Every year in CoS, dozens of PhD students defend their thesis and earn their doctorate, the highest university degree. In this series, we catch up with some new doctors to find out about their experience of doing a PhD in CoS, what made them embark on the intense four year journey and what plans they have for the future.
“Science is a form of art too.” Finding glimpses of art in the scientific process has long been Dr Phan Quang Gia Chuong’s personal motto. A scientist as well as an artist (@kindgotospace), Dr Phan was first drawn as an undergraduate to the unique properties of nanotechnology. Inspired by the potential for innovation in the field of nanoscience, and realising that more and more platforms were beginning to utilize nanomaterials, Dr Phan made it his goal to create something of his own.
Having completed his undergraduate studies in Chemistry and Biological Chemistry with the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences (SPMS), Dr Phan went on to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Assoc. Prof Ling Xing Yi. In November 2019, he successfully defended his thesis, titled Plasmonic Colloidosomes: Dynamic Three-Dimensional Platform for Biphasic, Microfluidic and Airborne Surface-Enhanced Raman Scattering Applications. Dr Phan is a recipient of the Dr and Mrs Alex Tan Pang Kee Gold Medal and the Graduate College Research Excellence Award. We caught up with Dr Phan, now a Research Fellow with SPMS, to ask about his experiences as a PhD candidate and his ongoing research on nanotechnology.
You are a nanotechnology scientist. What does a nanotechnology scientist do?
We synthesize particles in the nanometer-scale, which are a billion times smaller than us, and use them to develop applications. Nanoparticles behave very differently from bulk materials, thus giving rise to several interesting properties and potential applications.
What is your research field, in brief, and its applications?
My particular research area is Surface-Enhanced Raman Scattering (SERS), which is basically a spectroscopy technique that uses metallic nanoparticles to detect molecules at ultratrace concentrations. I develop new nanoparticles and create new SERS platforms out of those particles, for the detection of various molecules in different scenarios (for e.g. harmful gases in the air or toxins in food samples).
Was it an obvious choice for you go for a career in science?
No, I was never really into science. I have always been interested in a wide range of things from art to business to science – even cooking! I tried a bit of everything. I am naturally competitive and like to be challenged in everything I am involved in. As for how I started my PhD journey, I was just going with the flow when the opportunity (or rather, a challenge) in science came along.
NTU has actually been a good place for people like me to experience many different aspects of life, instead of staying put in one field. Furthermore, CoS did a good job in launching the Transferable Skills Programme, which exposed us to areas beyond our own field, and improved our soft skills important for life beyond the PhD.
How did your PhD defense go?
It was challenging! SERS is a relatively young analytical methodology that is not widely-adopted by analytical scientists at the moment. During the defense, my proposed strategy was – quite reasonably – questioned by the examiners and the audience. It made for an intense and interesting discussion. I learnt a lot from the defense and took all the positive and negative comments with a pinch of salt, which has helped me to further refine my research.
What are the most important things you have learnt from your PhD days?
I learned quite a lot! Many people think getting a PhD is just another stage of the ‘schooling’ process, but in reality, it actually is a job. Besides gaining knowledge and research skills such as experimental design and scientific communications, I also learnt to work collaboratively for big projects, manage stress, multitask, and encourage my peers in their rough days. The fact is, my PhD experience has never been just about knowledge and research skills – it’s also been about my growth and maturity as a responsible scientist. On top of that, I also picked up important skills in procurement and graphic illustrations, etc.
You now work as a research fellow with SPMS. What do you see yourself doing in 10 years’ time and where?
I would like to contribute what I have to SERS’ continued development and commercialization. The greater goal here is to eventually use SERS to revolutionize important processes such as medical diagnosis or environmental monitoring. I might not be able to give an answer for the ten-year mark, but definitely within the next few years, I would like to complete what I started, and continue to challenging myself on this journey of technological development.
Any advice for prospective or new PhD students?
You can’t avoid stress or the feeling of being lost at times. Learn to look at the big picture and aim for the ultimate goal, and it’ll help you overcome your setbacks and hiccups. Work hard, but also learn to work smart. And last but not least, have a balanced life. Good rest and time off to go on vacation are extremely important. Learn to pace your daily progress and reward yourself.
About the Dr and Mrs Alex Tan Pang Kee Gold Medal
The Dr. and Mrs. Alex Tan Pang Kee Gold Medal for PhD in Chemistry is awarded each year to the most outstanding graduating PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) student in Chemistry and Biological Chemistry at the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. It is the fervent hope of Dr. and Mrs. Alex Tan Pang Kee that this award will inspire and challenge the next generation of young scientists to solve real world issues, and encourage them in their development of useful, innovative, sustainable, and eco-friendly technological solutions for our future.
About the Graduate College Research Excellence Award
The Graduate College awards are given annually to the most deserving graduating students for their achievements during their studies at NTU, and to their advisors. The Research Excellence award recognises original, creative and widely disseminated student research with significant impact on the field or society. The Graduate College Awards were announced during the Graduate College Virtual Celebration on 18 July 2020.