Learning > Inspiration

It Changed My Life: From Redhill to Nasa, then from space to clay

When things don't go as planned, you may get to do new stuff like Nasa research or ceramics

Wong Kim Hoh on 27 May 2018

The Straits Times


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Life often does not give us what we want but that, says Wee Hong-Ling, is not necessarily a bad thing.


The bubbly 50-year-old says: "It could make us explore possibilities we would never have considered, and who knows where that could lead us?"


Her own life is a good example. She charted many courses only to be diverted by roadblocks and curve balls which led to new beginnings. Because of these deviations, she found herself leaving Singapore for the United States and becoming, among other things, a researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), and also eventually, a celebrated ceramics artist.


Now based in New York, she has had a colourful and eventful journey.


She spent her childhood in the Redhill and Tiong Bahru areas, the third - and youngest - child of a bank clerk and a school teacher.


"My parents won 'the lottery', they managed to get me into Raffles Girls Primary School through balloting," she says, referring to one of Singapore's best-known schools.


Smart but playful, she always earned a "could do better" assessment by her teachers in her report card. "I told myself that it was okay as long as I wasn't the worst student. Anyway, in that (competitive) environment, you'd do fine just by moving along with the rest," says Ms Woo, who went on to Raffles Girls' School and Raffles Junior College.


Because life was better for the family when she came along, her parents sent her for piano lessons, something they could not afford for their two elder sons.


"I did 10 years of classical piano and I hated it although I have a Grade 8 and completed all my exams with merits and distinctions," she says, referring to the highest graded exam from the Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music.


But she kept at it because she felt bad that her brothers did not have the luxury of music lessons.


"I could do it mechanically and technically but I just couldn't hear the music in my head. I tell many kids today: 'You don't even need to love something to do it really well, you can train yourself to do it. But if you can love it, what a bonus that would be'," says Ms Wee, who locked up her piano when she entered university. She has not touched it since.


She took a year off after her A levels. Defying conventional advice that a professional or science degree would serve her better professionally, she opted to study sociology and geography at the National University of Singapore. Sociology, she says, opened her eyes and mind, and exposed her to a much bigger and varied world than the structured one she had grown up in.


Geography excited her too, especially the field of remote sensing and geographic information systems. "We were looking at satellite images of Singapore - the primary and secondary forests, the water sources, et cetera - before anybody else did. It was a relatively new thing and the department had invested a lot in hardware and software because of this Australian professor who was an expert in this field," she recalls.


Her heart was set on doing her honours degree in Sociology but she was offered a spot in the Geography honours programme instead.


"Life never gives you what you hope for," she says with a laugh. "I took the path of least resistance and accepted the offer."


It changed her life in ways she could not have imagined.


Upon graduation in 1992, she married her boyfriend. Not long after, they left for New Jersey where he had a scholarship to do his PhD in physics at Rutgers University.


Adjusting to life in the United States was hard. "I had the trailing spouse syndrome. I wasn't allowed to work. I couldn't drive and if you didn't drive in the US, you're stuck because public transport sucked.


"I didn't have friends, family, mobility or purpose. All of a sudden, I didn't know what I was all about. My self-esteem just plummeted," she says.


Since Rutgers has a top-notch remote sensing research centre, she decided to apply for graduate school to climb out of the funk she found herself in.


Interviewers assessing her eligibility were floored when they saw her honours thesis on remote sensing.


"They said: 'You were doing this work for your general degree? How is it possible? We are just training our grad students to do this?'"


Not long after, she was told that she had been accepted in the geography Master's programme.


"They also said: 'If you're interested, there is also a Nasa research project with a full scholarship which covers tuition, healthcare and pays a stipend.'"


And that was how she ended up as a Nasa researcher.


"I just happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right skill sets."


At the end of her first year, her professor, Dr Scott Madry, gave her a booklet and asked her to apply for a summer programme in Stockholm offered by the International Space University (ISU).


Headquartered in France, ISU focuses on outer space exploration for peaceful purposes through international and multidisciplinary education and research programmes.


Ms Wee says: "I was thinking: 'I'm a geographer, what would I do at space camp?' But since he was the boss, I did as told even though I was sure I wouldn't be selected."


To her surprise, she made the cut. She reckoned it was because she was Singaporean - "I was the first Singaporean to be admitted into the programme" - and female - "for every five men, there was only one woman".


