From a young age, Mr Ong Xuan Feng had a keen interest in marine animals and the aquatic world. The ever-changing underwater world and multitude of unimaginable species mesmerised him. Unsurprisingly, he is now working at the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) as an aquaculture scientist.

The glove fits
He says: “Coincidentally, the chance to pursue a career at AVA surfaced at the most opportune moment, right before I was to commence my studies for a business degree at a local university, as there were no aquaculture courses in Singapore. That was the year AVA expanded its scholarship programme to encompass new disciplines such as Food Science, Food Chemistry, Economics, and Aquaculture.”

He studied for his degree at Scotland’s University of Stirling, renowned for its aquaculture programmes administered by the Institute of Aquaculture, which conducts cutting-edge research in this area of study.

He fell in love with the university at first sight. He recalls: “The grounds are gorgeous, with a loch — that’s what the locals call a lake — situated in the middle of the campus and surrounded by lush greenery. It was simply a lovely place to pursue my interest in fish and their watery world.

“People who study aquaculture are either crazy or fish nerds, so it was easy to become fast friends with my course-mates despite being the only Asian.”

During vacations, he explored Europe and went on a monthlong road-trip that covered Italy.

Hands-on experience

On his return to Singapore in June 2013, Mr Ong began his career at AVA’s Marine Aquaculture Centre (MAC). He says: “My main role at MAC was to carry out R&D studies and provide technical support to the industry. I conducted research on aquaponics — the culturing of fish and vegetables in the same system, which attracted much interest from farmers and hobbyists as this is considered a more sustainable form of food production with the vegetables utilising the fish waste as nutrients for growth.

“I was also involved in broader national issues, some of which were related to R&D for food security and the impact of climate change on local farms.”

During his three years at MAC, he went on a technology-sourcing trip to Israel, where the Singapore team explored technologies for poultry and aquaculture farming. He was impressed by the Israelis’ tenacious drive towards self-sufficiency in food by farming in the desert.

Mr Ong, 27, is currently with the Food Supply Policy Section. He now has a policy-planning role focusing on local farming and explains that although farming may be a sunset industry in Singapore, food production is an ever-important global issue especially with climate change and a fast-growing population.

He adds: “As such, AVA is working with the industry to transform our agriculture sector so that Singapore is prepared to meet future demands and can take advantage of emerging opportunities, such as urban farming solutions.”

To those planning to take up AVA scholarships, he advises: “AVA scholars are rotated to other departments or can be seconded to other agencies to broaden their horizons. Though it can feel like being a fish out of water, it also opens up your world. Challenges make life interesting.”