A*Star scholarship holder charged with poisoning classmates

Ouyang Xiangyu, 27, is currently out on bail. She is expected to plead not guilty due to insanity.
Ouyang Xiangyu, 27, is currently out on bail. She is expected to plead not guilty due to insanity.

An A*Star scholarship holder who was doing cancer research at one of America's top universities has been accused of trying to poison her laboratory mates using a toxic chemical.

Singaporean Ouyang Xiangyu, 27, now faces a trial in California after being charged with four counts of poisoning the drinking water of classmates at her graduate studies lab in Stanford University last year.

Currently out on US$50,000 (S$68,600) bail but not allowed to leave the country, she is expected to plead not guilty due to insanity.

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) told The Straits Times yesterday that it was "deeply concerned" over the incident. "There will be no action on our part until after the proceedings have concluded," a spokesman said.

Ouyang received A*Star's National Science Scholarship (PhD) in 2013 after her outstanding performance in her undergraduate studies at Imperial College London.

The former Temasek Junior College student, who was originally from China, was expected to complete her PhD studies by 2018 and return to Singapore to complete her five-year bond, the spokesman added.

According to court documents, things started going wrong for her last August, when she allegedly began sabotaging a lab mate's experiment.

From September, two female graduate student researchers working in the same lab also began finding something wrong with the water in their bottles. They experienced burning sensations in their throats, for instance, after drinking.

The students, who were of Asian descent, found that the water smelt of paraformaldehyde. The chemical, which is used to preserve tissue samples, was readily available in the lab.

In November, when questioned by police, Ouyang, who was described as quiet and shy by colleagues, admitted adding the chemical to at least two bottles that did not belong to her.

She claimed she had been suffering from insomnia and dizziness, and had sought help from a psychiatrist. She insisted she never had any intention of harming anyone. Her actions, which she claimed she had little control over, were "a cry for help".

When The Straits Times visited her home in Clementi yesterday, Ouyang's father, who declined to be named, said his wife is currently taking care of their daughter in the United States.

He denied being aware of any medical condition his daughter might have. "If we had known earlier, we would have sent her for treatment."

Tenants living with the family said Ouyang's parents are both researchers.

According to California law, she could face between two and five years in jail if found guilty. Another three years could be added if the poison involved can cause "great bodily harm or death".

joycel@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Yeo Sam Jo and Pearl Lee