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For the love of animals

Growing up, Dr Charmaine Chng Wenya was always fascinated by animals. She kept hamsters, goldfish and fighting fish as pets in her HDB four-room flat, and would play with the cats and dogs in her neighbourhood. Dr Chng, 29, says: “To this day, my favourite pastime is watching animal-related documentaries, especially those featuring broadcaster and naturalist David Atttenborough. “I like learning about the roles they play in ecosystems and the support they bring to humankind.” To pursue her interest, she applied for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) Undergraduate Scholarship in 2006. It was a natural step to take for Dr Chng, as it would give her the opportunity to pursue a degree in veterinary science. “My family and close friends were excited about me embarking on this fairly unconventional route, and the opportunities that the scholarship could offer,” she says. Dr Chng, who graduated with a Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery from University of Edinburgh in 2012, says the course covered various animal species, including domesticated animals such as dogs, cats and horses, as well as farm animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs.

Hands-on experience

The passionate student spent most of her vacations on a myriad of farms across the United Kingdom as part of the requirements of her five-year undergraduate degree programme. She got to try her hand at a range of day-to-day farming duties — milking cows in the wee hours and camping out in the fields during the night to assist ewes with lambing. She also met people from various farming backgrounds and experiences, who taught her a lot about animal husbandry and management systems. In her second year of studies, Dr Chng spent three weeks in Essex on a farm with 3,000 sheep, where she helped to deliver about 100 lambs. It was the first time she had encountered sheep, but she “dived right into the deep end” anyway. “We had to look out for signs of difficult lambing. For example, if the ewe has been straining for over an hour and was still unable to expel the lamb, then we had to intervene by examining her,” she says. She also had to look after the runts of the litters and ensure that they were able to receive enough milk. “Sometimes, it was even necessary to foster them onto other ewes or bottle-feed them,” she adds. During another attachment on the outskirts of Edinburgh, she milked the cows in the morning, and ensured that the calves, which are usually separated from their mothers within 24 hours of their birth, got enough feed and milk. In addition, she had to keep an eye out for the occasional cow that fell sick so she could isolate it and give it the required veterinary attention.

The scholar admits she struggled initially with the food, weather, culture and language, as well as homesickness, but says she soon learnt to embrace changes. “I kept myself occupied with various activities organised by the university’s clubs and societies, and forged friendships with students from different parts of the world.” By immersing herself in a completely different culture and interacting with other international students, she was introduced to new concepts, ideas and people, gaining a broader perspective of the world. “The experience has helped to shape my character and hone my skills as a veterinary professional,” she says. In August 2012, Dr Chng started working at AVA’s licensing department. Her duties included overseeing the licensing of the veterinary profession, including private veterinarians and veterinary clinics. “While working with the private veterinary sector, much of the focus was placed on forging effective partnerships and programmes to solidify the standing of the profession and enhance its contribution to public good. “Good communication and teamwork skills were key,” she says of her four-year stint. In her current role as deputy director, Regulatory Administration Group, Dr Chng oversees animal health policies that protect the health status of animals in Singapore and guard against exotic diseases. She also develops and reviews emergency animal disease contingency plans, response protocol for notifiable diseases, and veterinary import conditions for animals and animal products. The job has “a stronger focus on veterinary sanitary measures, and working with various stakeholders to keep exotic diseases out of Singapore”. To truly make a difference, she engages other stakeholders — governmental agencies, the private sector and foreign competent authorities — on veterinary public health issues. “I enjoy working with people from different backgrounds towards a common goal for the public good through themes ranging from One Health, antimicrobial resistance, and disease prevention and control,” she says. Dr Chng highlights AVA’s strong support for its staff’s ongoing learning and development. “There are various opportunities, even for younger officers, to participate in conferences and events to improve their technical knowledge or be involved in regional and international discussions on veterinary public health matters. “These learning opportunities have allowed me to sharpen my knowledge and insight in veterinary public health.”