Inside Singapore’s most dangerous science labs

By Shirley Tay

A special feature with Fadzilah Salim, a scientist at HTX's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear & Explosives Centre of Expertise.

Singapore’s Home Team Science and Technology Agency (HTX) has a network of laboratories dedicated to shutting down weapons of mass destruction.

Scientists at the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear & Explosives (CBRNE) Centre of Expertise study cutting-edge tech to tackle a wide range of public safety threats. Early last year, the team developed a rapid test kit to screen travellers entering Singapore.

Fadzilah Salim was part of the team that helped secure Singapore’s borders against Covid-19. She shares her journey, her work with radioactive particles, and how scientists can make lab work more sustainable.

Tell us more about your role. How do you use tech to improve citizen’s lives?

I started my career at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in October 2016 after I graduated from Nanyang Technological University. My first job was a Laboratory Analyst under the Office of Chief Science and Technology and when HTX was set up, I moved to the Chemicals, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNE) Centre of Expertise as a CBRNE Scientist.

At CBRNE, our team conducts daily bio-surveillance, which is a systematic process that monitors the environment, specifically bio-terrorism agents and human influenza. These environmental samples are collected by means of a novel gelatin filter-based method at the land checkpoints and at the ports along our coastline. This method involves particle capture by gelatin filters, filter dissolution for nucleic acid extraction and subsequent detection by PCR analysis. The PCR analysis is an integrated multiplex PCR and microarray assay using lab-on-chip technology.

Since February 2020 our priorities shifted to secure Singapore’s borders against Covid-19. When the genome sequence was first published, our team immediately launched into a collaboration with Veredus Laboratories to co-design a lab-on-chip test kit. With this "home brewed" kit, we were able to conduct rapid diagnostic testing and in March 2020, we were called in to support the analysis of specimen of travellers entering Singapore for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. We went on to assist the Testing Operations Centre (TOC) with the testing of specimens of people on Stay Home Notice (SHN) and now, we are conducting routine testing of Home Team Department officers.

What sparked your interest in science/engineering?

Fadzilah Salim, CBRNE Scientist, HTX
As a child, I had an insatiable need to ask why and it probably bordered on annoying. My parents did not believe that my brothers and I should spend our school holidays watching television and as such they would remove the wire which connected the television to the antenna. Being kids who were deprived of screen time, we tried all sorts of ways to overcome this obstacle.

First, we tried to connect the port of the television to the metal window grill with a metal hanger. Looking back, I realised how dangerous it was but it allowed us to enjoy our cartoons despite the fuzzy picture. Still we weren’t satisfied and eventually found the perfect solution by sticking a lead pencil into the port. Isn’t it amazing how something as simple as a pencil lead can conduct electricity, all thanks to graphite. Science is a mystery yet to be solved, a discovery yet to be made and the desire for intellectual challenge coupled with laboratory work at school spurred my interest in a science career.

What has been the highlight of your career?

When we rallied together as CBRNE to conduct Covid-19 testing operations. The camaraderie I experienced fostered a greater meaning and purpose as a CBRNE scientist.

When we started to support the testing operations in March 2020, our team went from our regular hours to a 12-hour shift schedule to deal with the testing load. There were times before the Circuit Breaker when we worked 12 hours without breaks to deal with the surge in the number of Singaporeans and travellers entering Singapore before the border closure. To ensure safety of our team, our laboratory was re-designed with one-way paths for staff to walk through the laboratory space, procedures were tightened for the cleaning and sanitizing of equipment and areas, staff entering the laboratory must be fully equipped with the necessary personal protective equipment. Everyone was on high alert and treated each specimen as potentially positive. Despite the weariness and chaos, we felt a sense of responsibility. We kept our spirits alive knowing that we were helping the nation keep the virus at bay. It is a privilege to be able to serve in this pandemic and we wear our battle scars with pride.

What are the three areas of science/engineering you’re most interested in?

The identification and predicting the formulation of potential homemade explosives (HME) that poses a threat to Singapore’s security. The manufacture of HMEs are made easy by readily available raw materials and recipes as they appear on hard-core terrorist forums and knowledge bases. As CBRNE scientists, we need to keep ahead of emerging threats and be agile and versatile in the way we work.

My colleagues and I are in the midst of a project that involves ICP-MS analysis of radionuclide in relation to "real world" samples such as soil. Soil sampling and analysis provides a direct means of determining the concentration and distribution of radionuclides in the vicinity of nuclear facilities. Although Singapore does not have a nuclear power plant and will unlikely build one in the future, soil is a reservoir of long-lived radionuclides, and serves as an intermediary pathway to an important process, plant uptake. A challenge we foresee is the poor sensitivity of ICP-MS in low-level analysis of radionuclide elements adjacent in mass to elements of much higher natural abundance.

As a scientist who works in an analytical laboratory, Green Chemistry is an area of much importance to me. Green Chemistry is where innovative scientific solutions solve environmental issues posed in the laboratory. We carry out our experiments and processes without thinking about the unintended consequences on the environment and human health. For example, organic solvents make up a large percentage of chemical waste generated. One sustainable practice would be to replace conventional HPLC mobile phase techniques which uses acetonitrile and/or methanol with environment friendly alternatives such as ethanol or isopropanol.

What/who inspires you most?

Professor Jackie Ying.

Prof Ying helms the Nanobio Lab at A*STAR which works at the intersection of chemistry, materials science, engineering, and medicine to develop new technologies to tackle major global challenges. She is a recipient of numerous prestigious accolades, the owner of multiple primary patents and patent applications. At 35, she became MIT’s youngest full professor. Prof Ying could have continued her outstanding career at MIT but she returned to Singapore to set up the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in 2003. She is said to want the best of her subordinates and takes the time to develop potential minds. This was seen in her launching the “Adopt-a-Student” programme back in 2013 under IBN. She was also a mentor under Mendaki’s Project Protégé, mentoring and inspiring Muslim youths keen on pursuing science and technology. Prof Ying inspires me and many others to become an innovator and a scientist who paves their own way to success.

What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in science?

My advice for would be women scientists is to learn broadly. Settling on a trendy niche is tempting but our interests are generally short lived. Exposing oneself to a multitude of fundamental principles offers a platform for a career with diverse interests. To push past their fear of the unknown and to deny stereotypes prevalent in STEM fields that limits what they think themselves capable of.

What are you excited about this year?

I am most excited to hear Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announce the reopening of our borders. A labyrinth of travel restrictions and border closures has unfortunately put my goals "on hold".

Main image: Fadzilah in the biological lab located at the CBRNE Protective, Analytical & Assessment Facility (PAAF)
Images by HTX