She tried to wriggle out of the 10-week camp by saying she could not afford the US$12,000 fee. But sponsors and Rutgers contributed half the amount, and ISU came up with the rest in the form of a scholarship.


"I ran out of excuses. I cried at the airport because I didn't want to do it but it turned out to be the best time of my life."


The camp saw 127 participants from 25 different countries and backgrounds - astronauts, cosmonauts, architects, biologists, doctors and philosophers - passionately discussing and debating space exploration.


"It was like experiencing a larger self," she says simply.


She went back to Rutgers with a spring in her step, and a renewed vigour in her Nasa research which was to develop civilian uses for publicly funded satellite data.


The results of that research by various institutions led to Google Earth and Google Maps.


The next year, she went back to the ISU summer camp, this time in Vienna, for 12 weeks as a staff member.


Sadly, there was a downside to the blossoming of her "larger self" - her marriage broke up.


Her ex-husband, with whom she remains friends, returned home to work in Singapore; she stayed on in the US to do her PhD.


The next couple of years were more uncertain, especially when Dr Madry left Rutgers.


"My husband left, my favourite professor left, I had to start all over again. After Scott left, it didn't make sense for me to continue with remote imaging so I switched topics and research," says Ms Wee who decided to re-explore her love for sociology by researching how people take part in public decisions.


As she worked on he doctorate, she taught geography and academic writing at Rutgers.


Although she moved to New York, her life revolved around her work and her research. An American friend who decided she needed more work-life balance gifted her a 10-week pottery course at a Manhattan hobby studio.


She was not exactly grateful, she confesses.


"I thought to myself: 'This is a lousy gig. I'm neither artistic nor creative and you're making do this. It's a chore'."


But accompanied by the friend, she attended her first lesson, and fell in love with clay the moment she touched it.


"It was a shift in my universe," she says dramatically. "I felt as though I just woke up."


"It was dirty and messy, I didn't have the skills to make anything and yet I loved it . I couldn't explain it," adds Ms Woo who started spending a lot of time in the pottery studio.


She read up voraciously on ceramics, and started attending different workshops.


At one such workshop conducted by American clay artist Jack Troy, she was struck by something he said.


In the first 10 years of his career, the artist apparently placed a trash bin next to the kiln each time he unloaded his fired pieces.


With a hammer, he would smash anything which did not meet his expectations and throw it into the bin.


"He said: 'After a while, I realised I had lost 10 years of information'," recalls Ms Wee.


A light bulb came on in her head when she heard that.


"We do the same in our lives. We write off people and things which do not meet our expectations and throw them in the trash bin," she says.


When the realisation struck her that she was not only moulding clay but learning about life, she decided she would work with ceramics after completing her PhD.


Then Sept 11 happened.


Ms Wee was just three kilometres away when Al-Qaeda terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Centre complex in Lower Manhattan on Sept 11, 2001.


"I had friends and neighbours who went to work that day and never came home. It was another wake-up call. If you want to do something you care about, you'd better not waste time. Those people who went to work that day never thought they were not going to come home."


The day she got her PhD in 2005, she threw away all her books, journals and academic papers.


"That was the past. I needed more room for my art. If I were going to use those books again, they would be obsolete anyway."


The start was slow and arduous.


But in 2011, she staged a solo exhibition, No Place Like Home, at Sculpture Square in Singapore which was sold out.


Outfits such as Raffles Hospital bought pieces.


"Even the National Gallery collected a piece from the exhibition," says Ms Wee who has since gone on to win several residencies and awards, including the Outstanding Achievement Award from The Society of Foreign Consuls in New York (2013) and the Best Form and Function Award at the 23rd Strictly Functional Pottery National in Pennsylvania (2015).


Her works now sell for between US$50 (S$67) for a handmade mug, and more than US$10,000 for more complicated pieces.


Ms Wee, who has a US Green Card and is now in a relationship with an educator, says she is also driven by a larger purpose: to debunk the stereotype that art is only for those who do not do well in science, or that art should be kept as a hobby and that a real job is more important.


It explains why she makes it her mission to give free talks to schools on her yearly trips home.


Over the last three months, Ms Wee, who is going back to New York next week, has given talks to 20 schools and more than 11,000 students.


Not all schools take up her offer.


"Some tell me that they don't want their students to be swayed from the sciences. But that's not the point of my talk," says the artist, adding that her message to students is to open their minds to life and all its possibilities.


She looks back on her life, which she describes as simple but happy, with a lot of gratitude.


"If not for all my experiences, I won't be where I am now."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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