Young Scientist Face-Off New Virus

When COVID-19 first emerged late last year, Zan Xin had hoped that the virus would remain contained as the CBRNE scientist was well aware of the dangers of the potentially deadly disease reaching Singapore’s borders. 

Scientist with lab sample

Zan Xin examining a lab sample prepared for explosive analysis (Photo: HTX)


Chin Zan Xin, Scientist, CBRNE Centre of Expertise

But before long, Zan Xin and her team at Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives (CBRNE) Centre of Expertise (CoE) were called to immediate action to conduct COVID-19 screening for travellers and returning Singaporeans at Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) checkpoints. To curtail spread of the virus from imported cases in our community, nasopharyngeal swabs were taken at checkpoints and sent to HTX’s lab for analysis.

“As part of CBRNE’s daily operations, bio-surveillance is conducted at checkpoints, where I run Polymerase Chain Reaction-based analysis for environment sampling to screen for the presence of bioterrorism threats. The team kept a close radar for any COVID-19 related news and prepared our labs to be operationally ready, to detect and intercept the virus, mitigating the situation as Singapore’s first line of defence,” said Zan Xin.


CRBNE team

CBRNE Scientists conducting lab analysis of nasopharyngeal swab samples, on a 12-hour shift, in COVID-19 ops lab (Photo: HTX)


However, the situation worsened and requirements snowballed, leading their three-man team to undertake as many as 400 COVID-19 swab analysis in a 12-hour night shift. Yet, this did not deter Zan Xin and her team. On the contrary, it spurred them to work even harder.

“At the peak of the crisis, waves of lab samples kept coming in for analysis, and the work seemed never-ending. My family and friends were initially concerned about our exposure to the virus. However, the team pressed on because we knew that the results of the testing would help assure many affected individuals and their families. We wanted to show the critical work of CBRNE in the fight against the unseen virus.”

Zan Xin added that a key takeaway in combating COVID-19 was to never take Singapore’s safety for granted.

“At CBRNE, we stay at the forefront of science and technology to counter any invisible threats to public safety. In Singapore’s context, we simply can’t afford to ‘wait’ for threats to happen. That is why we actively look for operationally-ready solutions to empower our Home Team daily operations against the entry of civilian or terrorist threats.”

Besides lab analysis, Zan Xin also carries out literature research and experiments for projects. She is currently working on expanding CBRNE’s list of explosives analyses, aimed at improving the lab’s ability to consistently produce valid results for enhanced ISO 17025 accreditation. The ISO 17025 is the main accreditation used by testing and calibration laboratories internationally.

Part of her job also includes cross-training in routine screening and conducting analysis on samples at ICA’s checkpoints that may contain explosive, toxic chemicals, narcotics and radioactive matter.

Lab Samples

Nasopharyngeal swab samples collected by HTX collectors (Photo: HTX)

Zan Xin said, “Being able to observe how our samples are collected on-the-ground allows me to understand our end-to-end standard operating procedures. It gives me the full confidence in my laboratory analysis and results, knowing that samples collected are not compromised.”

The NUS graduate in Chemistry shares that her earliest memories of science and technology was an experiment where she made fizzy sherbet at home for a school project, not realising the experiment was an acid-base reaction which created the tiny bubbles. Through the project and subsequent science classes, Zan Xin discovered that her passion lies in observing structural and behavioural changes of elements during chemical reactions, which led her to seek a fulfilling and exciting career in the detection of chemical warfare agents and explosives.

“I wanted to work on projects that could solve some of the world’s pressing problems. With the increased risk and frequency of terror acts around the world in recent years, I knew that by joining HTX, I could contribute to the meaningful mission of securing Singapore’s safety,” she said.

With Zan Xin’s line of work being thrust in the spotlight due to COVID-19, she no longer finds it difficult to explain her scientific work at CBRNE. Family and friends have become fully supportive of what she does, upon realising how essential her work is in helping to secure Singapore’s borders.

Outside of the ongoing and long-drawn-out battle in the labs, Zan Xin also finds time to acquire new information to satisfy her curious mind.

Zan Xin

Zan Xin taking a breather out of work  (Photo: HTX)

Following her resolution to learn something new each year, Zan Xin is currently learning sign language in hope that this could be a useful communication tool, seeing her aging parents’ needs. She has also recently picked up data analytics, to complement her work in scientific analysis.