THIS September, Melwin Cheng Choon Lei will board his much-anticipated flight to the United States, where he will begin his four-year studies as a biology student at Stanford University.
While it is still four months away, the 20-year-old Khazanah Global Scholarship recipient, who was notified of his acceptance into the prestigious university in December last year, can’t wait to make the most of his experience there.
“I hope to dive deeper into the world of research and work on practical human-centric innovations at Stanford, not just papers that sit on the Internet without any translation into helping the real world,” he told StarEdu.
Cheng, who is looking at majoring in human biology, biomedical computation or bioengineering, while doing a minor in political science or sociology, also looks forward to getting to know more people, building his connections and exploring what the US has to offer.
His enthusiasm is not hard to understand as over the years, the Penang lad has developed an unwavering passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
His interest in biology or various scientific phenomena, however, did not come naturally as he was, by his own admission, “extremely afraid of plants and insects” in his early years.
What really got him hooked was a steady stream of science fiction movies and cartoons.
Watching Iron Man, Star Trek, Ben 10 and Digimon, he said, sparked his imagination of the future and how he could make these fantasies a reality.
Thus, he began examining some of the science questions he had in mind at the age of 10, by borrowing astronomy books from his school library, watching documentaries on the Discovery Science channel and “begging” his family to take him to book fairs to “hoard cheap science-related books”.
As a primary schoolboy, he also dipped his toes into a few projects, two of which saw him constructing a straw bridge that broke the state record for withstanding almost five kilogrammes of weight, as well as building a solar cooker.
Then, as a Chung Ling High School student, he went on to take part in a research workshop, where he learnt about “transforming ideas into research from local professors”. That became the catalyst for him to take his passion further.
“Having won second place in a competition with my idea of controlling insects through implants, I was invited to pitch an idea and submit a research plan for selection into the school’s science research programme.
“I was settling for an idea of a sweat extraction device when the contraction of dengue by a close family member led me to scrap the idea as I became determined to solve the dengue problem for the betterment of society,” he recalled.
After an extensive reading of journals such as Nature and The Lancet about mosquito-borne diseases, Cheng proposed the idea of killing mosquito larvae with cinnamon while collaborating with his friend Tham Yong Shiang to implement the plan.
Their efforts earned them the gold award at the National Science and Engineering Innovation Challenge (Pistek) in Kuala Lumpur in 2018, and subsequently led to them being named champion in the Chemistry category of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2019 in the United States.
Cheng revisited the topic of mosquito-borne illnesses with his secondary school friends recently.
“We took part in the STEM4ALL Challenge, a national innovation competition jointly organised by Taylor’s University and the United Kingdom’s University of Dundee, which selected 10 finalist teams to pitch innovative healthcare solutions to a panel of professors and venture capital employees.
“This time, we focused on developing a smart integrated mosquito management system with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0) concepts and won second place for our efforts in January,” he said.
To enhance his knowledge, Cheng has taken it upon himself to undertake edX courses in biochemistry, neuroscience and malaria, and even interned at the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia to discover marine biology.
“One challenge I had faced in my STEM pursuit was that my passion had been ridiculed by some of my classmates due to the perception that pursuing a science career in Malaysia is not lucrative.
“To overcome this, I stayed true to my dreams and let my hard work do the talking for me,” he said.
Cognisant of the declining uptake of STEM in schools, Cheng, who is set to complete his A-Levels at Kolej Yayasan UEM (KYUEM) next month, advised students to look beyond the common misconceptions and focus on the potential of STEM as a career.
“With the rapid development of artificial intelligence, many conventional jobs once thought to be financially stable could become redundant as the machines take over those roles.
“However, a career that actively expands the human boundaries of knowledge will never be easily replaced.
“If more youth kick-start their careers in STEM, we could transform Malaysia into an innovation-centric nation concentrating on research of vaccines, disease management, poverty, etc,” he said.
June, 21, a Malaysian student in the United Kingdom, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. To join Star-NiE’s online youth community, go to facebook.com/niebrats.
Now that you have read the article, test your understanding by carrying out the following English language activities.
1 Does the study of STEM appeal to you? Why or why not? What can you learn from the way Cheng nurtured his passion for STEM subjects? Have a discussion with your activity partner.
2 How many STEM-related careers do you know? List as many as you can in one minute. Then, compare your list with that of your partner’s. The winner is the one with the longest list of careers named correctly. Have fun!
The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) programme promotes the use of English language in primary and secondary schools nationwide. For Star-NiE enquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.