From Chemistry to Psychology: Seeing the World through a Different Lens
If you asked Ting Ting (Class of 2012) what she was doing a decade ago, she would share about the astonishing CheMagic tricks she attempted in Catalyzr. She would set calcium acetate ablaze, then wield fire with her wet hands (do not try this at home!). Or she might talk about the times she slept, using her organic chemistry textbook as a pillow and hoping formulas and reaction mechanisms would diffuse into her brain. In other words, par for the course for your average NUS High School student.
Instead of pursuing a career in STEM, however, she embarked on a liberal arts education in Columbia University. She would subsequently serve in the public sector while mentoring youths in her free time, all in her pursuit to learn about and understand the world through different sets of lenses.
NUS High School Memories
Ting Ting’s exploits at Science Buskers Carnival
Does Mr Murali still recall students trying to make glow-in-the-dark tomatoes for CheMagic? He does, and the blender they used sure did! Ting Ting laughed apologetically as she recounted the time Catalyzr, the Chemistry Interest Group, attempted to blend glow sticks, only for the peroxide to destroy the blending machine in the process (“Sorry Ms Pek [Chemistry Lab Technologist] about your blender, and asking for chemicals that you couldn’t give us!”)
Looking back at her NUS High experience, Ting Ting reminisced about the exciting times she spent studying her favourite subjects Chemistry and Biology. Her time in Catalyzr, she says, inspired her to be ever-curious and inquisitive.
From Mrs Soong-Tan Seck Cher from the Chemistry department to Ms Fong Kit Ching from the Biology department, Ting Ting enthusiastically shared about the impact her NUS High teachers had on her: “There are moments where I can still remember of things that they have done or said that have benefitted me, so I want to pass that on to other people.”
Inspired by the mentors in her life, Ting Ting now actively volunteers with Advisory and Halogen Foundation as a mentor to share her experiences with youths. “Often, it’s about giving youths the tools to help them figure stuff out for themselves, rather than telling them: ‘You have to be this’, ‘You have to be that’, right? That’s my connection with mentorship.”
Route to Psychology
Ting Ting surprised those two favourite teachers of hers with her pursuit of a degree in Psychology.
Up until Year 6, she thought she would either be a doctor, or a researcher working in the field of translational medicine. Then, she did a summer session at Yale and realised she had spent six years of her life studying and understanding the world through the lens of pure science, when there were so many other lenses and perspectives she could learn about the world through!
Hence, she decided to apply for a liberal arts programme in university to challenge herself with humanities courses far outside of her comfort zone. She visited New York City during her summer session at Yale, which was when she decided to make the city a part of her youth.
These two reasons eventually converged on what would become her home for four years: Columbia University. There, she took courses ranging from Biology and Chemistry to Economics, Sociology, and East Asian Studies, and did not decide on her major until she took a Social Psychology course in Year 2. In that class, Professor Tory Higgins’ way of explaining abnormal psychology and psychological processes clicked with her inclusive view of the world.
Her last two years of university were spent conducting research in his lab, performing experiments on students in the basement of the psychology building. (“It’s not that sketchy, but it’s funny when you say it.”) The experiments looked at online communications under the Shared Reality Theory framework. Compared to the 6th floor Synthetic Chemistry Lab, the environment was less controlled (“You have to remember that you can’t 100% control what the person is thinking.”) and the conclusions that one can make are more constrained.
It may seem like psychology and the natural sciences are a world apart. The similarity between the two fields, however, lie in their methodical approach: breaking a problem down into its constituent parts, be it the different factors influencing someone’s decision, or the outcome of organic synthesis.
Ting Ting also said that she appreciated the rigour of the academic programme in both NUS High and Columbia University, and how she got to persevere through them, picking skills and knowledge up quickly. NUS High afforded her the space to nourish her inquisitive spark; Columbia showed her a different lens to see the world through.
Would she recommend studying abroad? Ting Ting says it depends on one’s priorities for their growth. It forced her to be independent, away from familiar surroundings and her family, where she had to learn to sink or swim. It also gave her some space to find herself, meet people from all walks of life, and understand different perspectives.
