A*STAR’s green tech co-lead: “Always ask why”

Dr Chiam Sing Yang-1000x650 (1)

Dr Chiam Sing Yang, co-lead of the Urban and Green Technology Horizontal Technology Coordinating Office (UGT HTCO) and deputy executive director of the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) at A*STAR, shares what keeps him curious

Dr Chiam Sing Yang’s first memory of science is of space exploration.

He was five or six years old then. He owned a series of encyclopedias – more than 10, he recalls – and one was about space. It intrigued him.

“I’m fascinated by the unknown,” he shares. “The vastness of the universe makes us small. Yet that feeling empowers me. It helps me put things into perspective.”

In discovery scientists venture into the unknown, searching for answers to the unanswered. That, he says, is joy.

Engineer by training, physicist by choice

In his teens, Sing Yang started building things at home. Like a telescope, which he recalls making from scratch and used to spot Mars. He also made a solar clock – one that runs on solar energy – out of an ordinary clock.

Experimentation and exploration paved the way for discovery. As an electrical and computer engineering undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, it was in his final year of undergraduate studies that he realised why he has a passion for science.

While trying to create a thin material for a semiconductor device in a laboratory, he understood what was missing: he had information but not answers.

He knew what made his material good enough, what it lacked, and what to do next – but he didn’t understand why. The “why”, he says, was physics. It piqued his curiosity.

An “engineer by training, physicist by choice”, Sing Yang went on to do a PhD in physics at Imperial College London on an A*STAR scholarship, specialising in interface physics.

He explains that an interface connects two things, like how the beach is the interface between land and sea. By improving a battery’s interface, for instance, you could make it last longer.

Ask why, or why not

Through science and technology, we find solutions where there are not, he says, and amid climate change we must find solutions to sustain and improve life on Earth.

He continues to ask “why” – sometimes “why not” – when it comes to innovating technologies for a more sustainable Singapore with his team from the Urban and Green Technology Horizontal Technology Coordinating Office.

For instance, the team is working to develop low-carbon energy solutions through a S$49 million multi-agency initiative. To develop a solution we must understand the science, and go to the very core, he emphasises.

He gives an example: “I may understand how a car engine works, but do I understand how its components work? And I may understand how a component works, but what about its subcomponents?”

“We must probe, and ask why at every level.”

He does the same with his Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) team. “Materials lie between science and engineering – to make a new material, one must know the basics and also how to develop an application,” says Sing Yang.

Collaboration is therefore crucial, he highlights, noting that A*STAR works closely with other players in the ecosystem to develop solutions for Singapore.

He wears multiple hats himself. At IMRE he is also division director of the optics and electronics division. He is director of the Singapore Battery Consortium too, where he promotes partnerships to encourage the development and adoption of battery technologies in Singapore.

Learn – from success, failure, and the unexpected

Sing Yang comes from a family of educators. His father was a Chinese teacher, his mother a tutor and housewife. His elder sister is a mathematics teacher, his younger brother a lecturer in a local polytechnic.

He, too, joined the pack as an adjunct assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University from 2011 to 2019. >

His father encouraged learning, calling it “learnism”.

“My dad taught us that there is something to learn from everything – in success and in failure.”

Today he and his wife, a translator, do the same for their children, a 7-year-old girl and 5-year-old twin boys, holding “learning time” every evening.

“Much of my scientific work is built upon failure,” he shares. “Rarely do I start with a hypothesis on day one and eventually prove it to be true.”

“Sometimes you get the opposite of what you expect,” he points out. “That’s the nature of the unknown. It makes discovery fun.”

He shares a story. He and his IMRE team had been developing a new type of film for electrochromic materials, which can change colour or transparency with electricity, such as windows that turn opaque to block sunlight. In the course of their research, they discovered that a defect they had been trying to avoid was, in fact, the solution they were searching for.

The defect – metal vacancy, or less metal – gave the material an instability that made for more powerful chemical reactions, enabling the team to make the film opaque.

Ironically, the imperfection was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle. “Nature surprises us, and we learn,” he says.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

“I learn from experiences,” he continues. “And I learn from others.”

He counts Michael Faraday as one of the great thinkers who inspire him, adding that he has learned not only from the British scientist’s contributions to science, but also what he was like as a person and his approach to learning.

Sing Yang says it was a desire for answers to the unanswered that got him curious about science, and keeps him curious still. “There is so much to discover.”

As Albert Einstein, who himself hung a portrait of Faraday on his study wall, said: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”