Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What does Research mean to you

Research means different things to different people. To the question ‘what does research mean’, there is no simple answer acceptable to everybody. However, we agree that ‘research’ is good for us. There is plenty of debate on this subject now and in the years to come. As you grow, your views and what you do changes with the change of your goals in life and your responsibilities. I will share with you what these changes mean to me and some of my colleagues when we were students, parents, young professionals, managers, and policy makers. Does research provide an exciting life and career? To me it is a definite yes. How can we make that happen? A lot will depend on yourself; what you think your talents, capabilities and goals are and how you make use of them. If you can make these factors harmonize you will be fine. Usually someone, like your supervisor will help to start you off. After that whether you stay on or start something new yourself is up to you.

1. What research meant to me as a student.

When my wife and I were university students 60 years ago our goals were to do what has to be done in our studies to get our basic degrees. Many students are still doing that now. Research is what some of our professors did during their spare time. Although there were so few professors in our time we never knew what they really did and what they got out of their research. Today our professors are expected to do a lot of research and produce publications. Many never understand how the professors can get so much kick out of research. We also never knew what research was done outside the University. We believe that very little research, if any was done. I will tell you how I got interested and involved in research and let my wife tell you her own stories.

I joined Raffles College hoping only to get a diploma and then become a teacher.
All this changed when the University of Malaya was formed in 1948. I would get a B.Sc. degree instead. How would that help me, I did not know. I decided to take my honours degree in Chemistry. For what? May be I could be a teacher in the University. That required me to have a higher degree. How was I to do this?

I was on a Raffles College scholarship to do my B.Sc. degree. I was paid $1,200.00 per annum. After deducting tuition fees, board and lodging I was left with $80 per term to keep myself alive including buying books but no luxuries. I could not afford to do what my wealthier friends could do including having girl friends. How I wished I could make some extra money for myself and to help out my poor parents. This applied to many students during my time and even now. The science course was too demanding for me to take on any money making activities.

In my B.Sc. (Hons.) year I was on a Singapore government scholarship ($1,200.00 p.a.) and was also appointed a student demonstrator for the medical and science students for another $1,200.00 p.a. This appeared to be an improvement but was only on third of what I could have earned if I had found a job outside. This was part of the sacrifice I made to get a B.Sc. (Hons) degree in 1951/52.
After my Hons. degree I wanted a job which would allow me to do a higher degree with a decent pay. My Chemistry Professor got me a job in the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya (RRIM). For personal security reasons I declined the offer as I have to work in the rubber estate in Sungei Buloh in Malaya, a terrorist infested area at a time when the Governor of Malaya had been recently assassinated. My Professor was disappointed but he understood the stand I took.

I thought that was the end of my dream for a higher degree. I did not know why I wanted a higher degree so badly. Then Dr.Rayson L. Huang, a young lecturer ( who later became the first Asian Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong University) offered to supervise me for an M.Sc. degree. The research topic was ‘synthesis of synthetic female sex hormones’. This was an exciting project which few young men can resist.

Surprisingly I was granted the newly created Shell Research Fellowship of $3000.00 p.a. for this course. This solved part of my personal financial problem. But it represented one third of what I would have earned as an honours degree graduate. I ran into the normal trouble of most young research students by producing no results in the first two months. I panicked but made good after that. I was offered to convert my M. Sc. to a Ph. D degree during my first year of research. This was not part of my dream but it was something I also could not refuse – to be addressed as Dr. Lee Kum Tatt if I passed. More important this gave me confidence that I can do ‘research’. I can generate knowledge, make decisions and solve problems. This is the most important thing I learned in my Ph. D. years which also changed my life. I continue to do “research’ to add value to and apply the knowledge I know to solve the problems I face.

Was research useful to me?. Yes. What price did I pay? The effort I put in and the sacrifices I, my parents and family made. What rewards did I get ? The satisfaction and peace I got for a job well done and the honour and respect I was given serving my fellowmen. Many people must still be going through what I went through. If you can handle these problems with your research training and experience and make the necessary sacrifices you will be fine.

Lee Kum Tatt

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