An interview with the founder of The Great Lab, Viola Ho

Viola Ho, one of the founders of The Great Lab (TGL) talks to CREST about the origins of this programme, its progress thus far, and the expectations for this programme going forward.

Q: Tell us about your background, what you’re currently doing and your plans for the future.

A: I studied for an integrated masters leading to a Masters degree in Physics qualification at the University of Oxford, UK. It is a programme where I could have graduated after three years with a Bachelor’s degree, but meeting the requirement set by the university allowed me to study for a fourth year which allowed me to get a Master’s degree. I specialized in Condensed Matter Physics for my masters. It is the study of matter in phases which are most notably, solids and liquids. They exhibit behaviours that are interesting when many small individual particles interact with each other.

I am currently working temporarily as a volunteer research assistant at Universiti Malaya on materials related to SiC devices (devices based on silicon carbide instead of silicon, which is the current dominant choice of material for the semiconductor industry) while pushing matters related to TGL. I will be soon be pursuing a PhD at Technische Universitat Munchen in Germany, where I will study magnetic properties of correlated electrons in nanostructures. I will basically be studying electrons that are linked to each other in nanometer sizes (of order 10^-9 m).

Q: How did TGL come about?

A: It was October 2013 when a group of passionate Malaysian science and engineering students gathered in London to meet Dr Nor Azmi from CREST. We had a lively discussion on how to bridge the gap between returning students and the needs of the local industry. The topic of Innovate Malaysia came up and there were conversations about whether it could be adapted for Malaysian students abroad.

Innovate Malaysia is an annual engineering competition organized by Dreamcatcher, which is also based in Penang. Students from universities solve real life challenges with their own ideas, but the solutions must be based on a specific multipurpose, programmable chip. The students work on the proof-of-concept as their final year project in their universities rather than in company labs, with remote coaching from company representatives. What we wanted to do was something similar but yet significantly different, which is why we did not want to call it Innovate UK. Hence, TGL was born.

Being the one with most research experience in the group I was tasked with content and strategy. My job was to build a sustainable and attractive model for the TGL challenge. I went around with two colleagues to pitch the idea to companies in Penang – one of them, Shaun, was studying law and the other, Ray Aun, was then a freshman in engineering. I was helped in many ways by a Chemistry freshman, Leon. Other committee members were Tong Wei, Royd and En Lin. Together, we managed to set up a network covering universities from Bristol, Bath, Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Warwick and even in France.

I should say that TGL is only possible because of CREST, which assisted us in this student-for-student platform at every stage, providing guidance on all aspects.

Q: What is TGL exactly?

A: TGL is a platform aiming to bridge the gap between the E&E industry and academia. A university education provides the fundamental knowledge of a subject but there is a need for internship to gain industry exposure and experience.

Some of the people we spoke to thought of TGL as just another placement/internship programme. We wanted it to be more than just a placement program. We do not want to experience just tackling problems with ready-to-use, off-the-shelf solutions. We want to try our hands at real things out there with our ideas. We want to see if our ideas can be sold to industry. Such a concept had not been tried before. Nothing like it existed.

TGL’s structure is based on those aims. Our partner companies provide real industrial challenges to be tackled by the students. Bright ideas will be pitched directly to the technical committees of the companies concerned, and if they are sold on it, the students will have all the resources they need to see fruition. They may be given a job offer or even attain funding for technopreneurship.

Q: How has the progress been so far?

A: TGL in its second year has had some success but we’ve faced some challenges too. We have more than 700 likes on Facebook and a solid support network ready to reach all Malaysian engineering and science students. So, there is a lot of potential for TGL.

However, we lack manpower. It is difficult to find student committee members capable of juggling their studies and TGL work. But what’s even more challenging is the seeming lack of enthusiasm by many brilliant students. Like most of us, they are interested in getting a placement in a good company but the problem is that many aren’t willing to go the extra mile to fight for it. Far from taking on such challenges, some have even decided to give up on the tech sector and enter banking or consultancy.

Q: What do you hope to achieve next for TGL, going forward.

A: Our initial goals remain the same – to get students ready for the Malaysian industry. We hope to receive more applications this year now that we have opened it to local universities. I should say though that our main target remains students studying abroad. We have to prevent brain drain from happening. But brain drain is not just about students choosing to work in other countries but also those staying in the country but moving into other, non-technical professions. We face the danger of losing all our brightest minds to finance and banking. If this happens we will always be behind the times. So here I am, trying to create a ripple in a stagnant lake. Who knows, one day my little ripple may turn into a wave.