The chicken rice-loving Dean with a recipe for success

If you ever plan to give Professor Aaron Thean a treat, skip the steaks or pasta.      

The 51-year-old recounted with a chortle his colleagues’ reactions whenever they ask him out for a meal at a Western restaurant. “I’ll say: ‘Why don’t we eat at the hawker centre?’ You’ll see the disbelief on their faces.”     

There is a good reason for this. More than 20 years of living abroad has given him a seemingly insatiable craving for local delights. The self-professed “chicken rice guy” simply loves hawker centres, explaining, “You get to pick everything on a whim – you can’t beat that.”     

There are two other things he cannot get enough of: electronics and education. As Dean of the newly-established College of Design and Engineering (CDE), he is harnessing the best of both worlds for students.

Launched in November 2021, the College is a merger of the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment as NUS seeks to offer a new model of interdisciplinary education. This also means encouraging students to push the boundaries – a challenge that Prof Thean relishes.

“The most enjoyable part is working with my students and research groups to explore new ideas,” he said. “How can I inspire students to think differently about a problem, and then look at something that’s never been done before?”

From tinkering to innovating

His passion for electronics was sparked by his father, a self-taught and talented technician who could fix everything from radars to televisions. 

Growing up, his home was always chock-full of gadgets. “We were always tinkering with stuff,” he recalled. “From a very young age, I’ve always been immersed in electronics.”

There is a look of wonder in his eyes as he holds up a vacuum tube – a black, light-bulb shaped device that used to be a crucial component for home appliances like televisions.

Today, these tubes are artefacts that have been replaced by semiconductor switches filling coin-sized computer chips that power almost everything electronic.

The ingenuity behind these inventions has always astounded Prof Thean. “Back in the 1950s, these (vacuum tubes) used to be in big-box televisions. Today, we have billions of semiconductor switches in thumb-sized chips that run our phones. Today, you never see a TV that’s thicker than an inch,” he noted.

It was this fascination that led him to dive into the world of semiconductors. After finishing his PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana in the United States, he worked for tech giants such as IBM and Motorola, where he helped to take nanotechnology to the next level.

The adventurous nomad

Over the years, work has taken him across the United States; the rolling hill country of Texas, the picturesque Hudson Valley in New York and California’s coastal city of San Diego have all been home to Prof Thean and his family.

“We led a fairly nomadic life,” said the father of one son. “I survived on IKEA furniture for a long time – easy to put together, easy to dispose of.”

They also lived in the Belgian city of Leuven for almost five years after he accepted a job offer at research and innovation centre IMEC in 2011.

Moving from America to Europe came as a culture shock. From a country that was largely monolingual, they suddenly found themselves among people who spoke three languages – Dutch, French and German – but none that they could understand.

“When we first got there, we turned on the radio and nothing was in English,” recalled Prof Thean, who eventually picked up Dutch while his wife learned French.

But after living in four American states and one European city, Singapore beckoned.  “It’s like going away on a very long trip,” he explained. “You start off very enthusiastically, but after a while you start thinking: Maybe it’s time to go home.”

Interesting opportunities also awaited back home. “Singapore has transformed over the years – it’s become a lot more exciting,” he enthused. “The community for technology, research and innovation has grown a lot.”

True to his adventurous spirit, Prof Thean sought a new challenge even as he returned to familiar surroundings in 2016. “Since I’m coming home, I wanted to try something different,” he said, explaining his switch from industry to academia.

A perfect pairing

As Dean of CDE, his priority now lies in developing young minds rather than technology.

Like how chicken and rice make a delectable pairing, Prof Thean pointed out that human connection is an indispensable ingredient of success. 

He cites the analogy of NASA assembling a diverse, synergistic team of engineers, scientists and astronauts that made it possible to break the frontier of space. “No man is an island. You have to work in teams. You have to work with people with different skill sets and backgrounds,” he said.

With the fields of design and engineering converging at CDE, the school is a perfect platform for such productive collaborations.

“That ability to get people comfortable about working across boundaries will prime them later in life to be open-minded and use ideas from other disciplines,” he added. “Besides, life and work are so much more interesting across boundaries; we hope our students will be inspired to be adventurous with their learning experience. That is something I hope we can inculcate through our programmes.”