The Curious Case of An A*star Scholar

Ouyang Xiangyu, a 27 year old A*star scholar at Stanford University, has
been charged with poisoning her laboratory mates. Source credit: Yahoo
Ouyang Xiangyu, by all metrics of the Singapore education system, can be considered a success. She received not one, but two, scholarships to study overseas, first at Imperial College in England, then at Stanford University in America. To be able to learn from top researchers in these hallowed institutions demands a sharp intellect paired with an unstinting perseverance.

Now, this A*star scholar has been charged with four counts of adding poison to water bottles of her lab mates. Not only that, she has been accused of sabotaging their research, corrupting the data they collect, perhaps by spiking their experiments with impurities or disrupting sensitive research apparatus.

This case is sensational; it is about a scholar and her descent from a much sought after vantage. It is about a Singaporean born on foreign soil. It is about someone paid to study by a statutory board. Dinner discussions with relatives have touched on the waste of a promising scientist, the wisdom of not striving too hard and a potential misuse of public funds.  

As someone who did two years of undergraduate research at the science faculty of a local university, I'd like to share some thoughts about this issue.

First, let's discuss the nature of the poison she used. According to the Material Safety Data Sheet of paraformaldehyde, this chemical is pungent and does not dissolve well in cold water. It is 'very hazardous' in case of skin contact and eye contact, but only 'hazardous' if ingested or inhaled. What does this mean?

It means that paraformaldehyde is a poor poison. Because of its odour, it can be detected easily - which Ouyang's intended victims did. It is not very soluble in water, meaning that the tainted water is diluted. Had Ouyang scheme to shorten the lifespan of her lab mates, she would have undoubtedly chosen more potent chemicals.

For example, potassium manganate (VII), a common lab reagent, would be a better choice; it is capable of burning away one's throat. In the past, spurned housewives dissolved some of these purple crystals in wine for their husbands to drink. The sour taste of wine would conceal the hint of poison. There is probably an entire shelf of chemicals in Ouyang's lab for her to pick and choose from. Why would she choose something so completely ineffective?

This leads to the inevitable conclusion that she did not intend for her victims to die. Her act of poisoning was probably unmeditated, if it was even planned for at all.
Chemical formula of paraformaldehyde.
Next, we can analyse the stressors of research. Aspiring scientists work punishing hours to generate publishable results. Their supervisors can be demanding superiors who care only about furthering their research output, thus their influence. Not so different from any other sector, I suppose, where greenhorns must grapple with multiple challenges and strive for limited opportunities.

Lab environments, however, are very different from hospitals, law firms and banks. They can be aloof places where one hardly gets to meet another during the course of a day's work. It is hard to describe the sense of isolation, the humdrum of trudging early to work then trudging back to sleep and repeating this cycle over and over again. Not only that, researchers may have to breathe heady cocktails of volatile chemicals. These are mildly disorienting fumes, perhaps not disastrous to health in minute quantities. When inhaled on a regular basis, these fumes can be harmful. I remember how I used to slink back to the hostel, with a pounding headache and a desire to avoid food, with the faint odour of embalmed bodies clinging to my clothes.

This is merely to point out that, depending on the research discipline, a scientist may have to deal with organic fumes that can impair their judgments.

On a related note, many researchers mock their superiors, at times in good faith and at times, not really so. Again, no different from workers in an office. The difference is that these scientists, armed with knowledge of chemical compounds, can and often do joke about adding 'spices' to slices of pizza intended for their 'bosses'. Morbid, yes, but common enough in an environment with multiple minds specialising in the physical sciences. Ouyang's problem, as philosophers would say, is that she acted on what she thought.

I feel sympathy for Ouyang. She needs help - counselling, support from her family, understanding from her colleagues. At the same time, she has to face the consequences of her actions. Hopefully, she gets what she needs and no more than what she deserves.