UA Alumni: Loh Ying Kai
Ying Kai is from Singapore, where he obtained his undergraduate degree in Chemistry from Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He was the Overall Winner in the Chemical & Pharmaceutical Sciences category in 2015.
Where do your interests lie?
Academic research excites me as it deals with the basics and the fundamentals. In this area, I get to discover something that is completely original, something that is difficult to achieve in the applied sciences.
Also, in the academic community, research is driven by curiosity from a bottom-up approach, whereas in the applied sciences, research is typically from a top-down approach driven by monetary incentives. Hence in academia, while most research is about discovering a potential and to demonstrate a proof of concept, albeit unrealistic at present, it is why I am drawn to it as it is idealistic.
What are you doing now and what has happened since the award?
Fully funded by an A*STAR PhD scholarship, I pursued a DPhil in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Oxford in the UK, working with Prof. Simon Aldridge, continuing my research in main group chemistry. The major milestones during these three years as a DPhil were the 3 first-author high impact papers - 1 JACS (Journal of the American Chemical Society) and 2 ACIE (Angewandte Chemie, Int. Ed.) in which one was highlighted with our cover artwork designed by my girlfriend who studied visual arts.
I completed my DPhil in 2019 and am now proceeding to the University of California, San Diego in the US to carry on my research in main group chemistry with Distinguished Prof. Guy Bertrand who is a pioneer and leading main group chemist.
Have you done something fun?
The 2015 UA Global Summit which I attended will always hold a special place in my heart as it is the place where I met my girlfriend, Yang Yu Peh, and we have been together ever since! She was a Highly Commended Entrant from NTU in the Visual Arts & Design category. Although I am from NTU as well, we first met in Dublin!
What do you like the most about what you do?
Being a synthetic chemist gives me the ability to harness the enormous natural toolbox to build and create my very own molecular world. Particularly in synthetic main group chemistry, where we are not limited by mother nature, or rather, we try to explore beyond and break the paradigm − by designing and making something previously thought to be non-existent, and by doing so rewriting textbooks. And so, there are endless opportunities to open up new avenues for future development.
Has receiving an award for your hard work helped?
While hard work is a prerequisite in synthetic main group chemistry (min. 12 hrs a day in the labs in Asia), unfortunately there are no guarantees for success. The importance of the design element and luck as catalysts to succeed cannot be understated. This is partly the reason why I chose to work in this field. While I cannot control luck, I am very interested in the design of new and interesting systems.
Receiving the award put both me and my research area on the map. This field is enjoying something of a renaissance, so any exposure will certainly promote it as a topic of interest to the broader research community.
What are your plans for the future?
My aspirations are for an academic career as my area involves fundamental research. I am lucky to have found my passion in this area of chemistry early on so I intend to stick with it a little longer!
How was your experience as an undergraduate student?
This was the place which introduced me to and nurtured my passion in the field of main group chemistry. The major milestones during this period were being awarded the prestigious A*STAR Undergraduate Scholarship (AUS), the 2 first-author papers in Chemical Communications and Inorganic Chemistry, the latter paper was also awarded the prestigious Undergraduate Awards Gold Medal!
What challenges did you face?
As a synthetic chemist, your lab is your life. As an undergraduate in this field, it is even tougher when you have to juggle between coursework, exams and “extra-curricular” research lab experiments.
During my undergraduate days, I often asked myself whether research or coursework is more important, but regardless, it was my personal goal to excel in both. While sitting for exams is pretty straight forward, research requires a different discipline. I learned this the hard way, as with many experienced synthetic chemists out there.
Before setting up a new reaction, there would be excitement, but that initial adrenaline dissipates away almost instantaneously when the reaction does not work. Nine out of ten times things don’t go as expected, and then the flood of emotional despair causes one to question their competency. But then excitement rushes in again when you come up with a new idea.
The struggle I faced was to overcome this emotional roller coaster. Probably because I took it personally, but this is just the way I display my passion and devotion. My research journey can be summed up in that one moment amidst the other failures, when my desired compound decides to crystallize and the exhilaration when I see the X-ray structure for the first time!
What advice would you give current undergraduate students or recent graduates?
When taking on graduate research in chemistry, choose your supervisor and project carefully!
"Submitting for the award is certainly a way to publicize not only yourself, but also your field of interest!"