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Nurturing Aspiring Scientists and Engineers

Undergraduate Valerie Lim dreams of becoming a scientist--for as long as she can remember she has been passionate and inquisitive about the intricacies of science. But given the enormous financial and opportunity cost involved in higher education and training, the possibility that she'll be able to pursue her studies beyond the bachelor's degree level is so remote that she dare not aim too high.

Today, however, with the launch of the new A*STAR Graduate Scholarship (AGS), Lim may be one step closer to making her scientific dream a reality. The AGS provides deserving top students all the financial resources they need to become one of a new generation of cutting-edge researchers. The result of a partnership between the A*STAR Graduate Academy (AGA) and the National University of Singapore Graduate School (NGS), the AGS is a research-intensive interdisciplinary PhD-level training program. It supports its scholars all the way from first-year graduate studies through their PhDs and on to a postdoctoral fellowship.

Under the scheme, scholars will pursue a 4-year PhD program in biomedical sciences, physical sciences, or engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Once they've successfully completed that phase, they will go to a top university or research laboratory overseas for a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship, the idea being to further broaden their research experience.

The AGS comes with a monthly stipend of SG$3000, as well as full tuition fees and other allowances. Compared to previous schemes, this is an extremely generous one. As a senior scientist who declined to be named reveals, "When I first started graduate school in NUS 8 years ago, I used to get a measly stipend of SG$1200 per month and that was all." Current graduate student Ying Wang is slightly better off. According to her, today's research scholarships start at SG$1500 per month, and those lucky enough to get an industry top-up receive rather more--SG$2500 or thereabouts--but with no other allowances.

With the advent of the AGS, all is set for the better for Singapore's most aspiring research scientists and engineers. For the lucky recipients, assuming they play their part well, their R&D career could be all mapped out as soon as they graduate with their first degree. The program, which is estimated to cost the government about SG$380,000 per scholar, is aimed at attracting the cream of the bachelor's crop. "We have incredible talents," says Associate Professor Kong Hwai Loong, Deputy Managing Director of Integrative Sciences at A*STAR.

The scholarship is open to all Singaporean graduates from NUS, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and top overseas universities, as well as ASEAN scholars. And although the requirements are very stringent, competition for the scholarships is expected to be fierce. The first round of 100 scholarships will be awarded in the 2002/2003 academic year; subsequently, 150 scholarships will be awarded annually.

The AGS is just one of many strategic initiatives and measures intended to boost the number of local PhD holders in an effort to support Singapore's continued drive towards a knowledge-based economy. More specifically, the AGS program aims to gradually increase the pool of local research scientists and engineers with multidisciplinary training that multinational corporations can tap for their R&D operations in Singapore. This new pipeline of PhDs will complement the talents being nurtured through the existing National Science Scholarship, which supports Singaporeans studying at institutions overseas all the way from the undergraduate to the PhD level.

According to A*STAR's chair Mr. Philip Yeo, the availability of human capital is one of the decisive factors companies consider when moving here. "When we speak to companies, the first thing they ask is how many PhDs we have," he says. "To start up a research and development facility here, a company needs about 30 to 50 PhDs." Singapore is already home to facilities owned by corporations such as Eli Lily, Novartis, Sony, and Motorola. These companies are doing substantial amount of R&D in Singapore, and to them, having the highly skilled workforce they need is imperative. Local demand for these highly qualified scientists is expected to grow significantly in the coming years as the existing companies expand their operations and new companies arrive.

Singapore's Minister of State for Education and Manpower, Dr. Ng Eng Hen, expressed the urgent need for Singaporeans "to move up the educational ladder" in order to support these knowledge-intensive industries. "We must equip our people with more-sophisticated knowledge in order to remain globally competitive," says Ng. "While Singapore attracts foreign PhD talent, we must urgently encourage, nurture, and groom our home talent in graduate education to ensure the long-term sustenance of our knowledge-intensive industries," he adds. Ng stresses that in the biomedical sciences in particular, researchers with interdisciplinary postgraduate training are in high demand.

To date, NUS has been doing an effective job spearheading multidisciplinary education and research in science, engineering, and medicine. According to its president, Professor Shih Choon Fong, NUS began restructuring its curricula 2 years ago so as to provide its students with a more multidisciplinary perspective during their education. "Now for engineering students, for example, as much as 40% of their course modules could be from other disciplines," says Shih. Similarly, NUS's life sciences curriculum integrates biology, chemistry, physics, computing, and engineering. Students are encouraged to learn and think across disciplines. Centres such as the Centre for Biomedical Materials Applications and Technology and initiatives like the university's Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Initiative are already providing common platforms for broad-based interdisciplinary research and education.

One of the strengths of the AGS program is the partnership between NGS and AGA. Both already possess excellent infrastructures, state-of-the-art facilities, and abundant human capital, so AGS scholars can look forward to a first-rate multidisciplinary education and training right here in Singapore. They can also count on the diverse expertise of senior scientists from A*STAR's Research Institutes and the experienced NUS faculty members who will jointly supervise and train them.

Even though the first cohort of AGS's PhDs will not be ready to join the workforce for 6 years, Yeo believes that the program is well worth the time and money. "This is an investment in our future," he says. "Eventually, they [the scholars] will become a key attraction to multinational companies to move their high-end research projects to Singapore. "

Professor John Wong, Vice President of Research & Life sciences at NUS, shares his sentiment: "Although it takes a minimum of 6 years to turn out a functional PhD and over 10 years of investment to reap the benefit, there is an enormous multiplier effect towards tremendous rewards."

For AGS scholars, however, the best part is that the financial burden is lifted off their shoulders during the long academic pursuit. Moreover, the integral "Assured Challenging Employment" guarantees them a job in Singapore upon successful completion of their postdoctoral training--returning AGS PhDs are committed to work in A*STAR's Research Institutes for not less than 3 years. After fulfilling that 3-year commitment, they are expected to move on to the industries.

"Now, that's a pretty good deal," says hopeful undergraduate Li Ling, cheered on excitedly by her peers. "With everything paid for, plus a good job in the waiting, what else can we ask for?"

The application form for the A*STAR Graduate Scholarship may be downloaded here. A*STAR is a sponsor of Next Wave Singapore.

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