A Day in a Life of Ernest Tan (Graduate Fellow, Shan House)

Back for a third run, this series of Day in a Life seeks to shine the light on the staff that make our lives in Tembusu smooth and without hitches. To start off the series, Graduate Fellow Ernest Tan shares his typical day, and what his role of Graduate Fellow entails, which is taking care of the residents, especially in his house Shan, whom he affectionately calls his ‘kids’.

Ernest is a second year PhD student in the NUS Graduate School of Integrated Sciences and Engineering, working under the Biomedical Engineering Department. He received his Bachelor of Engineering in Mechanical Engineering in 2016, whilst completing the three-year Design Centric Program. His current research is on the development of a bio-printing process for nasal cartilage regeneration, and he hopes that his work will be able to help people, as well as lay the foundation for regenerative processes using bio-printing to fabricate other biological organs.


What is a typical day like for you?

The TL;DR version of my life is: “Scientist-in-training by day, big brother by night”.

A typical day for me usually begins in the morning in the lab, doing some experimental work. This typically involves experimenting on optimizing certain chemical formulations that can work best with certain cell types, or fabricating mechanical parts to build a bioprinter. I usually try to finish most of the day’s work by 5-6pm before heading back to Tembusu College to wind down and to start taking care of the kids on my floor.


What is a day as a graduate fellow like?

There really is no answer to this question. Staying in Tembusu College offers a world of possibilities and I find myself getting into new situations every day – some better than others. A day in the College can range from just lying down on my bed and hoping that someone calls me for something so that I get some attention, or I could perpetually be away from my room attending to things the whole night, one after the other with no breaks.

Regardless of the situation, the main ethos that myself and the others in the residential team, follow is to create a safe and inclusive environment that’s conducive for living and learning, and many of the actions we adopt are guided by this ethos. This can include making sure that certain rules are enforced and to check that the facilities in Tembusu are in good condition. There are administrative duties that we also handle after office hours, such as helping students to check-in after office hours, as well as handling any issues that students might have about College facilities.

For myself, I do check in on students and check up on what’s going on with their lives or just to chit chat in general. In many ways, the role of a Residential Assistant and Graduate Fellow is very similar. The main difference lies in their experiences, with Graduate Fellows having already completed their undergraduate degrees. Hence, Graduate Fellows do take on the role of a mentor to Residential Assistants and students, giving support for most things that they need.

The Residential Team on their annual retreat (Picture Credits: Dr Kelvin Pang)

The Residential Team on their annual retreat (Picture Credits: Dr Kelvin Pang)

What else do you take care of in the college that students might otherwise not be aware of?

Other than our administrative duties and mentoring role, a huge yet unseen component of what we do is pastoral care. This involves checking up on the well-being of the students around us and to check that they are well and not under excessive pressure. While it is no doubt that they will feel pressure with piling assignment deadlines and difficult exams, it is critical that we keep a look out for each other to make sure that this stress does not push students to the edge. So some things that I do for my kids is that I can help them think of some ways they can overcome their current problems, or I could just be there as a listening ear, whichever they prefer.

Sometimes I do help out kids from Engineering with some work that they might need help in. Having gone through the Engineering undergraduate life, I can (sort of) understand the kind of stress the kids may experience, so I try to help them with some tips and tricks that I learnt from back in the day.


Ernest (third row, extreme left) with Tembusu’s Inter-College Games (2017) Frisbee team (Picture Credits: Mui Kai Yuan)

With your responsibilities both as a PhD student and GF, do you have a lot of free time? What do you do then?

It really depends on what you define as free time. If you define it strictly as when I am physically doing some form of work – regardless of the nature of it – then I’m really working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with 8 hours for sleep. Fortunately, the nature of my work means that I can choose to do anything I wish so long as I am able to complete the work assigned to me by a certain time. In a way, this ‘bounded freedom’ is what allows me to explore and be at my best.

But when I do have ‘free time’ to rest, the activity that I choose to engage in by default is watching Youtube videos. I think some of the kids on my floor think that I always have free time, because whenever they knock on my door, I’m most likely watching Youtube videos. But thing is, when I am in my room, it usually means it’s my free time which is why I choose to do something as relaxing as watching Youtube videos! Though I must point out that I do spend about 8 hours a week playing Ultimate Frisbee, mainly because that’s how I keep fit. Sometimes I also do tinker about with some of my old 3D printers that I built in the past to modify certain parameters.

What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about what the residential team does?

I think I can safely say that many kids seem to assume that the role of RAs and GFs involves doing room service for them. It’s not what we do! We try to make sure that your stay in Tembusu is an enjoyable one. Some of us will go out of the way to help make your lives a little better out of goodwill, but you shouldn’t expect us to always do that!


Ernest taking part in Shan’s Mid-Autumn Festival in 2016

Ernest taking part in Shan’s Mid-Autumn Festival in 2016

What do you think is the most misunderstood trait about you?

In the words of my girlfriend (he takes out his mobile phone to show a text message): “Sometimes u act dumdum but u actually very smart. But sometimes the dumdum is real.” I think based on the way that I naturally act and speak, I can come off as somebody who’s very thoughtless and immature. And in most cases, it’s kinda true! But that doesn’t mean I am like this all the time. To quote a fellow RA, Hui Ying: “It can feel like you are speaking to two different persons when you are speaking to Ernest in one sitting.” The last part of that ‘dumdum’ quote probably comes from the fact that I am really bad with general knowledge because most of the time I’m just really too lazy to read up on these sort of things.


Picture of Residential Team from Dr. Kelvin Pang, Picture of ICG by Mui Kai Yuan. Ernest is also grateful for the help with correcting his English.


About the Author

Cherry is a second year undergraduate majoring in Southeast Asian studies. She loves reading just about anything and hanging out with her friends. If not doing any of these things, you’ll find her seated in front of her laptop and browsing through Taobao or Book Depository, waiting to burn a hole in her pocket.