Portrait of a poisoner

Portrait of a poisoner
Singaporean A*Star scholar Ouyang Xiangyu seen in a video screengrab taken near the Nusse Laboratory at the Stanford University’s School of Medicine on the day and time when experiments were allegedly sabotaged.

A*Star scholar Ouyang Xiangyu, accused of poisoning her classmates, pleaded not guilty due to insanity in a Californian court yesterday. We talk to a former schoolmate

She is quiet, but can be quite animated if you talk to her first. She is a very bright person, one of the brightest bulbs in school.

- A former schoolmate of Ouyang, who wanted to be known only as Julia

ngjunsen@sph.com.sg

She could not believe her eyes when she read the news about her former junior college schoolmate Ouyang Xiangyu. Was this the same girl who was lively in conversations, who spoke of her dreams of being a researcher and who always excelled in exams?

It did not fit the profile of a doctorate student accused of poisoning herself and her Stanford University laboratory mates late last year.

The A*Star (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) scholar admitted to putting a highly toxic chemical in her drinking water and her classmates' water bottles.

Ouyang, 27, told the police she was psychologically unstable, depressed, stressed and very dizzy.

She pleaded not guilty due to insanity to four charges in a Californian court yesterday.

But her schoolmate, who wanted to be known only as Julia, says her friend "does not seem like the sort who could hurt a fly".

Julia knew Ouyang because they attended Temasek Junior College (TJC) together from 2007 to 2008, though she adds that they are not close.

She believes that Ouyang, who is originally from China, might not have many friends as she was older than the others in her level by about two years.

INTELLIGENT

But almost everyone regarded her highly because she was intelligent and studious.

"From my conversations with her, I don't think anyone is close to her and she (keeps) a very low profile. I remember her as an inquisitive student and not afraid to ask others about school work," says Julia.

"She is quiet, but can be quite animated if you talk to her first. She is a very bright person, one of the brightest bulbs in school."

She remembers one conversation where Ouyang talked about her ambition to be a scientist.

Julia says Ouyang received plenty of accolades from friends and the school when she was awarded the prestigious National Science Scholarship from A*Star in 2009.

Her name is still on a list of college achievements on the TJC website.

But she became more reclusive after she departed for Imperial College London to study biochemistry that year.

One Singaporean undergraduate student says she had bumped into Ouyang a couple of times because they stayed in the same hall, but she always remained cooped up indoors.

The New Paper on Sunday also approached several A*Star scholars who belonged in the same year of study as Ouyang, but all turned down requests for interviews.

We approached about 10 other Singaporeans studying in Imperial, but all of them did not know about her, even though the Singaporean community there is "closely knit", said one scholar, who wanted to be known only as Sam.

A large student organisation - the Imperial College Singapore Society - looks after the welfare of Singaporean students at Imperial, but Ouyang was not likely to have taken part in any of its activities, Sam adds.

Since news broke of her arrest, Sam and several fellow schoolmates have been trying to find out who she is and why she was not on the society's radar, but failed to gather any clues.

Sam says: "She must have kept to herself. If she had been active, the society would be aware of her and can help in any problems she might be facing."

A*Star sets a benchmark for its scholars to score a grade point average of 3.8 out of 4 in order to secure graduate positions at top overseas laboratories.

Ouyang's stellar academic performance placed her on A*Star's Chairman's Honour List in 2011.

She received another scholarship for her PhD at Stanford University and joined its medical school's cancer biology programme in 2013.

She was described in court documents as an awkward and quiet girl who was not confident with her work while there.

PRESSURE

Fellow researchers told the police that she put a lot of pressure on herself and was stressed.

She would "latch" onto a colleague and also ask about boyfriends, as she never had one.

Her parents, who are also in the research field, previously told reporters that they did not know she was sick.

Ouyang was already a prime suspect when the school found out about the sabotage.

She was arrested last year and is out on bail.

She has been expelled from Stanford University.

