Agent for chemical defence

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01 May 2018 | PEOPLE

Agent for chemical defence

// STORY Thrina Tham

// PHOTOS Chua Soon Lye & Courtesy of Ms Chua Hoe Chee

English Melayu

Meet one of the brains behind the nation's defence against chemical threats.

Ms Chua demonstrating sample preparation done within her laboratory's fume cabinet.

"(For me to be part) of this elite group of technical experts trusted to advise the OPCW reflects well on DSO's technical capabilities."

Ms Chua on her role as a scientific advisor to the OPCW, an international chemical weapons watchdog

She is part of an expert team in the battle against chemical warfare and can be activated in the event of a deadly chemical attack. Her work is highly classified.

Ms Chua Hoe Chee is neither a soldier nor a spy, but a scientist at DSO National Laboratories (DSO).

The senior chemist, who has worked at Singapore's defence research and development centre for 15 years, has seen many technological breakthroughs in the fight against chemical weapons. She is also one of the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF's) go-to persons for field expertise in this area. 

In October 2017, the 48-year-old became the first Singaporean appointed to the Scientific Advisory Board of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands, this international agency is the world's chemical weapons watchdog.

From lab to field

One of her research achievements include simplifying the way sample preparation for chemicals is done — taking the process from the laboratory to the field.

Sample preparation is usually tedious, involving many steps to extract the chemical. "We developed this technique where you can just pass the sample through a series of cartridges and get what you want," explained Ms Chua.

The new method takes just 30 minutes, down from four to six hours. It also replaces the use of fragile glassware with robust apparatus made of plastic.

This means that soldiers from the SAF's Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Explosives (CBRE) Defence Group can now do a preliminary identification of the sample collected from a contaminated zone, before sending it to DSO for further tests. 

"Usually, it's more difficult to do things accurately in the field because of space and resource constraints.

"We've made the process more user-friendly…so that the SAF soldiers who go into the red zone can do a quick first screening," said Ms Chua.

Supporting the SAF 

As a core member of DSO's chemical defence team, Ms Chua is part of a group of chemists who are on standby to provide 24/7 support to the CBRE team.

"(If a potential chemical attack occurs,) DSO will support the front-line responders by giving technical advice from either the lab or on-site," she explained.

"They may need more information on a chemical, such as how to detect it, or what containment facility is needed to safeguard it." 

Ms Chua added: "When a chemical attack happens (around the world), they may ask about the toxicity (of that agent), and if this happens in Singapore, how we should respond." 

The DSO team also conducts annual exercises to strengthen the CBRE troops' skills to respond to chemical attacks.

Mad about science

Ms Chua lives and breathes chemistry; she holds a Master of Science from the National University of Singapore and a First Class Honours Degree in Chemistry from the University of Hull.

Her appointment to the OPCW board was a crowning moment of her research career. 

She flew to The Hague to sit with the board for the first time last October. Among other topics, they discussed the development of technologies to counteract chemical threats and the need for more laboratories that can detect the highly toxic yet easy-to-make ricin poison.

She continues to enjoy her job, despite her family's concern on her exposure to toxic agents. "My sister has been pressing me to quit for many years," she said with a laugh.

"But we have a lot of safety protocols and if you understand the safe handling of chemicals, you won't pose a risk to yourself," Ms Chua added.

In fact, on her laboratory door hangs a big poster on "The Ten Commitments" to observe at work, all of which have to do with safety.

She also trusts her protective gear. For instance, DSO's protective masks are tested at least once every six months. DSO also conducts risk assessments each time the chemists start a new project.

With such passion for her work, it is no wonder that she's not about to quit anytime.

Updated, 24 Jan 2020: Ms Chua Hoe Chee has since become the first Singaporean to be appointed as Head of Laboratory at the OPCW.

Her new appointment, which started in October 2019, sees her leading a team of international senior chemists to provide support and advice on chemical weapon verification and analysis.

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