Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Soares, Stockholm & Start-Ups

If Soares Chen had to eat from one of the NUS stalls for the rest of his life, it would be the Western Food stall at the The Terrace. He grew up in Penang, Malaysia, and misses his favourite Penang street food while he’s here. He enjoys spending his free nights playing Team Fortress 2 with his mates. I keep hearing that we have the best, most-caring, and committed faculty members and Soares’ story is definitely a testament to that. 

What are you working on and why are you passionate about it?
I am passionate in working on things that can bring the most impact to the world. Right now I am working on an open source Node.js project called Quiver.js. It is a server-side component system that introduces a new paradigm for writing web applications. 
I also work part-time for a music startup in Stockholm, on a music app called ScoreCloud. It has music and audio recognition technology that can turn songs into music notations. I developed the back-end system of ScoreCloud using Node.js.

I’ve been told that you have a ‘unique study path’. Tell me about it.
I study Computer Engineering and it’s my sixth year (!) of undergraduate study at NUS. Despite my current achievements, I was never regarded as a bright student and I always had problems performing in school. I like to learn things on my own and do not follow the conventional ways of learning, such as doing assignments and scoring good grades.  
During my third year study in 2008, I got lost in what I wanted to do in the future. I had big dreams and didn’t want to work for the rest of my life in big corporations. That was the time I first learned about entrepreneurship and I wanted to try things differently to find my own way to success. With that, I took a two-year leave of absence in 2009, went back to my hometown Penang and ran a computer retail and servicing business with a friend. 
The small business soon failed due to dispute in partnership, but from there I learned many valuable lessons about startups and entrepreneurship. I realized that to become truly successful I need to expand my network and meet with other successful entrepreneurs around the world. After returning to school in 2011, I applied for NOC and was lucky enough to get accepted into a one-year internship programme in Stockholm. 
The year 2012 in Stockholm was a life-changing experience to me. At that time I was desperately seeking acknowledgement on my technical abilities, and I worked incredibly hard as an intern in a music startup. I also took the chance to travel to conferences around Europe and meet with many talented people. In the end I overachieved in my company and eventually stayed for another half-year, working full time. 
I returned to Singapore in mid-2013 to resume my study. With my overseas exposure, I now have very different worldview than others. Although I am still struggling to fit back into the current education system in NUS, I am confident of my abilities and will continue to work hard in my own way.

Describe your experience as an SoC student. 
I am particularly grateful to my mentor Prof Khoo Siau Cheng for listening to me and helping me out when I was facing difficulties. Back in my second year Prof Khoo was my mentor in Special Programme in Computing. He recognized that I was different than other students - the way I came up with many wild ideas. He also noticed my weakness in communicating with people and gave me suggestions in improving my soft skills. Without an SoC member who is so caring to me like Prof Khoo, I’d probably no longer be in SoC by now. 
I was a student with low self-esteem and had difficulties communicating with my peers due to differences in our ways of thinking. I wish that, at that time, I could have known of the other possibilities and opportunities available to me outside of NUS. I also wish that I could have learned better ways to communicate with people.

What’s the craziest thing that you did here?
There was a time I got so annoyed with commuting within NUS that I bought an electric bicycle. I didn’t buy a normal bicycle because I thought the steep terrain in NUS was not friendly to cyclists or pedestrians at all. It turned out that not even the electric bicycle had enough power to cross the hills. At least my proudest achievement with it was that at midnight I was able to cycle from PGP to Fong Seng for supper with less than 10 minutes of traveling.

If there is one thing you would change about SoC, what would it be?
I hope that the SoC can be more adapted to the latest technology trends and expose students more to the tech startup scenes. I occasionally join NUS Hackers and can see that students’ involvement with the tech scene is gradually increasing. However, overall, a lot of students are still very detached from the tech scene happening outside of school. 
The NOC programme has been trying very hard to attract more SoC students to join the developer team in tech startups. However, the participation rate is very low and there has been almost no students with technical skills joining NOC Stockholm after my batch. 
Singapore has a very vibrant and growing startup ecosystem now. But the major complaint I heard from startups is the lack of technical talent available in Singapore. I think NUS and SoC plays an important role for Singapore to build a successful startup ecosystem. It is a difficult problem, but radical changes are needed to make sure that graduating students have the right skills that these startups looking for.

