Statement of purposes for grad school application

This is the statement of purposes that helped me be admitted to grad school. Writing this was quite an experience. It helped me reflect my entire life journey (water-wise, of course), and in a way, it reinforced my decision to do a PhD. It took me several weeks, on and off, to get the piece done.

I am thankful for my mom-in-law and my wife for helping a lot with the manuscript.

I hope this will help someone with writing their own statement.

I am a “water guy”. I envision a world where people live in harmony with water. I want to be an expert in water resources management, and join force with researchers, agencies and institutions to bring the world closer to that vision.

I remember vividly the limited access to clean water that my family encountered when I was a child. My neighbourhood shared a common well. My father built our own sand and coal filter in a plastic drum, and every year I helped him with the enervating task of cleaning the sand. Even so, the alum-contaminated water was still not potable. The city’s water network had not reached our neighbourhood, and the more affluent families resorted to buying bottled water. My parents could not afford that, so every few days, we had to make a trip to my grandparents’ place to collect tap water in a jerrycan-liked container for our most essential uses. The hassle was eventually alleviated years later when the water mains came about.

As I grow up, I realise that there are water challenges everywhere. Privileged with an extensive global exposure, I have seen water problems and learned about different approaches in many countries. In Singapore, the ultimate objective is water independence and security, which is addressed on both technological and educational fronts. There are booming advances in water reclamation, desalination, maximisation of catchment area and optimisation of a sophisticated network, coupled with broad awareness programmes. In Australia, the solution for water scarcity places an emphasis on public participation with a number of mandatory conservation measures. Facing a different concern, the Dutch’s undertaking over centuries has been to save their homeland from being submerged, using an intricate system of canals, dikes, windmills, pumps, sluices, and tidal gates, but the paradigm is shifting from building ever higher structures to “living with water”. The energy-rich Qatar is relying on desalination, but is also gradually making a shift to water reuse. Remarkably, residences of this desert state are consuming water at the highest rate in the world, and technology alone will not provide a sustainable solution. In the U.S, technology was available early, but the nation is now faced with aging infrastructure. In Vietnam where I was born and raised, as well as in many other developing countries, the challenges that hinder people’s access to clean water and sanitation lie in the lack of technology as well as mismanagement.

There are also other water issues that do not belong to a single nation, for example, rising sea level, depleting aquifers, and disputes over water ownership. Water, a critical yet scarce resource, must be distributed and used in an optimal way, which requires careful planning and proper execution.

I am passionate about solving these problems. I believe that the solutions require a holistic and multidisciplinary approach, both in optimising the current system and engendering the next breakthrough. New system designs, as well as modification to existing ones, should balance between technical and socioeconomic aspects. To be part of the solution, I need to gain knowledge in these areas, and I trust that a PhD programme in SUTD, with exactly the multidisciplinary environment that I am yearning for, is a fundamental step towards my goal.

I possess a firm academic foundation, for which I am confident in making the next step. I graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil Engineering) degree, jointly conferred by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and the University of Melbourne, in 2009. Then I was selected for the Double Degree Programme in Hydraulic Engineering and Water Resources Management hosted by the Singapore-Delft Water Alliance. After having obtained valuable knowledge and experience from the two leading countries in the field, I was awarded Master’s degrees from both NUS and Delft University of Technology in 2012.

I realised my keenness for water research during undergraduate years. My Bachelor’s dissertation, which received the Engineering Innovation and Research Award for its novel methodology, made use of real options analysis to examine the value of flexibility in planning for Singapore’s water supply. In the study, I developed a Monte-Carlo model to simulate future water supply and demand, taking into account various technical, socioeconomic, and political factors. In order to do so, I conducted a thorough literature review and put together a comprehensive picture of Singapore water management. From there, the study examined the effectiveness of different tariff structures and the economic viability of investing in desalination as well as the “fifth national tap”, using net present value as a basis for decision making. It was my first experience with stochastic modelling and I had a lot of fun conducting the research.

I continued to enjoy research opportunities during graduate study. I cherish the two internships that helped to pave the way. In the first internship, at Keppel Offshore and Marine Technology Centre, I participated in the development of a proposal for shipyard water treatment. My most important contribution was a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) model of a hydrocyclone. I was tasked to examine this technology as a candidate for treating oily water at the shipyards. Within a week, I was able to comb through the hydrocyclone literature as well as familiarize myself with the CFD software, and built a suitable model for the shipyard application.

In the second internship, at Keppel Environmental Technology Centre, I participated in the development of the world’s first demonstration plant for Memstill – an innovative membrane distillation technology for desalination. Concurrently, I co-designed a lab-scale Memstill module that was later adopted and fabricated for in-house experiments. Once again, I was able to grasp the required knowledge within a very short time frame and deliver practical results.

My Master’s thesis stemmed from the experience I had in the second internship. Keen to explore the Memstill technology further, I approached the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), the innovator behind Memstill, to conduct my Master’s thesis work. Memstill had proven effective in desalination, and TNO was exploring the feasibility of their technology in wastewater treatment. My project in particular studied the effects of surfactants, the main component of household detergent, in the feed solutions. The project was very challenging due to its pioneering nature. I delved into the literature with great enthusiasm, many a time held up in perplexity, but eventually managed to construct a membrane wetting model for Memstill. An important part of the model was developed from empirical findings, based on extensive laboratory experiments that I designed and performed. I was not well-versed in chemical experiments at that time. With unwavering spirit, I studied the manuals, learned from my colleagues, and worked industriously in the lab. Hundreds of tests were performed to measure surface tension of different surfactant concentrations, study the contact angles of these concentrations on various membranes materials, establish breakthrough pressure of each case in a pressurised setup, and assess the Memstill performance with a lab-scale module. Failed attempts were carefully analysed. Results were scrutinised and discussed with my supervisors. Eventually, the efforts paid off.  The thesis was graded 8.5 / 10 for its scientific contribution.

