A Class Of Their Own: Solving crimes, shaping lives
In this series, NUS News profiles the outstanding educators who have inspired generations of students at the University.
When she was 17, Associate Professor Stella Tan was told that she had a brain tumour. Sitting on her optic nerve, it caused her to lose her eyesight temporarily, and she was rushed to the ICU as doctors raced to save her life. The unpredictability of life hit home – at a time when she was supposed to be looking forward to university, she was struggling for her life.
Many years later, Assoc Prof Tan recalls this episode with a sanguine air, one that suggests she has fully embraced this crisis as a part of who she is. “I have learnt that life is so fragile and you must live everyday as if it’s your last. When I talk to someone, I believe it could be my last time talking to that person. When I give my lectures, I always believe it’s the last lecture,” she chimes.
This warmth and sincerity has not been lost on the many students who have been taught by Assoc Prof Tan in the fields of law and science. Prof Tan’s teaching lies at the particular nexus between the two fields – what she terms a beautiful marriage – where the quest for the empirical in science complements the law’s search for truth. “Fireworks between science and law emerge when you can use the rigour of science to solve a question in court,” she says.
While highly exacting, this quest for answers also takes its seekers on an exhilarating ride. In the field of forensic science, Assoc Prof Tan animatedly explains, approaching a crime scene requires drawing on perspectives from diverse disciplines spanning entomology, psychology, chemistry, and botany, among many others. Insects can be used to tell the time of death, while eyewitness testimony can be scrutinised through the lens of forensic psychology.
This encompassing of multiple perspectives is central to Assoc Prof Tan’s approach to learning and teaching. As one who studied both law and science at a time when multiple degrees were less common, she had experienced the value of inter-disciplinary thinking and seen the synergy that can result from relating one body of knowledge to another. This was further reinforced in her time as a Deputy Senior State Counsel in the Attorney General’s Chambers, where she was lead prosecutor for a wide range of cases, including murder, sexual assault and drugs.
“The world is always team-based. The perspective of other disciplines is very important,” she reflects, sharing that she strives to help her students realise these other perspectives for themselves.
One key instance is the moot court sessions she holds, where the case argued is not just based on a scenario on paper but a physical crime scene that she had created. The law students and forensic science students meet in this space, speaking from their areas of expertise and learning from each other in the process.
“For our students, it comes alive,” Assoc Prof Tan says. “It’s no longer a distant hypothetical scenario. Now, you go down to the mock crime scene, don your robes, step into court, and do a proper cross-examination. Our students tell us this makes them feel empowered.”
“This,” she gushes, “excites me even more than anything else I do in life.”
Assoc Prof Tan started the Forensic Science programme in 2005, effectively juggling it with her work at the Attorney General’s Chambers for 13 years before joining NUS full-time in 2018. In 2020, the Master of Science in Forensic Science programme was launched, the first and only one of its kind in Singapore.
The popularity of the forensic science programme is arguably attributable not just to the intriguing nature of the topics (poisons and fingerprinting, anyone?) but importantly to Assoc Prof Tan’s teaching, which she makes engaging through building scenarios, integrating technology, and giving students hands-on exposure.
Peruse the evidence, though, and it appears that there is one more thread explaining the popularity of the Forensic Science programme – Assoc Prof Tan herself. The dedicated educator is cherished by her students for her warm, caring ways, and the way she seeks to nurture their confidence to explore new worlds.
“Prof Stella teaches with a genuine purpose to build her students up, and wishes fervently for every student to succeed. Learning from her has been a privilege, but getting to know her is invaluable,” says Mr Benedict Cheong, a former Forensic Science minor student who is now a prosecutor at a statutory board.
In describing her approach to her students, Assoc Prof Tan borrows a singular concept: family. “This is why the Forensic Science programme has been so popular for the past 16 years,” she says. “Family is not a word we use lightly. Family means that you have to care for the person, know their aspirations and hopes, and support them.”
This support extends not just to those she teaches in forensic science and law, but all the students under her purview as Assistant Dean (Undergraduate Studies and Student Life) in the Faculty of Science, Associate Provost of Student Conduct, and Hall Master at Raffles Hall.
While these roles require invoking rules and discipline, Assoc Prof Tan points out that is but the tip of the iceberg. “Yes, I am very strict when it comes to rules. I believe there are no exceptions, but I also believe in compassion. I like to see if we can temper justice with mercy,” she says, sharing that her role is not just to look at penalties for students who have erred, but how these students can be helped to change for the better. This also applies to students who have been expelled, with the school ensuring they are linked up with a network of counselling programmes. “We don’t just let them go,” she says plainly.
The more important thing, she reflects humbly, is to be journeying with students wherever they may be in their lives, and helping them with their problems. “It’s always about walking through it with them, whether they have done wrong or not. I believe in the value of second chances,” she says.
With this, Assoc Prof Tan’s heart for her students becomes clear, as well as that valuable belief in second chances, and the possibilities beyond – much like the ones she glimpsed when she was 17.
This is the tenth and final instalment in A Class Of Their Own.
Read about Dr Susan Ang Wan-Ling from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences as she shares her experiences teaching English Literature, and her hopes and dreams for students as they move through life.