When asking the right question is the answer

Students Devansh (above) and Natasha were among 10 young people from around the world who received the 2016 Molecular Frontiers Inquiry Prize, each winning themselves a certificate, a medal and an iPad.
Students Devansh (above) and Natasha were among 10 young people from around the world who received the 2016 Molecular Frontiers Inquiry Prize, each winning themselves a certificate, a medal and an iPad. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF DEVANSH SHAH, NATASHA KOWSHIK
Students Devansh and Natasha were among 10 young people from around the world who received the 2016 Molecular Frontiers Inquiry Prize, each winning themselves a certificate, a medal and an iPad.
Students Devansh and Natasha (above) were among 10 young people from around the world who received the 2016 Molecular Frontiers Inquiry Prize, each winning themselves a certificate, a medal and an iPad.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF DEVANSH SHAH, NATASHA KOWSHIK

Singaporean students win prizes for insightful science questions

Having the right answers might get you top marks in school examinations, but in scientific research, asking the right questions is equally important.

As Albert Einstein once said: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing".

Last month, two Singaporean students were rewarded for their inquisitiveness.

Natasha Kowshik, 16, and Devansh Shah, 18, received the 2016 Molecular Frontiers Inquiry Prize - the world's first prize that rewards questions rather than answers. It gave out its first prizes in 2008. The pair were among 10 young people from around the world who got their spirit of inquiry recognised at a symposium in Tokyo, winning themselves a certificate, a medal and an iPad.

Natasha, a student from National Junior College, won with her question on positive and negative charges, while Devansh, a Victoria Junior College student, won with a question on adenosine triphosphate (ATP) - a molecule that transports energy within the cells of living organisms. A question on attraction or repulsion of charges might seem absurd, noted Natasha, as most would simply take it as a natural phenomenon. "Funnily, the more I thought about this question and researched it, (the more) I realised the answer was not simple at all," she said.

Devansh, on the other hand, came up with his question while studying ATP in biology class.

He wondered: "ATP is a renewable energy source in the body, so why can it not be the same outside of the body and in energy-intensive areas in the realms of physics and chemistry?"

Unable to find a good answer, he decided to submit the question to the competition organised by the Molecular Frontiers Foundation - the non-profit organisation behind the prize. The organisation's scientific board comprises eminent scientists, including Nobel laureates.

Both students said their love for science taught them to keep asking questions. Natasha said her passion for science stems from its ability to provide plausible explanations for phenomena that may not be well understood.

For Devansh, who has been hooked on science since primary school, it is about "learning about the world we live in, quantifying it and conducting experiments to find explanations to why things are the way that they are", which he finds very fulfilling.

Singapore students often shy away from asking questions, but that has never been the case for Devansh, who says he is never afraid of asking silly questions.

"I look at things not just for what they are now, but for what their could be," he said.

Natasha admits that although asking seemingly meaningless questions could be embarrassing, it is worth it.

"I realised that there is much more value in seeking answers than in suppressing my curiosity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2016, with the headline 'When asking the right question is the answer'. Print Edition | Subscribe