What advice would you give a prospective SoC undergraduate student?
Make full use of the free resources on the Internet to learn technical skills on your own. Do not expect the school to teach you much beyond basic programming skills. Instead, make full use of your privilege as SoC student to learn soft skills like leadership and entrepreneurship. Singapore has a very vibrant tech startup community. Go outside of the school to talk to these people and you’ll be surprised at how much help you’d get with anything.

Quick-fire: Most annoying word?

Worst public transport experience?
The NUS shuttle bus service has never been improved. It takes the same amount of time to take 10 stops of MRT to Buona Vista as the time to go from Buona Vista to SoC. I blame it on the lack of direct shuttle buses from Kent Ridge MRT to SoC via PGP. Quick tip – I find it faster to come to SoC by stopping at Haw Par Villa Station and taking the public bus to Heng Mui Keng Terrace. There is also a shortcut available at the basement of Mochtar Riady building where you can take the lift up to 4th floor and cross the overhead bridge to SoC with much less stair-climbing. 

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Email

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Dancing Tuan

Tuan Q. Phan and his wife have a friendly, Facebook-ing, Scottish fold cat. During the little free time that he has as a professor, he enjoys non-fiction (“because reality is so much crazier than what we can imagine”), dances, plays with his 3-D printer, treks, builds circuits and reads the business news – which may explain his penchant for responding to students’ emails at all ungodly hours. Despite having published his first academic paper in high school (on detecting Factor V Leiden using air cycling PCR with DNA), Tuan finds Singlish challenging!    

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Vietnam and moved to the Utah in the US at 5 years old. My aunt was a “boat person” at a young age that fortunately made it. A family in Utah eventually adopted her and helped her to sponsor her sisters, my grandmother, my parents, and I. Having never experienced the cold, we arrived in Utah in one of the worst winters with only $5 for all of us. 
Although my father had a university degree and taught, he had to go back to school and worked as a fulltime laborer to put food on the table. Later, my mother also went on to get her master’s degree.  By the time they finished, it was time for me to go to college. So, I guess I was always in the university environment. 
After I did my undergrad at MIT, I had an international startup providing computer graphics solutions for mobile devices. Through this experience, I realized I could apply engineering and science to business, and found a fascination for modeling people and companies as complex systems. Thus, I decided to go back to school to do a PhD in marketing at Harvard.

Describe your research and its significance.
My research focuses on social networks and social media, both online and offline. I build theory on how information spreads through word-of-mouth, as well as use Big Data and analytics to find supporting evidence. Social networks affect everything in our daily lives from diseases, adoption of products, our lifestyle, and our social circle. My research provides actionable items for how businesses can use social media to drive profit and how governments can leverage these platforms to help people. For example, my students and I find narcissist users tend to comment on social media, but not necessarily buy products on fanpages. I also find individuals use their social network in cope with natural disasters like hurricanes. In terms of online privacy, although all users say they want privacy, their actions show that they only want the perception of privacy. My research combines social sciences and computational methods such as creating tools for image sentiment analysis. 
Although we have some beliefs that things happen on human social networks, we can now scientifically find evidence and quantify it. This has huge economic, political, health, and societal effects. For example, many peer evaluation activities, such as judging Olympic sports like figure skating and ballroom dancing or reviewing your coworkers’ performance, are greatly affected by social ties. This can result in “reciprocity” or even corrupt behavior. Aside from the substantive research, doing computational social science will change the way we understand psychology and human behavior.

Describe your experience as an SoC faculty member.
Although I did my PhD at a business school, I feel quite a home at SoC where students and faculty are not afraid to use computers as a tool. It’s been a fulfilling experience combining the “left brain” and “right brain.”
The SoC community has really become a second “family.” Students, faculty and staff have been warm, welcoming, and nurturing everyone to reach their full potential. My FYP and PhD students have been fantastic! I like the opportunity to work closely with them and see them develop. I learn so much from my students as well! 
Although the community has a lot of creativity, energy, and talent, sometimes the policies and bureaucracy can be a barrier to others from trying something different. I would encourage students to take more risks, do the best at something they find exciting and go as far as they can it!
What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I was considered a “slow” student up to fourth grade - in a special program for those who need extra help. By end of fifth grade, I was already in the advance program for gifted students.

