Humans of CN Yang – Mohammad Zaidi

For our next instalment of Humans of CN Yang, we had the privilege of interviewing a prominent member of the Alumni Association, Mohammad Zaidi. He served as the President of the CN Yang Scholars’ Club (3rd Executive Committee) and is the current President of the Alumni Association.

In this interview, Zaidi shares about his experiences as President of the CN Yang Scholars’ Club, his journey into research, his duties as a Youth Representative of the Singapore Red Cross, and his contributions towards the current CN Yang Scholars Programme.

Let us proceed with the questions and answers!

  1. Hi Zaidi, thanks for joining us today for an interview. First up, we understand that you are going overseas very soon. Where are you heading to and is there anything interesting about the trip?

Well I wouldn’t say it is very interesting to be honest. I would be heading to a few countries as a youth representative for the Singapore Red Cross, and subsequently heading to Southampton in the UK for a year to continue with my PhD there. To be truthful I don’t know what I will be expecting there, but it’s great to experience the whole process of research overseas, as there will be a new research team that I can work with and also new equipment to use as well. The focus would be on research rather than travelling around or enjoying myself overseas. I guess a change in environment would be good since I have been in NTU for 6-7 years now. Going to Southampton was an opportunity presented to me and it would be something new for me, so I decided to go for it.

  1. How did the CN Yang Scholars Programme develop you as an individual during your undergraduate life? What do you think are the merits of such a programme? Also, do you have any comments or suggestions on the new curriculum? Is it an improvement? 

It’s more of the fact that the programme has a closely knitted community that goes through the same modules and a similar kind of “hardship” together, which gives everyone a common experience and allows us to be bonded. One thing I wanted to highlight was that I failed the third math module. I guess what happened back then was that I had too many commitments like club activities, and it actually caused me to have insufficient time to study and understand the topic. This failure caused me to reflect on how I managed my time, and also rethink my values and priorities in life. It helped me to reflect and subsequently improve on my time management, and it was really important back in Year 2 since I had plenty of commitments back then. Surprisingly when I retook the module in Year 4, I appreciated the beauty of the module and subsequently did better in it. The takeaway is not to take failure as an absolute, but to find another opportunity to do things better.

To me, the merits of the programme come from the fact that it is very structured and mainly meant for students like me who are passionate about the sciences. It is a well thought programme that helps you appreciate the various fields of science and engineering, and it also provides a good foundation and introduction to research. The basic knowledge required from the various sciences is mostly covered in the programme and there are many opportunities as well, allowing you to try out research early on as an undergraduate. Some people might think of research as just going to the lab and doing some work, but it is definitely much more than that and everyone gets to try it out in this programme.

I feel that the revamped syllabus of the CN Yang Programme is an improvement as it initially started as a programme to build the technical knowledge for research, but now it is striving to nurture a scholar who can apply knowledge and skills from diverse fields by learning Ethics as a module and also from the greater focus on holistic learning (Overseas Final Year Projects, extended research durations). This allows the individual to think critically and be more proficient in research and in other fields as well. In the first two years of university life, you might not be able to appreciate the depth of the topics taught, and the change to simpler modules but from more fields would allow people to enjoy the learning experience from the programme. I feel that the CN Yang Programme was a lot harder back in the older days in terms of academic rigour and people tend to lose interest in the topics very quickly, and so this is a good change.

  1. What do you think of the new initiative of the programme to allow students to do their overseas Final Year Project (FYP) or attachment early on in their undergraduate lives?

Going overseas is always a good thing, because after staying in the same institute for 4 years, students might take things for granted and going overseas gives them new perspectives, and gives a new wealth of knowledge about how research is done in other countries. By learning at least two different ways of conducting research in Singapore and overseas, it will be enriching for them since they will develop new ways in thinking about their research and pick up the good practices of each laboratory.

  1. How was your experience as CN Yang Club President? What were some memorable things accomplished during your time? During your leadership experience, were there times when you had to make hard decisions? How did you cope with them?

