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Bright young minds pick DSO lab over private sector

They are lured by real-world application of research in defence science laboratory
The Straits Times - November 27, 2012
By: Lim Yan Liang
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Bright young minds pick DSO lab over private sector

AS THE cream of the academic crop, they could easily be making big bucks in the private sector.

Instead, they choose to labour in the shadows, developing military technology to help keep Singapore safe.

Mathematics whizz Teo Wei Hao, 27, is one of the bright young minds employed at the country's oldest defence science laboratory, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

His love affair with numbers began in primary school, when he realised he had a talent for complex sums. "Before that, I always thought I wanted to work as an SMRT train driver," he said.

These days, he puts his talent to good use at DSO National Laboratories. He is an expert in the arcane art of cryptology, which involves coming up with new mathematical algorithms that keep the military's communication and top-secret files hidden from prying eyes.

"My mum keeps asking what I do but I had to tell her 'Sorry, just don't ask me'," he said. "She couldn't even brag to her fellow aunties, sadly."

One factor that attracts talented young people such as Mr Teo is that their work usually ends up not in a paper or a patent, but as real-world technology. "The things we do directly impact Singapore's defence," he said. "It is applied research, and even in peacetime we are relevant."

Altogether, DSO employs about 1,300 scientists, who are experts in fields ranging from radiological research to communications technologies to unmanned systems. The aim is to make sure it never stops attracting and retaining home-grown talent.

This was easier said than done back in the 1990s, when it had to compete with the private sector for the nation's top engineering, science and maths minds. "It was the dot.com boom, when there was huge interest out there for people," said DSO chief executive Quek Gim Pew.

"I didn't know whether or not we could attract talent to defence if we continued to operate within the civil service rules and regulations."

The solution, to corporatise DSO, was a major change, but the fruits are evident today.

In 2007, slightly under a quarter of its research scientists were aged below 30. Today, the proportion is closer to a third. On average, researchers and engineers stay with DSO for nine years before moving on, unheard of in sectors such as IT and financial services.

Miss Cheryl Seow, 25, is another of the lab's bright young sparks. Her job involves hyperspectral imaging: a kind of photography that can see beyond what the human eye can, picking out anomalies and hidden enemies by detecting their unique chemical signatures. The technology was used during the mission that led to the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

"A traditional camera might be able to tell you what does not belong in a scene, but the next question, then, is 'What is it?'" said Miss Seow. "Hyperspectral tells you which anomalies you need to be worried about, and which you don't."

Another factor that helps DSO to attract young talent is its long-term view of career development. Around 20 PhD and postgraduate scholarships were given out in the past five years.

But perhaps its biggest draw is its commitment to what Mr Quek called "spiral development", in which a prototype is pushed out at the earliest opportunity, then continually improved with field testing.

Miss Seow said: "It's quite different from the research that I did in university, because now what I do will actually contribute to a real system in the end."

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