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Monday, August 15, 2016

Chemistry prof fired up by the unexpected | The Straits Times

Photo: Yuen Sin
"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." notes

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.

 "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.

Source: The Straits Times