Fuelled by curiosity

Fuelled by curiosity
Dr Guo Huili with her parents Quek Geok Hua and Neo Poh Gek, husband Vincent Tan and son Oliver

Her curiosity which led her to wonder as a child why the sky is blue never left A*Star scientist Guo Huili, 31.

"When I was young, I used to watch this cartoon series in Chinese, which translates as 100,000 Whys. It gave me the answers to questions such as why clouds exist," says Dr Guo, a junior investigator at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), who has won an award for her research in cellular translation.

"I also liked reading books and encyclopaedias on science. I was curious. I felt that science could answer a lot of different questions about anything."

A lifelong scientific curiosity has now taken her "beyond textbooks" into original research. Last December, she was one of two women scientists awarded fellowships under beauty brand L'Oreal Singapore's For Women In Science National Fellowship programme. She received a grant of $30,000 to use as she wished.

Her father is retired technical officer Quek Geok Hua, 64, and her mother is Neo Poh Gek, 62, a housewife.

The elder of two children, Dr Guo is married to Mr Vincent Tan, a 33-year-old assistant professor at the department of electrical and computer engineering in the National University of Singapore. The couple, who met at the University of Cambridge, have a 16- month-old son, Oliver.

What is your parenting style like?

Madam Neo: She's always been an intelligent girl who learns things very fast. I let her draw, but she said she wanted to learn to play the piano when she was four or five years old. She eventually learnt it to Grade 8 level. She also learnt Chinese calligraphy and to play the guzheng. I encouraged her to be refined and elegant.

Dr Guo: I was also in the science club, the Chinese drama society and the harmonica band. I was generally interested in things on my own accord, although my mother wanted me to do Chinese calligraphy to learn patience. You have to put some thought into the writing. If you write casually, it will be ugly. Mum, dad and I each had a calligraphy brush and we practised at home.

Mr Quek: I told bedtime stories such as fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen and Journey To The West. I wanted to encourage my children to have wider knowledge and inculcate values in them.

We also took them to places such as museums, libraries, the zoo and the bird park, not just for fun but also to increase their knowledge.

Which parent was stricter when you were growing up?

Dr Guo: My father was not strict, my mother was. As I got older, it was more about my parents trusting me to do the right thing.

Madam Neo: I was very strict. I cut out weekly exercises in the Chinese newspapers for her to do when she was in primary school. I also planned timetables for meals and studying.

How did you discipline your children when they were younger?

Mr Quek: I would advise them on values such as respect and taking care of one's elders.

Caning is not very effective. We've seen parents who cane their children but never tell them how to improve their behaviour. The children become rebellious.

Madam Neo: I would advise them, but I would also smack her on the hand, so I felt the pain too. If I were to use the cane, I wouldn't have felt the pain but she would have.

I disciplined her very rarely, though. For example, if she didn't pay attention and got an easy maths question wrong.

I left my job doing accounts for a shipping firm when she was born, but I have the consolation that they were both good children. I am happy that she became a scientist.

What are your family values?

Mr Quek: Moral education, finding ways to help others.

Dr Guo: We prioritise the family. When I was studying in the United Kingdom and the United States for many years, every Saturday I called home to talk to them for more than an hour.

Which parent are you closer to?

Dr Guo: Probably my mum because we talk a lot. When I was away studying. she updated me about my brother and extended family.

We'd talk about what things were like when she was growing up, how she couldn't continue studying because she had to work to support her family.

Madam Neo: I had to stop after Secondary 4 and I cried for a week. I later took a typewriting course and learnt to do accounts. That's why I wanted her to study as much as she could.

Mr Quek: She's close to both of us.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Mr Quek: Nothing. She's achieved a lot in her studies and she's concerned about her parents, asking us about our health. She also advises her brother.

Dr Guo: I wouldn't change anything. When I was young, at some point, I wanted more freedom. But the discipline has helped me a lot in my work now that I'm older.

Madam Neo: There's nothing to change. My philosophy is that there's always room for improvement, but I'm very happy. To me, getting a PhD, like she has, is a big achievement.

venessal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on February 8, 2015.
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