It is a challenging task to safeguard the health and safety of Singapore’s flora and fauna, and an even taller order to ensure that Singaporeans have a safe and reliable food supply. Yet the AVA has succeeded in going above and beyond to gain international recognition, for upholding the high standards of food safety in Singapore. To achieve this and successfully impact national policies, AVA has constantly ensured that its work is grounded in solid scientific fact and supported by evidence.
This foundation in science appealed to Justina Leo, motivating her to accept the AVA Overseas Undergraduate Scholarship and pursue a specialisation in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics. Today, a scientist in AVA’s Veterinary Public Health Laboratory, Microbiology department, she performs microbiological analysis for food samples. Her role is to ensure all food imported to, and exported from the nation fit the safety criteria and is aligned with national and international policies. She shares how her journey with AVA has been a fulfilling one.
How did you begin your career with AVA?
Justina Leo: I have always been interested in Science. Even as a child, I was interested in the way things worked, and would often question the basis of how things functioned. I loved documentaries about animals, especially the ones that explained each creature’s biology!
As I grew up, I began to realise that my passion lay specifically in life sciences. I wanted to pursue an education and a career in science – the aim was to find a role that allowed me to apply scientific knowledge in my work and to share this knowledge with others. I was very attracted to the many functions of AVA that have close links with the sciences, and saw a career with the organisation as a practical application of my interest and knowledge in life sciences.
What was it like studying abroad?
Justina: I pursued my degree at the University of California, Los Angeles. Living abroad took me out of my comfort zone and made me more independent and adaptable. America has a very different education system compared to Singapore, and I was required to take classes outside of my major. Together, this exposed me to many different schools of thought, which shaped the way I approach problems and issues, and has helped me develop a more holistic perspective when approaching various issues.
How did your scholarship prepare you for your role today at AVA?
Justina: I got a chance to intern at AVA’s Microbiology, Bacteriology and Virology laboratories. This enabled me to work alongside scientists and observe as they translated their theoretical knowledge into practical applications. Some of the highlights of my internship were assisting in tests for the enumeration and detection of bacteria and viruses.
It was an eye-opening experience for me to see how theoretical knowledge and critical thinking skills from the classroom could be applied in a diagnostic laboratory. I feel that this experience gave me a more concrete idea of the work in AVA and how my coursework could apply to my future job. It also gave me an idea of what to expect upon returning from my studies, so I was able to plan my curriculum and take modules to nurture the skills I need.
Leo Yi Ning Justina
AVA Overseas Undergraduate Scholar
Scientist VPHL Microbiology Department - Laboratories Group
Could you share your most memorable incident at AVA?
Justina: When I first joined the microbiology laboratory, I was surprised to see the large variety of food from the various food groups that underwent testing as part of AVA’s national surveillance programme. Until then, I had only a vague idea of what goes into our food surveillance programme. Seeing the astonishing breadth of products being tested turned an abstract concept into reality, and gave me fresh appreciation for the work I would be contributing to!
What is something people may not know about AVA?
Justina: AVA has centres all over Singapore, even in the areas less travelled to, such as Lim Chu Kang, and at the borders where people, animals and goods are constantly flowing in and out of Singapore. We even have centres far out at Saint John’s Island, where our Marine Aquaculture Centre is located.
What challenges have you faced?
Justina: One of the main challenges I face is keeping up with the quickly evolving scientific landscape. In my line of work, it is critical for me to be up to date with the latest happenings. To keep abreast of these changes, I dedicate time to reading relevant scientific articles.
What advice do you have for aspiring AVA scholars?
Justina: Aspiring AVA scholars should take the time to understand the different functions inside the organisation and see how their chosen course of study links with AVA’s work. In addition, they should try to showcase themselves and their personalities so the organisation can determine if their passions align, and if they would be a good fit.
Also, they should think about whether they are excited about contributing to such work, and decide if they can see themselves building a career here at AVA!