Since 2011, I have been working with Keppel Group, the company that assisted me financially in my academic endeavour. My experience in the water industry has also helped to affirm my inclination towards research work. I love the process of learning. Throughout all my assignments, I find myself most excited when I have to learn about new things, analyse data, and figure out what is going on, in order to have an answer for the team’s problem. I was often tasked to be the “researcher” and “calculator” for the teams, and the knowledge that I garnered was instrumental for a concrete solution.

The most fruitful assignment was the two-year posting to the Doha North Sewage Treatment Works (Qatar) to help expedite commissioning and set up the operation team. The plant is the largest wastewater treatment, water reuse and sludge treatment facility in the Middle East. But for commissioning, it was to receive only 12% of its average capacity, which was a huge challenge. To help the team overcome that, I developed a hydraulic model that established the flow-frequency relationship for essential pumps, and determined the minimum deliverable flow, so that the operators could control the variable frequency drives. The model proved to be accurate, and enabled the flow balancing of the entire process. I also successfully led and participated in many other commissioning and operation activities, which often required additional knowledge. I was always able to figure out what were needed and deliver them.

Having finished the two-year posting, I am now working at Ulu Pandan NEWater Plant, utilising my experience and skills to spearhead improvement projects. My team is consistently making incremental changes based on my analysis of the plant operation.

Working at Doha North, I came to appreciate the importance of proper planning in infrastructure projects. The plant was provided with so little feed because it was constructed way before the sewer network was ready. Similarly, working at Ulu Pandan helps me comprehend the importance of operations management. Like a cog in a big machine, the plant takes used water from the network, purifies it, and delivers clean water back to users. Through our daily coordination with the Public Utilities Board (PUB), I had a glimpse of how their engineers had to balance the operation of the entire distribution. Moreover, perhaps the most useful revelation to me during my years in the industry is that the most rewarding work is the one that has the strongest impact. These experiences, together with my observations in many countries, have firmed up my interest in a system approach.

The human-water harmony means that people have the right amount of water with the right quality at the right time. Challenges arise when water is too much, too little, or too dirty. Access to clean water has to be ascertained while used water has to be dealt with. Rainfall provides the much needed water for human and crops, but flash floods and inundation can devastate an economy and cause loss of lives. Rapid urbanisation and increasing population add complexity to the management of the whole system. A well designed and optimally operated system can help to balance these opposing forces.

I want to design a water systems for the future, one that can solve all the problems I have observed, and ones that is flexible and resilient enough to cope with future problems as they arise. To build such systems is an ambitious long term goal that requires a great deal of expertise on water management as well as extensive collaborations with other disciplines. The moment I found out about the ESD PhD programme at SUTD, I knew that it is the right step for me. I think my research interest resonates with the pursuit of SUTD as a whole and ESD pillar in particular. Besides, not only do I feel excited about the collaborative environment that SUTD is promoting, but I am also eager to take up the required coursework in the four core areas of optimisation, stochastics, operations and applied economics, because they are just what I need to master in order to achieve my goal.

I believe that through learning and exploring during the first year, with exposure to innovative ideas in an exciting environment, I will be able to define a focus for the PhD thesis. As a starting point, I would like to build an integrated water management model that can be customized for individual city or geographical region, in order to maximize the utilisation of technologies and resources available in each situation. The model will be used to optimise the operation of existing system. As far as possible, it will incorporate infrastructure elements such as reservoirs, treatment plants, supply and drainage networks, social elements such as population, urbanisation and water use, as well as natural elements like precipitation and run off. It will help to answer important questions, including how to respond to a disturbance, for instance a flash flood, a dry spell, a plant breakdown, a contaminated reservoir, or a sudden increase in consumption, and therefore will be useful for governmental water agencies. The model can also be used to study the relationships among its components. Each of the built-in elements carries intrinsic uncertainties and economic implications that make modelling a challenging but invigorating task.

Developing the desired model requires a shared effort of many disciplines, for which the collaborative environment at SUTD is most conducive. My background of hydraulic engineering and water treatment, together with my programming skills, will be of great advantage, and at the same time, the knowledge from the coursework elements will be of valuable use.

A model is useful, but a physical system is even more practical. I hope that the integrated model at its maturity will be adopted by agencies such as PUB and institutions such as the World Bank in project development to improve water infrastructure in Singapore and around the world. Therefore, after completing the PhD programme, I plan to continue researching and engaging with the industry to bring the new findings into practice. I would also love to teach courses on water management and modelling. I always enjoyed training my operators in the past, as I found that through teaching and answering unexpected question, I gain much deeper understanding of the subjects. In the end, an academic career with close interaction with the industry will allow my work to be impactful.

For my neighbourhood, water from the tap is a wish that came true. Nowadays, my younger brother no longer has to clean the sand filter or carry the jerrycan of water like I did years ago. But in Vietnam and around the world, there are other problems still, and I do not know what challenges are waiting in the future. But I am eager to solve them, and I want to be ready.


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