Seeds of innovation
by Edwin Chandra. Posted on June 24, 2012, Sunday
ORDINARILY, there is not much to talk about the jack-fruit, known locally as buah nangka.
But it is a different story for Benjamin Wong Ngie Xiong whose research on nangka seeds and those of the ridge gourd and breadnut has earned him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete in the recent Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) 2012 in the US.
The 16-year-old from SMK Batu Lintang was so determined to make the prestigious event that he travelled to the competition venue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, all by himself to present his findings on the properties of the three fruits that grow in the rainforests of Malaysia, including Sarawak’s.
Benjamin’s interesting science project was among the entries, submitted by 1,500 aspiring high school students from at least 70 different countries the world over. He finished third in the Environmental Sciences category.
His project — Agro-based Water Treatment for Rural Communities — convinced the panel of international judges of the potential use of natural coagulants to precipitate out colloidal particles that cause turbidity in untreated water, particularly in the rural areas.
His water treatment method involves scientifically formulated Jack fruit, ridge gourd and breadnut seeds with the potential for large-scale use in treating and producing safe drinking water for ruralites.
The Jack fruit — the largest edible tree fruit in the world — is native to the Indian and Southeastern Asian rainforests but are also found in abundance in rural Sarawak.
The ridge gourd – known as Chinese okra — bears edible fruits and can also be used as a bath or kitchen sponge after being processed to remove everything except the network of xylems.
The breadnut fruit produces nutritious low fat seeds that are a good protein source compared to nuts such as almond, Brazil and macadamia. The tree is commonly found here and the fruit closely resembles the jack fruit.
All about Intel–ISEF
A programme under Washington-based Society for Science and the Public (SSP), the Fair is an annual event that serves as a good platform for aspiring science students worldwide to showcase their innovative talents with their peers in healthy competition on a global stage.
SSP is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of science through its science education programmes and publications. It was founded by a journalist, Edward W Scripps, and a well-known zoologist, William Emerson Ritter.
Malaysia regularly sends its representatives to the event and this year, eight secondary school students were chosen. Benjamin was the sole representative from the East Malaysian region.
Benjamin has made his school proud for being the 10th student there to represent Malaysia in the ISEF and also the only Malaysian to bring home an international accolade, including a US$1,000 grant for finishing third in his category.
Due to financial constraints, Benjamin had to travel alone to the US. It was his first trip. What made his school and parents even prouder is that he single-handedly presented his project and impressed the foreign judges during the finals without the presence of any accompanying adult.
Many people would find it difficult to develop an inquisitive mind and most times, they have to wonder what make things happen.
But for Benjamin, the only child of former bank employees, Wong Ing Siu and Soo Paik Choo, showing a keen interest in reading, especially about science, started a very young age.
“We bought him books (including a set of junior encyclopaedia) when he was still very young,” recalled Soo, Benjamin’s mum who has just retired and is now a full time housewife.
She said her son has always loved books and would spend hours reading when he was still in primary school.
His cousins from Australia have also been updating him with exciting stories about school life Down Under which is so different from here.
Benjamin said: “I guess my curiosity got the better of me. I have always wanted to go overseas, especially the US, because one of my schoolmates, Brandon Pow has been to Los Angeles and it somehow motivated me to follow suit.”
Brandon also competed in the ISEF last year and was one of the finalists.
According to Benjamin, his third placing in Pittsburgh is due to the unstinting support of his teachers – Wong Mi Ing who has just retired, Lim Yee Chuen and Matthew Chin Hiong Choi — who have always believed in his potential.
For the record, SMK Batu Lintang is one of the few schools in Sarawak and Sabah that have been sending their bright students to compete in national and international science-maths fairs since 2002.
Benjamin’s ambition is to study medicine in the US or the UK, working towards becoming a heart specialist ultimately.
It’s not easy to acquire a medical degree overseas nowadays. Substaintial funds and time are required to become a general practitioner (GP), let alone a specialist.
“Benjamin has been telling us about his ambition to study overseas and become a doctor. He knows it’s going to be expensive and time-consuming but the both of us keep telling him to study hard and pursue his dreams. We will always be there for him,” his father (Wong Ing Siu) said.
Benjamin’s parents have been encouraging him to pursue his interests in science and they fully support his lifetime ambition to become a heart specialist even though the challenges can be daunting.
“We are fully aware of the long road ahead. But to help Benjamin realise his ambition, we will encourage and support him all the way,” they affirmed.
Having gained so much experience from competing in the recent Intel ISEF, Benjamin is now setting his mind to doing well in his SPM next year, hoping that the straight As he is targetting will be the next big step towards achieving his dream.
He will study hard in the hope of securing some form of scholarship to further his studies overseas.
Shy and quiet by nature, Benjamin hopes his younger schoolmates will also try their best to represent the state and country in future international science and math fairs.
“I do hope to inspire others and bring benefits to the rural people in Sarawak with the things I have done through my research,” he said.