Being the 3rd CN Yang president, the proper protocols, procedures and flow of events were not fully developed and structured back then. For our committee, we were taking over the planning of some events that Miss Lee (Senior Assistant Manager of CN Yang’s Office) was previously doing. Since it was still the pioneering period of the CN Yang Scholars’ Club, it was a demanding task as the scholars were very studious and the challenge came from motivating people to do things and contribute back to the programme. It was common for scholars to focus on their studies instead and be less appreciative or active in the club’s activities. The issue was to motivate the scholars to have a vision of what the CN Yang Club stands for, as it is always easy to prioritize studies instead and give up on other things.

One of the key things I learnt as President was not to be afraid of getting ideas from the scholars and not just from the committee. We actually published a new blog, which was based on a scholar’s idea outside of the committee, and the current website we have now is an improvement of the initial idea. Also, D&D (Dinner & Dance) was a simple dinner back then. Improvements were made over the years, themes were introduced and the dinner moved to a hotel. Initially, only the Year 1s followed the dress code while the others didn’t really care, but things have developed and changed over time and the events got better.

One challenge we faced was the planning of our overseas trip back then. Sometimes things might not go our way, and we wanted to go to Japan back then, but all of a sudden there was an earthquake there before we went. Even though everything was planned and the details were in, we were thinking of whether we should continue with the trip to Japan or go to a new place, but we eventually decided to cancel the trip. People were disappointed but we had to explain the difficulties faced and why we could not go for it even though they were looking forward to it.

To summarize, as a club president, what I got from the whole experience were methods to motivate the team members, and create a vision for the club to push for new boundaries. We also had to prepare for the next committee, and this succession planning was tough because we had to think of ways to carry our plans forward as well as our vision to the new committee, and a good programming of the club was vital in doing so.

  1. How did you find your undergraduate life in NTU? Were there any particular moments in your school life that were memorable or interesting?

I think for my undergraduate life, every year was a different experience and it is difficult to explain it all together. In Year 1 I was in many CCAs like Lindy Hop, two sub-clubs of Welfare Services Club (Youth Division), which was Camp Outreach and Hearing Impaired, and also in the CN Yang Scholars’ Club as an Outreach Director. I focused more on my CCA life back then and had something on every night and it was exciting. I also made many new friends but my grades suffered because I was too busy.

In Year 2, I became the President of the CN Yang Scholars’ Club and things got more serious, since it was about moving the club forward and the role of leadership comes in. I was also involved in the Red Cross, leading a group of 50 youth volunteers, and actively involved in the Council of the Red Cross. This was when my priorities and time management kicked in, but so did failure and I learnt from that as well, which I have talked about previously.

For Year 3 I was involved in Industrial Attachment (IA) and exchange. I was out of NTU and it was a good breather, and I questioned myself on what I wanted to do – to venture into research or to go into the industry. The IA helped me to think about where my interest lies, whether working in the industry or in research was more suitable, while the exchange helped me to think about what I was doing with my life in general and it was a period of self-discovery.

Finally in Year 4, the focus was more on the Final Year Project (FYP) and I was floating around in school. Also, I finally decided that I wanted to do research and decided to apply for a PhD. It was a very fast year. Every year is different and I am always learning new things, and in that sense my NTU life is vibrant.

  1. Tell me more about some of the CCAs or hobbies you’ve tried your hand at, be it in school or in your free time? How has these interests shaped you as an individual?

I would say that in the first year, it is good to explore many things and find out what you really like. What drives me as a person would be the act of service, be it doing community service or giving back to the student population. I focused on the Red Cross, the leadership in CN Yang, and did the Freshmen Orientation Camp (FOC) for Nanyang Scholars. I found it fun and meaningful to do things for the community as it helped me to reinforce what I believed in and what I really wanted to do in my life. Hence, I found out that acts of service for the community was my passion.

  1. What inspired you to go on this path of research that you are currently pursuing?

I asked myself that same question when I was in Year 3. In Year 1 and 2, I asked myself what education was and what was the value of the degree: was it a means to an end or an end by itself? During the IA over a 22-week period, my supervisor gave feedback on what she saw in me. Initially, she told me I should go into the field of Business, perhaps join the banking sector and climb the corporate ladder. However, at the end of the IA, my supervisor thought about it and said that I should go into research as I’m better suited for it.

During the overseas exchange, I questioned myself if I should do research or something else. Since I had no distractions and fewer commitments in Year 3 than in Year 2 when I was in NTU, my mind was clearer, and I finally decided to do research. The FYP in Year 4 further reinforced my beliefs in going towards the direction of research.

  1. Could you share with us briefly some of the research projects that you have done? Also, how does this field of research interest you and what are the future possibilities of developments in your field?

In Year 1 I was working on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which was more like a pet project for me. Back then in 2009 it wasn’t available commercially, so we had to figure out how to build one, and we were making these vehicles and testing them out. For Year 2, we participated in a competition for UAVs and things got more serious. I would say it was something like the Garage projects that we are doing now.

During my exchange in Year 3, I read up on wind turbines, fluid dynamics and began to develop my interests in a different direction. The Netherlands had many wind turbines and that’s where I got my inspiration. For my IA, I also did one on wind turbines and learnt more about the topic. It was cool but over the next few years I decided to move on and try out new topics.

Currently, I’m doing on research topics more related to structures. I am working on fracture mechanics, and this topic applies to any material that fractures since all structures have faults and can fail, mainly marine and offshore structures. There are two pathways to do this research, either through the research centre on marine structures or going into academia and learning about the analytical processes and theories to improve on the structure.

I like to explore different fields while working on research. I think it’s good to be focused but it’s also important to remain passionate. It helps to explore new things and find the right topic to do. There’s no need to rush to complete a project but instead one should enjoy the whole process. Even in my third year of PhD, I am still questioning myself on what I really want to do, so it is great to go overseas to explore, think carefully about it and get new perspectives without the burden of too many commitments back in Singapore.

  1. We understand that you are actively involved in school activities, be it the Alumni Association, the Garage and even in CY1500. Could you tell us more about your work in school and in CN Yang?   

All these ideas are rather new and only developed when Assoc Prof Tan Choon Hong (Director of CN Yang Scholars’ Programme) took over last year. For instance, the Alumni Association started last year when Prof Tan realized that there’s an alumni that could be engaged and also contribute back to the CN Yang community. He was also interested in developing the Garage within the Crescent and Pioneer Halls and kick-started the new CY1500 module (Introductory Research Methodology). The Alumni Association has 6 batches of alumni and we want to keep this connection together. I would say that the networking can be beneficial in the future as everyone works in very diverse fields and we could potentially give back to the younger scholars when the alumni is more successful in their careers. However, since we are still starting out in our careers, this might take quite a few years to develop, but the networking between different batches is definitely helpful for everyone.

For CY1500, Prof Tan felt that we should have an introductory course to research for new students, as we realized that for the old syllabus of the CN Yang Programme, there was no one to formally teach us on research methodology. We just joined a research lab of our own interest without any prior experience on research and had to learn to find journal papers, to cite, and pick up other research techniques by ourselves. We feel that CY1500 is beneficial to scholars where the alumni and seniors come back to share about their research experience and skills required. Prof Tan allowed us some autonomy in developing the module: he had the vision and the mentors created the module and fine-tuned it. We also tried to make the environment less competitive and more fun by focusing more on learning and sharing ideas with each other, which made it different from the other modules that the scholars were taking.

For the Garage, we were invited to help out and also had an opportunity to stay in Crescent or Pioneer Hall. It’s like setting up a new lab from an empty space where we required a lot of experiences from diverse fields and we learnt from each other. Some people had the mechanical skills, while others had knowledge about 3D printing, electronics and mechanical tools that are all required in the Garage. As for me, I helped out in the project management while others helped out with the administrative and safety protocols. Thus, the mentors and I set up the Garage together. It was a grand idea by Prof Tan and we tried our best to execute it. I think even if it doesn’t work perfectly, we can improve on it. On the other hand, if we tell ourselves that we cannot do it, things will not change and improve.

We are the pioneers of these projects and all these things are new and just starting out. Even though it is not easy, we need to have the confidence that it will work and slowly develop on it, but instead of relying on others to do it, I feel that I can help with it!

