He was watching what he thought was a comedy show in class when he suddenly realised the true meaning behind the movie.
As part of a National University of Singapore’s (NUS) University Scholars Programme (USP) module, Muhammad Nadjad Abdul Rahim and his classmates were watching the 1980 slapstick film, The Gods Must Be Crazy. Revolving around an African tribe, the movie helped the Life Sciences student realise how underprivileged people continue to be disproportionately affected by certain societal structures.
As a student under the department of Biological Sciences within the NUS Faculty of Science, Nadjad was exposed to a plethora of interesting topics, from anatomy to biochemistry to pharmacology, and more.
But it was his time at USP that taught him to probe beyond the surface of human behaviour.
Nadjad (third from right) with Associate Professor Peter Vail and his USP classmates on a field trip to one of the Highland villages in Laos and Thailand as part of State Minority Relations, a USP module that he helped to set up.
While undergoing one of the field-based modules in USP called Participatory Social Development in Southeast Asia, Nadjad travelled to countries such as Laos and Thailand, where he interacted with ethnic minorities and refugees in camps.
"Meeting with internally displaced people and marginalised communities taught me a lot about inequality and empathy," Nadjad recalls.
Back at home, Nadjad realised that certain minority groups struggle to receive adequate psychosocial support in the healthcare setting due to language barriers. Now, he makes it a point to contribute to such groups in order to fill these gaps in the social sector.
“Modules like these helped set the stage for me to be more critical of the interdependencies within societies,” Nadjad recalls.
Inspired by the knowledge gleaned at university, Nadjad went on to pursue a career that would tackle inequality and benefit minority groups.
Today, the 32-year-old works as a Research Director at Cellbae Pte Ltd, an in-vitro diagnostic spin-off company from NanoBio Lab of Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) that produces diagnostic kits, assays and research reagents in order to slow down the spread of infectious diseases.
“Infectious diseases disproportionately affect the underprivileged,” he explains. “At work, I am very focused on developing technologies that can help people, especially those from low-resourced communities.”
Together with his colleagues at Cellbae, Nadjad toils tirelessly to improve lives through scientific discovery and technological innovation.
His proudest work achievement to date has been helping Singapore in the war against COVID-19. Nadjad co-developed Cellbae’s current flagship product, the TEPAT 1.0 SARS-CoV-2 Multiplex RT-PCR KIT, which detects the presence of all variants of the coronavirus with high accuracy.
“TEPAT means ‘accurate’ in Malay,” Nadjad grins.
Cellbae hopes that TEPAT, an approved in-vitro diagnostics product, can help communities worldwide. “Given that we were working with all kinds of infectious bacteria, it was not that difficult for us to pivot our work to tackle COVID-19,” Nadjad says.
The pace of Nadjad’s work has picked up significantly since COVID-19 came to Singapore’s shores. Coupled with the ever-changing nature of infectious diseases, Nadjad constantly faces a degree of uncertainty at work.
“Every day is different, and nothing is routine,” Nadjad says.
Nonetheless, he stays undeterred under the pressure: “My belief that we can make life better for others pushes me to keep going,” he says.
Outside of work, Nadjad considers his role as a father of two to be his greatest achievement. He says: “I try to be a good role model for my kids through my actions.”
As the first from his extended family to enrol in a Singapore university, Nadjad initially did not know what to expect: while he had an inkling of what he wanted to do with his career, he did not know how to go about achieving it.
While at the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre (CTPCLC) in NUS University Town, Nadjad met Dr Chua Thian Poh, who guided him onto the path he is on today. “Dr Chua introduced me to the team behind Ren Ci Hospital, where I spent many months interning. Through the process, I worked with the minority communities there, such as Hindus and Muslims,” he recalls.
Nadjad making a presentation at CTPCLC’s first research symposium, where he spoke about the lack of beds in community hospitals.
“The internship ran throughout the holidays, and I learnt a lot,” he says. “The highlight of my internship was when I managed to connect the Hindu Centre Singapore and MUIS, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, to Ren Ci Hospital. From interacting with patients, it was also clear that we needed more volunteers who could speak the elders' native languages. The partnership is still going strong now.”
As a student, Nadjad excelled in his studies, and made it to the USP Honour Roll, USP Senior Honour Roll, and the Dean’s List.
Nadjad (first from left) and his fellow USP Honour Roll recipients with Associate Professor Peter Vail, who taught the USP module Writing and Critical Thinking.
Always eager to try new things, the inquisitive Nadjad even enrolled in a Mathematics module, although he admits good-naturedly: “It pulled down my Cumulative Average Point (CAP) significantly.”
He credits the flexibility of USP for exposing him to different modules, saying: “USP was a great programme and allowed us to study Independent-Study Modules. It was a great fit for people like me who wanted to integrate different disciplines into my curriculum.”
He adds: “USP students also reside in Cinnamon College at NUS University Town, which was a fun experience for me. I was even a Resident Assistant for a while!”
Nadjad (back row, second from right) with players from USP during the semifinals of the NUS Inter Faculty Games (IFG). The team made history by scoring USP’s first sports medal at the NUS IFG finals.
These experiences made for an enriching time at university.
“When I was young I could do with much less sleep,” he says jokingly. “Even though I was very busy in university, I would not have done things differently, because each path taught me something.”
“My advice to current students would be to make each others' lives better.” He muses, “What makes one ‘good’? To me, the answer is that one has to have a positive impact on the community.”
(All photos in this story were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic, unless otherwise stated.)