On the other hand, she advises people to consider things like the weather and culture of the place that they are going to. Transitioning into university is already going to be a challenge, and being in a familiar surrounding might make it easier. After all, one can still experience life overseas by doing a Masters degree abroad, or joining an exchange programme.
Ting Ting made close friends with Asian-American and fellow Singaporean students, who helped support her overseas. Not only did it take her some time to adapt to American colloquial English, she also found the classroom culture different. Students would actively participate in class, even when they might not have complete answers. She found this beneficial because it sparked more conversations in class, encouraging a broader range of opinions and perspectives.
Public Sector Experience
Ting Ting at the Trump-Kim Summit
Upon graduation, she started to do communications work under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI)’s Information Service Scholarship.
Initially, she discovered her interest in Communications from explaining CheMagic experiments. It was later reinforced by working with openlectures, a student-led non-profit that published educational videos related to the A-level syllabus. She enjoyed talking to people about the things that she was passionate about, breaking down concepts, and getting them excited about learning.
This led to her first job in marketing communications, where she helped people understand public policy better. Her work on dialect programmes on Channel 8 educated the elderly on making their lasting power of attorney and explained their employment rights.
Her next role at MCI was in Media Analytics and Engagement, where she got to be a part of the historic Trump-Kim Summit - oh, the perks of working in the public sector! (This is not a sponsored advertisement.)
Longing for the scientific, analytical environment she once absorbed herself in during high school and university, Ting Ting now works in the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) as a citizen sentiment researcher.
As the Research Team Lead, she analyses the public’s perceptions and knowledge of various manpower issues and policies, before presenting her findings and recommendations to the relevant teams for implementation. We were surprised that she rotates between ministries. She explained that communications work encourages such jumps, because it helps to build a well-connected public service, especially when policies involve multiple ministries.
Ting Ting has no idea what her next job role would be, but she hopes to continue working on citizen sentiment research.
Change in Worldview
Ting Ting’s pursuit to expand her worldview has left her with the realisation that “nothing is absolute”. Good or bad, right or wrong; through studying history and engaging in philosophical debates, Ting Ting has learnt that there are often multiple perspectives to any given issue. She leaves NUSHies with the following advice:
“Leave yourself room for growth after graduation. Leave yourself plenty of room to evolve as a person and grow and learn new perspectives, and embrace that change in yourself in the next 10 years of your life.”
Rather than chasing absolute goals, Ting Ting often advises her mentees to identify their core values and principles, making these their point of departure. She often uses her personal experience to guide mentees in this respect. In her case, she has always wanted to do good for society. Her public sector and volunteering work is a testament to that.
Would she have chosen to do anything differently? She doubts it. If anything, she would tell her younger self to not have a fixed idea about who she has to be, and to allow herself space for growth and change without seeing detours as necessarily bad things.
Still, she sometimes wonders what her life would be like had she majored in Chemistry. Catching herself mid-thought, she would remind herself that there is no better or worse decision: each choice just brings you to a different point in your future. Her liberal arts path showed her that she could tackle humanities essays with eloquence, and that she enjoyed philosophy too. She is proud to report that now, she not only nerds out over science (which she still does with NUS High friends), she nerds out over a wider variety of subjects as well.
Rounding off the conversation, we ask: what else do you do in your free time? She points to the K-Pop posters behind her. She has reconnected with her secondary school hobbies recently, and decided that there is no shame in enjoying them. She keeps herself busy being a dog mum and cooking her hometown’s dishes, with hopes to start a private dining venture someday. To keep updated on her culinary adventures, follow her at @appropriateamount on Instagram.
We thank her for feeding us all this food for thought. She smiles brightly (with a “phew!”) as we call it a wrap.
Interviewers and Writers: Leticia Tok (Class of 2021) and Carlyne Li (Class of 2021) Editors: Jake Lai (Class of 2018) and Lai Kin Yee (Class of 2021)