Chasing bugs, overcoming stage fright and trying it all: The wonder women pursuing their passions

Three women, three different passions. As NUS celebrates International Women’s Day and reaffirms its commitment to empowering women today, this dynamic trio shares what drives them to chase their dreams.


Her love for bugs saves the earth

Assistant Professor Nalini Puniamoorthy

They may sting, scare and make us squirm. But insects, so often dismissed as tiny pests, are of colossal importance to the world.

Just ask Assistant Professor Nalini Puniamoorthy, who has combed the dense jungles of Costa Rica in search of a dung fly no larger than a fingertip, and bred black soldier flies in the lab to help recycle Singapore’s food waste.

“They play such big roles in our livelihoods. When we lose insects, we lose a keystone component of our biodiversity,” said Prof Puniamoorthy, a researcher at the NUS Department of Biological Sciences who has spent the last two decades studying these critters.

She cited how some bugs help pollinate food crops and are sources of treasured commodities like silk and honey. In nature, they also break down dead organic matter to release nutrients back into the environment, and are a staple diet of many larger animals.

Her research is all geared towards building a better world. “At the end of the day, we want to leave something behind that is useful for other people,” she said.

For instance, her studies on how mosquitoes reproduce is helping to combat the periodic dengue outbreaks in Singapore. 

In recent years, she has also observed that insects are slowly shedding their bad reputation and gaining recognition for their importance. For example, protein-rich crickets are increasingly being viewed as a sustainable food source of the future.

“The knowledge about insects is also getting more popular in science,” she said. “There is an increasing number of people who realise that they might be useful.”

Setting the stage for this rookie actress to bloom

Ulfah Irdina Bte Affandi

Ulfah Irdina’s first foray into acting in August last year left her trembling in fear. The audition by Temasek Hall’s drama CCA, Theatrette, required her to sing in front of a room full of people – a prospect that terrified her.

“I couldn’t even open my eyes to sing and had to get people to look away,” recalled the first-year Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences student. “I was so shy. I thought it was impossible to even act.”

But six months later, she made her acting debut. For two nights, in front of over 200 people at the Gateway Theatre, she played the lead character of a musical – Labyrinth Coldridge – with aplomb.


“For me, it was about taking that leap. It’s okay to embarrass yourself – just do it,” said Ulfah, who has always had a keen interest in films and Broadway musicals.

“I felt like I had this desire to do something artistic but I just never had the chance to,” she said. University life opened a window of opportunity.

But her journey from nervous rookie to fearless thespian was not an easy one. Preparations for Labyrinth Coldridge consisted of six-hour daily practices for over two months. To hone her craft, she would also pore over the script for hours, meticulously annotating every page.

“It was fun, but also scary and tiring,” she said. To build composure, she tried everything – whether it was practising in front of friends or strangers, or simply standing on stage. Having a compilation of Broadway videos and clips of her favourite actress, Lea Salonga, at hand also offered some much-needed inspiration.


Her theatre community helped immensely too. “When you have people around you who are equally into something and are supportive, things are so much easier,” she said.

With her first musical all wrapped up, there are bigger plans in store. Works on a second production are currently underway, with Ulfah looking to broaden her skill sets in theatre by venturing into scriptwriting.

“When I envision a future for myself, it’s either writing for or standing on a stage,” she said. Her dream is only just beginning.

How holistic development led to healthcare success

Maybelline Ooi

Like the versatile Swiss Army knife, Maybelline Ooi possesses a vast armoury of skills.

She credits this to her insatiable curiosity, which led her to hone various talents during her time in NUS – from throwing kicks at karate tournaments, to shooting air pistols, to breaking out complex dance moves onstage.

“You can’t say you’re truly interested in something until you’ve tried it for yourself,” said Ms Ooi, who joined a slew of CCAs such as NUS Dance Synergy, NUS Nihon Buyo – a traditional Japanese dance club – and the university’s Air Weapons and Karate clubs.

One passion, however, stands out: healthcare. The interest was seeded when she was part of her junior college’s Red Cross Disaster Management Committee.

“I loved being with people and helping people,” said the NUS Nursing alumna. “So I knew I definitely wanted to do something related to healthcare.”

Today, she is helping to enhance the sector as the CEO and co-founder of VIRTUAI, an integrated platform that trains healthcare professionals using virtual simulations.

“Our aim is to revolutionise health training with a platform that uses AI and data analytics to enhance learning,” said Ms Ooi, who set up VIRTUAI in 2021. To better understand the technologies behind her startup, she has also picked up basic programming skills through online modules. 

For her contributions, she was one of 36 NUS staff and alumni members to make the Singapore Computer Society’s SG 100 Women in Tech List, just four months after setting up VIRTUAI.

Rather than being a drain on her energy, Ms Ooi believes every venture and interest she pursued over the years has contributed to her success.

Her four-year stint as a nurse at the National University Hospital allowed her to pinpoint the gaps in healthcare, while her eclectic mix of CCAs in school helped sharpen her communication skills with people from diverse backgrounds.

“If you are passionate about something, you will find time for it,” she said.

To mark International Women’s Day, check out a series of talks for women that NUS has lined up throughout March.