Milton Tan Memorial Fund Scholar
School of Design and Environment
NUS alumnus and valedictorian of his class, Benjamin Xue, discovered his passion for creating practical solutions with a creative mind as an undergraduate. Inspired by his mentors, he created “Ear Aesthetic”, a system to help with the surgery of a condition called microtia. Despite its challenges and cross-disciplinary nature, Benjamin was able to find a solution to improve a medical treatment.
After I attended the NUS openhouse, I was inspired by the efforts and commitment put into the students by the industrial design lecturers.Based on my research, I learnt that the training at NUS will allow me to have an open mind, think critically and challenge my potential. I felt that no other university can provide me this skill set.
Coming from Singapore Polytechnic, I am glad that the hard work that I have put in earned me an entry into a university. I could have gone to a Junior College but chose to go to a polytechnic because I wanted a more hands-on training. The diploma has taught me to think on my feet and, at the same time, allowed me to pursue my dream.
Nearing the end of Year 4, I was awarded the Milton Tan Memorial Fund Scholarship. The late Milton Tan had wanted students to get overseas exposure. So through this scholarship, I went to Japan and did an internship at Nendo, which is an award winning design firm with works all around the world.
Even though the Japanese are advanced in their skill sets, they have a very strong and rich design culture that resonates closely with their traditions and roots. They are highly detailed and nothing is ignored. Those skill sets marvelled me.
This was my final year project. The first half of the project was on problem finding. To understand about the current problem, I went to National University Hospital (NUH) and spoke to some surgeons. They agreed to let me in the operating theatre to observe over ten surguries. One of them was Department of Otolaryngology (ENT) Surgeon Professor Lynne Lim and she was the former Vice-Dean of YLLSoM. She agreed to be my collaborator and brought up the topic on microtia. It is a condition where children are born with malformed external ear and ear canal, and they are born with a flat surface instead. Beside hearing loss. the problem was aesthetical. The surgeons can harvest the patient’s own rib cartilage for reconstructing the new external ear, but the aesthetics needed more improvement in terms of precision in harvesting the cartilage and carving the ear.
To better improve this system, my thesis was dedicated to help the surgeon to remove the unpredictability of the amount of cartilage harvested and improve the 3D aesthetic of the cartilage framework that needs to be inserted in the side of the face to form the ear.
One of the reasons why I chose to do this was because huge companies do not want to tackle this problem. It is a condition that affects 1 out of 8000 new borns. It is a relatively rare disease which receives little attention and thus under supported. Since it is an academic project, I decided to tackle this for my final year project.
I created a system to combat this issue. Usually the patient has to use his or her own cartilage and this is done on the spot – the surgeon will harvest the cartilage and carve the external ear in the same surgery. The system will help the surgeon in the operating theatre to carve the external ear into the right shape.
Professor Lyne was helpful and she challenged my thinking. She said that it used to be surgeons doing the surgery on a patient on general anaesthesia. There is no patient and surgeon interaction. My solution involves the patient’s interaction where the patient is required to communicate with the surgeon so that the surgeon could get the right position of the new ear. The procedure is very complex and it is a good way for the patients to be part of the system.
During the thesis, we tried this system on one patient. So there was one foreign patient who came to NUH to do this surgery and my system was used by Professor Lyne. Not many surgeons in here can perform this type of surgery. Only a selected few can do this and one of them was Professor Lyne. I had the privilege of watching the surgery first hand, just next to the surgeon. (I am not sure if it is appropriate to give the real facts… But I’m fine with behind the glass too.)
I have always wanted to start a design company of my own and come up with creative solutions to the problems clients face. My friends, whom I met through a module on entrepreurship, were passionate about this cause. We came together and founded a company called Monocoque Service Design. In our short history, we have worked with various clients from both the public sector and private companies. It is hard work running a company but our passion for design keeps us going.
In poly, the education is very different. It is more focused on technical skills. NUS however trains you on thinking and evaluating a problem. It makes you think more in-depth. Also through cross-faculty modules, I get to meet people and learn about new concepts that I won’t learn in my own discipline. It is something that is transferable now that I have my own company. Because in real-life, there will be problems or concepts that you won’t be familiar with. But the training in NUS moulds you to think out of the box and be open to challenges.
Time! Now life is more fast-paced, meeting clients and finding projects. As a student, Industrial Design has a lot of facilities and we get a lot of supporting pillars from the administration office and our professors. Even though the supporting pillars are no longer there, it gets you to think on your feet more and try things out and improve constantly.
Have an open mind and do not be afraid to try new things. For instance, I have worked with other faculties and I learnt a lot from them. I urge for for the new students to be open and welcome new opportunities and challenges. That’s the key take away for me from my time as an NUS student.
Liow Wei Ting
Liow Wei Ting, a recent graduate and currently a researcher in the Division of Industrial Design at the NUS School of Design and Environment, talks about how an idea for her final year thesis project turned into Fil'O, a product to alert deaf parents to the fact that their children are crying. Wei Ting, the only Singaporean finalist for the James Dyson Award in 2012, is developing Fil'O at the NUS Design Incubation Centre and in partnership with the Singapore Association for the Deaf.
"I came into the industrial design programme not knowing what is design, but I have never regretted my path for a day. In the programme, I learnt skills and thinking processes that built a solid foundation for the work that I am pursuing today."
Selene Chew graduated in 2011, designing BlindSpot, an award-winning solution to help people with visual impairment navigate through the urban environment whilst keeping in touch with friends.
Selene is now studying for her master’s degree at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA.