologist, and Dr Loh Xian Jun, who is a basic polymer scientist at A*STAR’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE).

  iii. When Xinyi faced challenges finding a suitable substance to replace the vitreous liquid in patients’ eyes after surgery, both scientists came together to develop the thermogel, and co-founded the company Vitreogel Innovations to commercialise it. Their innovation is an important example of how fundamental research is crucial in creating a strong base of knowledge and capabilities needed to power transformative innovations.

  c. Third, Singapore will continue to remain open to international collaborations to strengthen our position as an international research and innovation hub.

  i. This pandemic has underscored the importance of international partnerships in enabling the conditions required for scientific breakthroughs.

  ii. Early in the crisis, the Bioinformatics team at A*STAR, together with other colleagues , helped to set up a software and curation workflow on the GISAID data sharing platform to collect, analyse and share data about the Sars-CoV-2 virus genomes with the global scientific community.

  iii. The platform has been recognised as a gamechanger in our fight against the pandemic, serving as the primary source of COVID-19 genomic data that has contributed to the rapid development of diagnostic kits and vaccines.

11. I encourage A*STAR scholars to embody this ethos of collaboration, to build networks, exchange ideas, share knowledge and conduct joint projects with the global community of academics and researchers.

Nurturing the next generation of science and technology talent in Singapore

12. As A*STAR marks its 30th anniversary this year, it can take pride in having played a leading role in creating an R&D ecosystem that has successfully developed impactful research and delivered positive outcomes for Singapore and Singaporeans.

13. The A*STAR scholarship, also celebrating its 20th anniversary, has been integral in cultivating Singapore’s local scientific talent base.

14. Since 2001, A*STAR has developed a pipeline of over 1,700 Singaporean PhD and postdoctoral talent through its scholarships and fellowships.

15. Scholars from earlier batches have gone on to become leaders in their own fields. Let me cite just a few:

  a. Dr Lee Hui Mien, a scholar who is contributing to the advancement of science and sustainability outside the lab. Upon completion of her PhD, Dr Lee subsequently joined SIMTech as a researcher where she worked with the local industry to upgrade their capabilities and competitiveness. Now, she is the Vice President and Team Lead at Mandai Park Development where she oversees the sustainable solutions team.

  b. Dr Cheston Tan is another scholar who is contributing to the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI).  After obtaining his PhD in Computational Neuroscience, Cheston joined A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research (I²R) as a scientist where he now develops new AI techniques that draw inspiration from the human brain.

  c. Dr Su Xinyi, the innovator of Vitreogel whom I mentioned earlier, was also an A*STAR scholar. Xinyi received the National Science Scholarship and went on to complete her MBBS and PhD. Today, Xinyi is wearing multiple leadership hats in A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), the National University Hospital, and at NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, among other appointments. Besides her research and clinical work, Xinyi is committed to developing the next generation of clinician-scientists through her active mentoring of A*STAR scholars, NUH PhD students and NUHS Ophthalmology clinician-scientist residents.

16. Looking ahead, A*STAR scholarships will continue to play a role in grooming the next generation of scientists and engineers who will contribute to fields such as artificial intelligence, urban and green technology, which have highly relevant applications for industries of the future.

Conclusion

17. In conclusion, science, technology and innovation will continue to be critical in ensuring Singapore’s resilience and economic transformation, especially as we emerge from COVID-19.

18. Ultimately, talent like yourselves will continue to be Singapore’s key competitive advantage in fuelling our innovation-driven economy.

19. Once again, congratulations to all the scholars here today, and to your parents, family and friends who have supported you over the years.

20. Singapore looks forward to seeing all of you make scientific breakthroughs and welcoming you all to join the ranks of Singapore’s R&D ecosystem on completion of your studies.

21. Thank you and all the best.

 

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