Deriving pleasure and satisfaction from one’s work might seem a challenge to many. A job is, after all, merely a means to an end, whatever that end might be. So, a deeper dive into what the work means and the impact it has on a person’s development then seems a tad trying and even pretentious. But for Tham Jing Yang – scientist by day and urban farmer at all other times – it’s all about the work, both paid and voluntary. As much as he might have been born with a natural inclination to question, he had to learn how to tap into that innate sense and make something of it.
Jing Yang credits his “growing up” process to his time in an international school in Shanghai. As a liberal arts student, he indulged in Literature and Psychology because “these subjects seemed more exciting than Maths”. His eventually poor Maths scores were a bitter taste of failure and he understood his need for structure to be imposed upon him rather than relying on his own sense of discipline to see him through. Back in Singapore, he found himself in a job that set that agenda for him. Fresh out of university, Jing Yang landed a job as a researcher at A*Star (The Agency For Science, Technology and Research). Obvious structure aside, Jing Yang fully appreciates the tight co-relation between academia and industry application. He feels he’s being useful to society. His work in the imaging field focuses on metabolism, specifically on how our bodies deal with fat and fat cells. “We have learned that fat generates heat by breaking itself down. Understanding that fat is more than a food store has several important implications. For example, we might be closer to finding out if X population or demographic is more prone to diabetes and what we can do about it.”
His volunteer gig with Edible Gardens started out with weekly farming sessions in 2012. With no real plan other than to hang out, he says, “I like to cook and I was just interested in growing my own herbs. Why pay five bucks at the supermarket for basil that I can grow in my flat?!”
About two and a bit years on, those weekly sessions have turned into a serious project where he now spends several weekday evenings and all of the weekends at Edible Gardens’ temporary space on Rowell Road in the Little India precinct. Surprisingly, he’s still a volunteer but that suits him just fine. The sense of achievement he feels when his mushrooms bloom, the conversations he has with the people he meets and the events he helps to organise to promote urban farming are payment enough for him. More than anything else, working with plants, along with his A*Star job, has given him hope.
Rather self-deprecatingly, Jing Yang says, “I’m interesting to people only because I’m a scientist.” But more than being able to talk about fat cells and soil substrates, Jing Yang relishes his part in the creation process. Just as he feels immense pride when he sees his research taking on real-life applications, so, too, do his feathers plump up when his basil plants flourish. “I used to limit myself even before starting on a project by saying things like ‘Oh, I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m not qualified’. But now, I understand how connected I am with my environment. And that insight keeps me motivated. Of course the plants would grow anyway without me, but they show me what I’m capable of. I have my handprint on them the minute I commit to planting those seeds. Because of that, I want to make sure that I see them through.”