Science Centre Singapore chief's formula for success

Teaching children about the birds and the bees may get adults biting their nails, but the chief executive of Science Centre Singapore has found a way to do so through song and dance.

A musical titled Sex Cells last year was just one of the many innovative ideas from Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, who has led the iconic centre in Jurong for the last five years. He may have to step down from the role when his term ends in January next year but, when the time comes, the 55-year-old biology expert can look back on six good years even if he does leave the job.

He has contributed to the way people think about and participate in science even before he took over the reins of the Science Centre Singapore, a statutory board under the Ministry of Education (MOE), in 2010.

When he took up a two-year stint as the centre's assistant chief executive in 2007, he sought to increase the appeal of science.

Through innovative programmes such as the Science Buskers Festival - an American Idol-style science competition open to all from ages seven to 70 - he taught the young and the young-at-heart that science is not all about abstract concepts but could also be fun.

Without understanding forces, for example, it would be mind-boggling to consider how three heavy textbooks could balance on four half-eggshells without cracking them.

How else could a balloon placed outside a plastic cup cause a toothpick in it to turn - without touching it at all? A magician never reveals his tricks, but in this case, it is static electricity.

Such programmes helped the centre reach almost 200,000 students each year - up from an annual student participation rate of less than 150,000.

"I have a passion for teaching and doing things differently, and I wanted to build on the strength of the Science Centre as an education hub to reinforce this role," said Prof Lim, who graduated with a doctorate in developmental neurobiology from Cambridge University in Britain in 1987.

After two years as assistant chief of the Science Centre, Prof Lim resumed his professorship at the department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS). A year later in 2010, he was asked by MOE to head the Science Centre.

Five years later, Prof Lim counts his revamp of the Singapore Science Festival and KidsSTOP - a 3,000 sq m area in the centre launched last June to let children explore and learn science through exhibits and programmes - among his career milestones.

Professor Leo Tan, who was the centre's director from 1982 to 1991, said Prof Lim is a conscientious scientist.

"KidsSTOP is a wonderful idea, almost like a children's museum. It is a refreshing addition to the Science Centre," said Prof Tan, who is now director of special projects at the NUS Faculty of Science.

Speaking to The Straits Times from his office last week, Prof Lim said he considered Sex Cells - which he wrote himself - another milestone in his career.

A member of the drama club when he was at Hwa Chong Junior College, he said: "Sex education is still quite a taboo subject, but the centre is a safe place for difficult questions."

Prof Lim, whose wife is a biochemistry professor, has a 23-year-old son studying at a liberal arts college in America and a daughter, 21, reading law at NUS.

Prof Lim grew up in a house in Waterloo Street, helping his father clean and debone fish to make springy fishballs. When his family moved to a farm in Lim Chu Kang in 1970, he spent time catching fish from drains and playing with toads.

He said: "Children today may not have as much exposure to nature, but through initiatives such as our Science Centre eco-garden, and after the move to Jurong, they will get to experience science outdoors."

First announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally last August, plans for the Jurong Lake Gardens makeover will combine the existing Chinese and Japanese Gardens and Jurong Lake Park. A new Science Centre, to be completed around 2020, will also be included.

Prof Lim said he hopes the move to the Chinese Gardens will allow the centre to integrate its exhibits with the garden.

"Gardens are a part of science, so how can you contain science in a box? I would like to see programmes for the new science centre spilling out into the gardens," Prof Lim said.

Before the move, the Science Centre will have prototypes of some exhibits at its current centre, to be launched later this year.

As a teaser, they would include "immersive experiences, like a digital planetarium", said Prof Lim. More details will be announced at a later date.

"Many Singaporeans see the Science Centre as old and grungy, as our iconic structure has no columns and is not something we can change easily," he said.

"But many science centres around the world model their exhibits after ours and those who come in to check them out are always amazed."

audreyt@sph.com.sg