Research rising stars

Assoc Prof Tan (left), Assoc Prof Hui (centre) and Assoc Prof Yan (right) are proud recipients of the Young Researchers Award 2019 conferred by NUS.

The NUS Young Researcher Award is given to academics below the age of 40 and is based on their impact and potential in cutting-edge research. The award comprises $2,000 prize money and a research grant of $10,000 in the following year. The winners this year were Associate Professor Andrew Hui from Yale-NUS College, Associate Professor Vincent Tan from NUS Electrical and Computer Engineering and NUS Mathematics, and Associate Professor Yan Ning from NUS Chemical and Biomedical Engineering.

With such a range of academic backgrounds, the research interests of the award-winners vary dramatically. Assoc Prof Yan explores biomass conversion and green chemistry, Assoc Prof Hui studies early modern Europe and the Global Renaissance, and Assoc Prof Tan investigates information theory and machine learning.

The three talented academics share with NUS Research News about their research motivations, challenges, and proudest career moments.

What first drew you to your respective fields?

Assoc Prof Hui: “As an Asian-American, raised in Hong Kong and Garland, Texas, the classical tradition of European Renaissance was pretty foreign to my world. But it is precisely this foreignness — this magnificent strangeness and this wonderful perplexity — that attracted me.”

Assoc Prof Tan: “What attracted me to information theory is its mathematical elegance and its profound implications to a variety of real-world applications, particularly in communications.”

Assoc Prof Yan: “As an undergraduate, I was deeply attracted by the topic of “Green Chemistry”. To me, sustainable development must be the future of chemistry and chemical engineering.”

What is the most difficult challenge you had to overcome in your career thus far?

Assoc Prof Hui: “The most challenging aspect for me is that there is no robust research library or thriving intellectual community in the European humanities in Singapore, or for that matter, anywhere in Southeast Asia. So I’ve trained myself to be particularly adept in locating resources.”

Assoc Prof Tan: “Information theory is 70 years old, so many of the remaining problems are known to be fiendishly difficult. Hence, it is challenging to make any meaningful breakthroughs. However, what my team and I do is to persevere and to take alternative routes, routes that have not been tried before. It is also possible to make progress in information theory by not solving unsolved problems, but rather opening up new areas of research.”

Assoc Prof Yan: “With my research, the most challenging part is to transform the complex, often non-pure, starting material into a product of interest in the pure form. But it can be achieved via catalyst and process development that enable effective transformation and efficient separation.”

What is the proudest moment in your career?

Assoc Prof Hui: “I’m proud that as a first-generation academic, I can meaningfully contribute to the scholarly conversation in the world republic of letters.”

Assoc Prof Tan: “I am most proud that with my talented team of students, research staff and collaborators, I have been able to crack some deep problems in information theory and open up new sub-fields within it.”

Assoc Prof Yan: “As a young research group, we have had the courage to touch some topics that have seldom been explored before. And later, we have proven these are indeed ‘reservoir of hidden treasure’.”

How do you feel about being recognised as one of the winners of the 2019 Young Researcher Award?

Assoc Prof Hui: “I’m incredibly honoured and humbled. It’s a win for Yale-NUS, the liberal arts, and undergraduate education.”

Assoc Prof Tan: “I could not have achieved it without the collaboration of my talented teammates and collaborators. This award is dedicated to them as well. Furthermore, this award is a recognition of the importance the university places on theoretical research, which is heart-warming for a theoretician.”

Assoc Prof Yan: “I feel I am lucky. The recognition from the university and the evaluation committee is highly appreciated.”

Any advice for up-and-coming researchers?

Assoc Prof Hui: “‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin.’ We must cultivate our garden.”

Assoc Prof Tan: “Take your math classes seriously. Read good math books voraciously and always question the assumptions and prevailing knowledge.”

Assoc Prof Yan: “Dare to think differently and conduct research that has never been done by others. I would rather fail in an unknown research area than stay in a comfortable place making incremental advances.”

What are your future research plans?

Assoc Prof Hui: “I have several projects currently in the works, including “A playful Borgesian encyclopaedia entitled A Fragmented Dictionary of the Universal Book, on divine alphabets, infinite texts, and universal libraries.”

Assoc Prof Tan: “I hope to continue to solve deep and fundamental problems in the information sciences, along the way developing new mathematical results along the way that will have wide applicability in science and engineering.”

Assoc Prof Yan: “A new project we are pursuing at the moment is the manufacturing of proteins that hopefully could be one day placed on a dinner table from renewable carbon resources, including woody biomass from agricultural waste and carbon dioxide from power plants.”