  1. As someone with so many commitments, how do you manage your time and cope so well? Were there some things that you had to give up or compromises made to fulfil your responsibilities?

It’s not something people can teach you or lecture you on; it is something that is developed. Some people need to go through failures and experience it themselves while others can just pick it up on the go. As for priorities, these things stem from the individuals themselves. People can preach on it and give advice but it’s how you view things and manage it yourself.

  1. What are your aspirations for the future?

Firstly, I hope to do well in the future in terms of my career – be it in research or the industry. Secondly, it is to be the voice for the community and help out where I can, and advocate for more humanitarian values.

  1. Do you have any life mottos or philosophies in life that you live by?  

To chase after your dreams and be passionate about what you’re doing, otherwise you will not enjoy what you are doing. The undergraduate days are important as you are exploring and finding out what you are actually passionate about. Once you have graduated, it is more difficult to think about these things and find out what you are interested in.

  1. As a graduate student, what advice do you have for the incoming and future batches of freshmen?

Enjoy the whole process, be open and try new things. Do not be afraid of failure, as we can learn from them. In a controlled environment like the university, it is a good place to learn and it is perfectly okay to fail. Make as many friends as possible. Apart from being your support, it is possible that you might need them in the future.

In terms of advice for doing research, I would say that while it’s easy to apply for a PhD, it takes effort to sustain yourself and to be continually interested in research. This decision requires careful thinking, and as it is possible to be jaded after a few years, the important thing is not to reach a stage of burnout and to do things at a comfortable pace instead. As an undergraduate the important thing is to try out research and not push yourself too hard, cultivate an interest for various topics first, and think carefully before making the plunge.

Bonus Question: We understand that you are very passionate about community service. Could you tell us more about your volunteering role in the Red Cross and other organizations?

From Year 1 onwards, I was a Youth Representative of the Singapore Red Cross going for summits and conferences. In 2009 I went for a global youth summit, and in 2010 I went to the Asia Pacific Conference. As a youth representative, I advocate what the youth wants to do in the humanitarian field. We discuss on disaster risk reduction, which talks about how you can reduce the risk of a disaster that might happen, and how you create a community that is prepared for the disasters and be able to rebuild themselves after a disaster. The youths can build programmes within the community to educate each other, prepare for the disaster and its aftermath. Furthermore, the World Humanitarian Summit is where all the UN Agencies and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) discuss on the framework for the next 5 years. The coming meeting in September at Doha will take in all these voices of the youth and discuss about various issues to bring in innovative new ideas to address the needs of the vulnerable, which improves on the current ways of addressing problems. Youths tend to have new ideas and feel less restrained to organizations, and they will be the future of tomorrow which makes them important. If the youths do not participate in these discussions, the adults will create a system that could stagnate. What we can value in Singapore as a youth is that we are fortunate and are able to not only channel our efforts and funds, but also share what we do overseas to other people. It’s not just focusing on helping the community but also to peer support, train and guide them to prepare for coming disasters and to generate new ideas for doing things. The main thing here is the sharing of technology and ideas, and Singapore can be a leader in this area.

Being involved in the UN Major Group for Children and Youth, I work with other people from different NGOs to create a platform for youths to come to Doha and provide consultation. I would say that the majority of my time is spent on these things. I am also the chair of the Asia Pacific Youth Network in the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. My role is to bring the youths in the region together and collaborating together to come up with new ideas and also strengthen current regional humanitarian initiatives as well as developing an online platform for everyone to discuss and work together. Leading a regional and international team has challenges, because doing a meeting face-to-face is very expensive. Red Cross runs on the donors’ money and we try to save on expenses, so we use Skype and other online mediums to share and discuss our ideas. There are many online meetings and another main challenge would be communication, as some people cannot speak English, but in Asia Pacific it’s a lot better. In other words, it’s a celebration of diversity with communities of different cultures.

The CN Yang Press & Publicity Team would like to thank Zaidi for the interview! We would like to wish everyone a fruitful semester ahead and see you for the next instalment of Humans of CN Yang!