More than a safe choice

She may enjoy her weekly round of tennis with her colleagues, but the real game Dr Portia Loh relishes is security “chess” — making technological moves to outfox the threats facing Singapore.

Each day, this “game” plays out at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), where Dr Loh is one of its “grandmasters” as senior assistant director (Partnerships and Transitions) at the Office of the Chief Science and Technology Officer. She is also senior assistant director at the Planning and Organisation Division of MHA Science and Technology Strategy Office.

Her work involves cutting-edge technologies that range from detection and scanning capabilities, to new forensics tools that provide additional leads for law enforcement investigators to follow up on.

Strategic moves
The 35-year-old secured her undergraduate degree with honours in biotechnology from Imperial College London in 2004, before going on to obtain a doctorate in biological sciences from the National University of Singapore in 2009.

She made another strategic move when, during her doctorate, she did research to better understand how tumour suppressor genes worked. While “intellectually stimulating”, Dr Loh soon realised that remaining in academia was not going to be a long-term choice for her. “I did not want work in a company focused on growing its bottom line.”

After two years of postdoctoral research, she crossed over to applied research and development, which aims to develop capabilities that bring direct benefit to the Home Team.

And while details of her creations must be withheld for security reasons, MHA has shared examples of them with the general public: police cameras that can automatically flag suspicious incidents for analysis, and exoskeletons aimed at increasing the strength and endurance of firefighters and rescuers.

Actual impact
Although Dr Loh is in a male-dominated line, she is convinced that equal opportunities exist for success. “One’s pursuit of excellence is what levels the playing field,” she says.

For her, the game is won when her projects produce actual impact. “In a ministry like MHA, which deals with day-to-day security and safety incidents, you see the effect of new systems and technologies very quickly,” she explains. “My job allows me to make a meaningful difference in keeping Singapore safe and secure, while at the same time constantly challenging myself.”

Dr Loh encourages those interested in solving security-related problems to consider MHA’s Home Team Science and Technology Scholarship. “MHA offers attachments and internships with other agencies and tech companies, as well as overseas conferences to stay up-todate. Young officers will also get to learn from mentors who are at the top of their domains and have handled major projects.

“If you have a thirst for analysis of scientific knowledge and a strong inclination towards hands-on work, this scholarship is the thing for you.”