A*Star scientist Chng Shuyun’s work on face masks and surface coatings are part of Singapore’s efforts in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic
By Mary Wu
January 12, 2021
Dr Chng Shuyun’s interest in chemistry started back in secondary school. But the 33-year-old never realised how much of an impact the subject would have on society until she joined the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*Star) Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech) and completed a PhD in organic chemistry.
She says: “As part of SIMTech’s surface technology group, I saw how chemistry knowledge could create endless possibilities in coating formulation and processes, to give very different surface functions and properties, be it for protection, function or aesthetics.”
Dr Chng was recently involved in the development of reusable masks that were distributed as part of the nationwide mask distribution exercise and National Day Parade Singapore Together pack — part of Singapore’s efforts against the Covid-19 outbreak. The team worked to develop the various layers to create a breathable, reusable mask that is almost as effective as medical masks, yet comfortable and reusable as cloth masks.
In partnership with a local company, she is also leading research to develop and scale up the production of a durable anti-microbial coating that can be deployed on large surface areas. This would help to prevent the transmission of microbes on high-touch surfaces.
Dr Chng joined SIMTech as a research engineer in 2011. In 2012, she was awarded the Overseas A*Star Graduate Scholarship.
She says: “Embarking on a PhD programme is like being thrown into the deep end. One is trained to identify problems, independently seek solutions and answers, build resilience in the face of repeated failures while learning from them, as well as become comfortable with uncertainties, to create knowledge — all within four years.”
Dr Chng undertook her PhD studies at the University of Oxford in England. In early 2012, she had met a visiting Oxford professor — who later became her PhD supervisor — whose speciality was surface-related chemistry. She says: “The work he did resonated with me. This, in addition to the grand Harry Potter-like campus and modern chemistry labs at Oxford, influenced my choice of university.”
At Oxford, Dr Chng had full autonomy to decide the topic she wanted to work on and how she wanted to go about doing it. This honed her resourcefulness, critical thinking and project management abilities, which benefit her work now.
She also grew as a communicator, collaborator and leader. “If a potential project required certain skill sets that were lacking in the team, I would proactively try to collaborate with others. Beyond writing papers and presenting to peers, we now need to present our work to various companies and industries to garner their support through industry projects and grants. “Effective communication within a multinational team is also key to ensure that everyone works in a cohesive manner.”
Dr Chng was appointed section manager of the functional coatings section at SIMTech in April 2019. Today — in addition to working on national-scale projects such as anti-microbial coatings — she is also developing a durable ice-phobic coating for the aerospace industry, which could reduce the number of aviation accidents.
She says: “I wouldn’t be where I am today without this scholarship — fulfilling my passion while knowing that I am contributing in my little way to the nation, to industry and to the lives of people.”