Saturday, March 17, 2007

Importance of Great Teachers

As the founder chairmen of the Singapore Science Council, SISIR , Standards Council etc Dr. Lee Kum Tatt has initiated and participated in the development of the Science and Technology infrastructure and manpower of Singapore for many years.

Has it not been for the timely influence of his great teacher we would have lost a good scientist. This is Dr. Lee’s story on how he was guided by a Great Teacher.

Tan Kin Lian


My Great Teacher - Professor Rayson L. Huang

I was taught to respect my teachers as I respect my parents. The result was I became my teacher’s pet in school and I was quite good also in my studies. Teaching is a noble profession and to be a teacher was one of my youthful dreams.

It was a god sent opportunity for me to be awarded a Raffles scholarship in 1948 to study science in Raffles College which later became the University of Malaya. After passing the first year I began to wonder what made me study science? Science was a tough course. Only 16 students out of 56 passed the first year. Many of us did not find the course interesting. The majority just wanted to get the B.Sc. degree and then look for a job. We worked hard in the second or Final I year merely because of the examination we have to pass.

In my Final II year my attitude towards the study of science, especially synthetic organic chemistry, changed. A new lecturer Dr. R.L.Huang, a Rhodes scholar from Oxford University, who did his post doctoral work in University of Chicago, caused that change in me. Without hesitation I chose to do an Honours degree in Chemistry instead of Physics or Mathematics.

During my honours course my childish dream of wanting to be a true scientist like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and Alexander Fleming came back to me very strongly. Being able to create new products, reactions or to save some lives was something worth pursuing.

I needed a good science foundation to be an inventor. This is a legacy I like to leave behind. I have to start learning how to do research, plan my experiments, make the proper observation and write scientific papers on my own. This was how I got interested in research.

Although I had a few good offers of overseas scholarships to do a higher degree and an offer of a research position in the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia I declined all these offers. I was so impressed with Dr. Huang’s approach to teaching students that I chose to work with him as my supervisor for a higher degree instead. Looking back everybody involved is happy that this decision was taken.

I worked on the preparation of synthetic female sex hormones as my thesis for a M Sc. degree on a Shell Research Fellowship grant. For the first 2-3 months I could not even produce the intermediate chemical I needed. I was shaken because I thought that the weakness in my practical work was exposed and that I was not that good after all. And secondly time was running out. I panicked. I informed Dr. Huang. I expected him to tell me in detail what to do next. In stead of trying to find out the underlying reasons of my failure he calmly told me to accept the fact that the product may not be stable. I should try to find another way to make what I needed. I followed his advice and got what I wanted.

Dr. Huang never made me feel that I was not good enough to do what I was supposed to do. He never treated me like a junior laboratory assistant who has to be told in detail what to do whenever I got into trouble. Some teachers do that for their students to ensure that they will pass. These are good teachers. But Dr. Huang taught me how to have confidence and faith in myself if I am to be a good researcher.

As it turned out this ability to have confidence and faith in myself was the greatest thing he gave to me. My M.Sc was converted into a Ph D and I finished the practical part of my Ph.D. degree in just two years. This is in spite of the troubles normally associated with research work.

My ability to make many of the decisions I made in my profession, career, and life has been due largely to this training. With faith and confidence I could see what is not normally visible to others; believe in the incredible and receive the extra-ordinary or even impossible results. This often makes it difficult for me to explain to others the Why’s, What’s and How’s I did what I did. Because of this people like me are often classified as mad scientists or crazy fellows until they can prove themselves.

We know there are three types of teachers - the Normal teacher, the Good teacher and the Great teacher. The normal teacher just teaches what has to be taught. The rest is up to the students. The good teacher teaches, helps and guides the students. The Great teacher inspires.

Dr. Huang is my Great Teacher. He inspired me and developed in me the confidence and faith I needed to live the life I led. Prof. Huang was the Vice Chancellor of the Nanyang University before he became the first Asian to be appointed as V.C. of Hong Kong University in 1970 where he worked until he retired. I have been an honorary teacher for many years. I have taught many under graduate and some post graduate university students in my life. I have tried to be a great teacher to some of my students. I am not sure whether I succeeded. To Dr. Huang, thank you for being my Great Teacher. I enjoyed my life because of you.

Lee Kum Tatt

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