At the Blackpool Dance Festival

Tell me about your competitive ballroom dancing.
I got into ballroom because of girls, of course! My mother used to watch it on TV. I didn’t really get into it until a female friend brought me dancing with her. I quickly realized that a 1:10 male-female ratio was in my favor, as compared to other “jock” sports where there are too many sweaty guys trying to touch each other. However, quickly I became obsessed about perfection and the theory of dance. Dancing is quite holistic – it’s technical, artistic, athletic and social. My friend who was captain of the Yale team noticed that the majority of their members came from the science and engineering faculties – his conclusion was that these nerds needed instructions to touch and interact with the opposite gender.  He is now a neurosurgeon. 
Actually, I chose MIT because it had both a good dance team and robots! Dancing, like any artistic discipline, requires technical proficiency before it becomes an art. One of the dance coaches was also a PhD student in computer science at MIT, and an international finalist! Lessons consisted of vectors, angular velocity, momentum, radians, and fluid dynamics. Another coach was a doctor that talked about the xiphoid process, iliotibial band, and fascia. 
Dancing was also not easy. My father always wanted me to focus on my studies and work, like all traditional Asian parents. Research has shown, however, that exercise, and dancing in particular, is good for the brain. With more things to do (work, school, dancing) and deadlines, you also learn to work efficiently and effectively. It’s a constraint optimization problem, which is nice since you also avoid over-choice and procrastination. For example, since I was almost triple majoring, I had business classes starting at 7am, EECS classes in the afternoon, then exams 6-9pm, dance practice 9pm-12am, then start-up work 12-4am, and rinse and repeat. 
We primarily competed in the “international standard” styles which included 5 dances – waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep. For these, practices would be 4 hours a day, 6 or 7 times a week. We worked with our coaches 4 times a week. One of our coaches was in New York City, about a 4.5 hour commute each way from Boston. We would see him every week. In addition, we trained with weights 2-3 times a week, and worked with a personal trainer every week. My wife and I used to compete in 10 dances, but had to drop the Latin dances so I could graduate. 
Of course, some of the best moments were when we did well, such as placing 10th in North America at Ohio Star Ball. Besides that, our first trip to Blackpool Dance Festival, the Grand Slam of ballroom dancing, was inspirational. We danced on the same floor as with the best dancers in the world, and were judged by dance legends! Fortunately, we also did quite well and got in the top 96 round out of hundreds of competitors in the open amateur and rising star categories. We got to dance to the famous live band in a palace in the highlight evening event after almost a week of competing. 
Probably the best moment of all, however, is finding my wife and dance partner.  If you can work together through a dance partnership, you know the marriage will be easy. 
I met some of the most amazing and smartest people through dancing – many with little or no formal education, and made many personal and professional connections through dancing. I have great respect for dancers who have such dedication and passion, and who physically push their bodies every day. It is a tough life, even though many have other, better and more comfortable options.  
Although we are semi-retired, we have been helping to form the NUS Ballroom Team. As the academic advisors, we are happy to volunteer our time and share our knowledge amongst friends and dancers alike. With the team, we practice twice a week, and I teach 1-2 times. Within the first semester, new team members competed at the Singapore Open Dance Championships in November. My wife and I love to help nurture the next generation of dancers in Singapore. 
With the team, our friends and the help of the general Singapore dance community, we organized the inaugural NUS Open Ballroom Championship in January 2014. This was a big accomplishment since no other tertiary institution has organized a ballroom competition in Singapore, or even in Southeast Asia – and this, for a team not more than 1 year old. It welcomed over 60 competitors from Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia, and judges from the UK, Australia, USA and Singapore. It also offered a free performance for NUS students by the Asia-Pacific Latin champions. Keep an eye out for our event next year!

Quick-Fire! Most interesting development in technology this year?
3-D printers, Bitcoin, Omate smartwatch

Guilty pleasures?
Dancing? Vietnamese food (Pho, Banh Xeo, etc...) and Vietnamese drip coffee!

 Three ultimate dinner party guests?
Picasso and my grandfathers who have lived through so much.

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Email