From undergrad to full prof

OAS Academic Council Meeting n Professor Installation Ceremony 075pa
This is an excerpt of a speech I delivered at NTU’s Academic Council Meeting on 28 August 2014, where I was installed as a full professor.

In 1992, a shy young man walked into Lecture Theatre 1 for his first lesson at NTU. After running around in the jungle with his M16 rifle for two and a half years, he wondered if he could cope with his studies as an engineering freshman. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in life then. Well, that young man was me.

It is fair to say that I have been on both sides of the fence, having been a student and now, faculty. I have seen, first hand, how quickly NTU has transformed and progressed.

02A much younger me in the engineering lab.

When I was a freshman, almost everything happened at the North Spine. They were still building the South Spine at that time. Then, the North Spine looked like the capital letter “H” when viewed from above. After some time, it became the number “8” as they joined the top and bottom of the “H”. Now, it looks like a ladder and is still a work-in-progress.

Talking about ladders, we all know how fast NTU is rising up the rankings. We have climbed 79 places in the latest Shanghai Jiaotong Academic Rankings, which placed our engineering and computer science programmes 12th in the world. Ask any professor in the College of Engineering for the reasons behind this, and he or she will probably tell you that with the talent we’ve brought in and at the pace the College is working, rising up the ranks was just a matter of time.

Because of NTU’s catapulting achievements, that same young man who walked into Lecture Theatre 1 as a student 22 years ago now stands especially proud in front of you, ready to be installed as a professor in his alma mater.

A slightly older me, back in 2007 (still in the lab).

If you ask me for one word that best describes the job of a professor, I would say “inspire”. A good professor consistently inspires the people around him. At the same time, he allows himself to be inspired by others. This should be well reflected in the three areas we professors busy ourselves with daily. I’m referring to teaching, research and service. I’d like to give my two cents on each of these areas.

I remember the first year I was asked to tutor a few classes in Control and Dynamics. I was in my office doing my work one fine day when a tall and muscular student barged in without knocking. He sternly pointed his finger at me. “You know the Control and Dynamics course you are teaching? I failed two times already. Because of you… I passed!” He then placed a Mars bar on my table. “Nah! Chocolate. Take!” He turned around and left.

I must admit I almost wet my pants that day. But somehow I succeeded in inspiring that student to grasp the fundamental concepts of control engineering. And to know that I made a positive difference to just that one student was very gratifying. After that incident, I was inspired to do an even better job as a teacher. I believe students can smell passion. They know when someone is putting in their best effort to teach them. And this, they really appreciate.

My research career began during my final year as an undergraduate. It was my FYP supervisor, the late Prof Ng Wan Sing, who first introduced me to the world of medical robotics. I found it fascinating that robots could help surgeons to perform their work better. I was thrilled by the fact that an engineer could indirectly contribute to surgery, which results in real benefits for the patient.

In the course of my work, I have seen the smiles on faces of real patients who have benefited from using my robots. To me, that is worth more than a few papers in Nature. In my own way, I believe I have been pushing the boundaries of medical science, one robot at a time.

I also believe that each and every one of us here should be inspired to excel in our chosen field. Whether you are discovering a new drug, writing a book on economics or creating a masterpiece of an artwork, it requires full commitment and sheer perseverance.

Doing research here will always be competitive and tough. To excel, we really need to be 100% inspired to do the things we do.

04The inspiration for my robotic endoscopic system – the humble chili crab.

I was a good soldier during National Service. I figured that since it was mandatory for me to serve the nation for two and a half years, I would make the best out of it and be the best soldier I could be.

Coming to NTU as faculty, I had also decided that I would be the best professor I could be. To me, service is part and parcel of being a professor. When I was asked to be a Head of Division three years ago, like a good soldier, I said: “Yes, Sir!” Recently, they asked me to be Chair, and I said: “Okay, I humbly accept and will do my best to be the best Chair I can be.”

We are professors and will always be professors. Whether you become a Dean, Provost or President, you are still a professor inside. If you were ever asked to serve the school or University, it is only because your bosses and peers feel you possess certain qualities that may enable you to improve the current situation. I have seen colleagues who have stepped down from important positions and continue to excel in research and teaching. I admire these people. They truly know what it means to be a professor.

To me, being a good professor means remembering to put our students first – especially the ones who may be struggling to comprehend not just the knowledge being taught but trying to find their way in life. I am thankful that across 22 years, I’ve been given the opportunities to fulfil my calling as a professor and a mentor. Through teaching, research and service, I hope that I can continue to inspire and be inspired in the years ahead.

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