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Chemistry prof fired up by the unexpected

Dr Leong was conferred a Doctor of Science degree by Cambridge University in July last year for his significant contribution to his field of research.
Dr Leong was conferred a Doctor of Science degree by Cambridge University in July last year for his significant contribution to his field of research.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

His quest: To unearth mysteries of the chemical world, 'to boldly go where no one has gone before'

Most people prefer it when things go according to plan. But it is precisely the spark of uncertainty in the study of chemistry that holds allure for Dr Leong Weng Kee.

"One of the joys of doing research in this area is that you don't know what the outcome would be. You can plan ahead on a piece of paper, draw things out and think... but it's usually more exciting when the unexpected happens," said the associate professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

The 56-year-old might not have aced his chemistry undergraduate studies at Cambridge University and gone on to do a doctorate right after graduating in 1982.

But Dr Leong, who received a doctorate in chemistry from Simon Fraser University in Canada in 1996, was conferred a Doctor of Science degree by Cambridge in July last year for his significant contribution to his field of research.

He is believed to be the first Singaporean to win this honour from Cambridge.

Over the course of his academic career, which also included about 13 years of teaching at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he has authored 180 papers, some of which explore chemical reactions to understand how chemical production can be made more efficient, or how chemical compounds can be used for applications in the biomedical field.

Currently, he is hoping to set up a company that produces diagnostic kits for dengue fever.

The kits may be able to detect dengue fever in patients even at low levels of antibodies, allowing the disease to be detected and fought earlier than can be done under current systems.

Learning to embrace the unexpected has similarly taken Dr Leong, a former Raffles Institution student, to interesting places in his own life.

In 1978, the second child of a carpenter and a housewife made the pragmatic choice of applying to the Public Service Commission (PSC) for a scholarship to study chemical engineering overseas. He was pleasantly surprised when he was granted permission to study the natural sciences, which included physics, chemistry and biology, on the condition that he become a teacher and serve an eight-year bond .

During his days as a "pretty pathetic" undergraduate at Cambridge, which included a year where he shared a room with playwright Tan Tarn How at Peterhouse College, the minefield of distractions posed by the opportunity to live and study overseas proved difficult to resist.

Said Mr Tan: "Weng Kee was not the typical Singaporean scholar who did nothing but study.

"He had a good sense of humour and was always kidding around. He also had a lot of interests - he liked classical music, and bought a lot of vinyl records."

After "disastrous" results in physics in his first year, Dr Leong decided to major in chemistry instead, graduating with a second lower honours degree in 1982.

He served his bond as a teacher in Hwa Chong Junior College and River Valley High School, counting Raffles Girls' School principal, Mrs Poh Mun See, as a former student.

During that period, he discovered for himself "where the attraction of teaching lies", got married, and had two daughters, who are now 30 and 29. He also has a 22-year-old son, who is an environmental sciences undergraduate at NTU.

Dr Leong may be working with graduate students now, but his teaching philosophy remains the same, placing the interests of his students before his research. They affectionately call him "lao ban" or boss in Mandarin.

The glass walls of his chemistry lab bear quirky scribbles of inside jokes and nicknames traded between students. A collection of research theses by former students sits proudly on his bookshelf.

In an ode to the Star Trek series which fired up his imagination about the possibilities of science as a child, he styles himself as the captain of his research cluster in a write-up on his home page, steering his students in the quest to unearth the mysteries of the chemical world - "to boldly go where no one has gone before".

He also describes himself as the oldest student among his research group on the same page.

"As a professor, your primary job is to be an educator. Research, to me, is just another tool for teaching. My students discover new things through their research and I discover new things through them.

"Many of them are very bright people, and I can sometimes see my dreams or wildest ideas being realised by them, or going somewhere else completely... that's where the excitement lies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2016, with the headline 'Chemistry prof fired up by the unexpected'. Print Edition | Subscribe