Julia says: "I cannot believe how someone so brilliant can end up like that. It's such a pity."\

A*Star says...

Overseas A*Star scholars are encouraged to form a network, maintain close ties and look out for each other, says the agency's spokesman.

Responding to The New Paper on Sunday's queries, A*Star says it maintains close contact with its overseas scholars and monitors their overall well-being through e-mails and in person.

"We have a counsellor whom scholars can seek advice from on personal and academic matters. Upon commencing their studies, each PhD scholar is assigned a scientist mentor who monitors his or her progress and development," the spokesman says.

"Every scholar is also assigned a scholarship officer who keeps in touch with them regularly."

A*Star's graduate academy also conducts an induction programme before the scholars leave on their academic stints, including workshops on coping strategies and managing change.

The agency encourages its scholars to make use of the host university's "support structures", including student unions, counselling services, and student services centres which offer them advice and support on a range of issues.

As scholars are picked for their excellent academic track records, they are expected to perform well in their studies, says the spokesman.

For undergraduates, an academic benchmark of 3.8 grade point average in US universities and first class honours in UK universities is necessary for admission into top graduate programmes. Most scholars exceed this benchmark.

In Miss Ouyang's case, A*Star will decide on the appropriate action to be taken after the court proceedings have concluded, the spokesman says.

Other errant scholarship holders

JONATHAN WONG

The former Ministry of Education scholarship holder had his scholarship revoked after he was caught with child-pornography videos in Britain in 2010. He had studied at the University of York under a Teaching Scholarship (Overseas) and was given a suspended six- month sentence by the British authorities.

ALVIN TAN

The former ASEAN scholar made the news when he posted photos and videos on his online blog of his girlfriend and himself having sex in 2012. The Malaysian and National University of Singapore law student was eventually stripped of his scholarship.

ENG KAI ER

An A*Star research scientist, she was fined $2,000 for walking naked through Holland Village with a Swedish exchange student in 2009. She created headlines once again when she protested against her six-year scholarship bond with A*Star.

JONATHAN PEH SONG WEE

The Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) research engineer was given a 12-month mandatory treatment order for stealing 228 bras. He was found guilty of criminal trespass, theft and fraudulent possession.

Scholar: Stories of breaking are common

Competition, homesickness and high expectations are the common "killers" of overseas scholarship holders, one scholarship holder tells The New Paper on Sunday (TNPS).

He claims that stories of Singaporean scholarship holders "breaking" are all too familiar to him.

He wants to be known only as Sam as he does not want trouble with his scholarship organisation. Sam also gives talks to students keen on taking up a scholarship with his organisation.

Says Sam: "Every scholarship imposes performance standards on the (holder). One must be able to feel at ease with others who might have more scholastic achievements than oneself and live with the fact that there are always better and brighter students.

"There were and will be many students who are under the same level of stress as Ouyang. However, everyone has a different way of venting it out."

Many end up going through severe bouts of depression, while others cut off all ties with the outside world and disappear, he says.

PARENTS HAVE NO CLUE

Throughout this time, parents usually have no clue what is going on in their children's lives.

"Not wanting their parents to worry about them, many of my friends kept to themselves throughout their time overseas. There is also the expectation that scholars always do well in the end, so we never broach the topic of coping with stress even among friends."

Sam said he coped by relying on his support system of friends and family back at home, pouring his issues out to them.

Consultant psychiatrist Adrian Wang tells TNPS that being academically smart does not mean being able to cope with overseas education.

"There's a whole gamut of factors, including the need to live independently, dealing with culture shocks and the other students," says Dr Wang.

He deems these issues as "adjustment-related problems", which could severely affect one's moods, function and emotions.

Scholarship holders are especially vulnerable to these issues because they find themselves overseas and living alone at an age when psychiatric issues usually become apparent.

At his private practice, Dr Wang sees scholarship holders who want a medical reason to cancel their scholarship bonds. His advice to overseas scholarship holders: Cut yourself some slack and find friends or fellow Singaporeans there to talk to.


This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
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