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A Day in the Life of: Muhammad Sayyid Aly, Senior Research Engineer at SMART DiSTAP

Meet Muhammad Sayyid Aly, Senior Research Engineer at the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision Interdisciplinary Research Group (DiSTAP IRG) in SMART. With the overall focus on developing novel technologies to meet the global demand for food, Sayyid’s work at DiSTAP aims to fundamentally change how plant biosynthetic pathways are discovered, monitored, and engineered by adapting sensors, biomaterials, and algorithms directly to the urban farm. His dedication and passion for his work have enabled him to make significant contributions that have helped other researchers at DiSTAP, as well as farmers to control and maximise yield and improve crop modularity.

Read on to learn more about what goes on in a day in the life of Sayyid, his advice for young scientists in similar fields, and other passions that keep him up outside of work.

How do you typically start your day before work?

I start the day by having a light breakfast with some coffee at home. This helps fuel me up for the long day ahead. I also go through the daily news and social media while on the trip before reaching work.

Take us through your work day at SMART. How much of your day is spent in your office vs. the lab?

My daily routine varies depending on my schedule. I usually start by checking my work plan for the day and make plans to begin experimental work early as some of the experiments require a long waiting time to process. Typically, I strike a balance between laboratory work, where I engage in new experiments, and office tasks, involving data processing and the development of automation programs. Occasionally, when tackling more time-intensive experiments, I dedicate a significant portion of my day to working in the lab and experimenting with new material for nano sensors.

On any given day, what does your work in the office and lab involve?

While in the lab, I contribute to diverse experimental projects, ranging from the synthesis of nano sensors and polymers to the screening and validation of sensors in plants. In the office, my responsibilities primarily involve data processing, the development of automation programmes using MATLAB/Python, and the undertaking of literature reviews. Additionally, I strategise and plan experimental work aimed at optimising existing sensors in solid form for other applications.

As a layperson, we often see scientists depicted in popular media having their ‘aha’ moments where they work on incredible technologies that change the world. Have you ever had an “aha” moment? If so, can you briefly describe where you were and what did you discover?

My first aha moment came when I finally synthesised an encapsulated nano sensor film and hydrogel. Although it is still a work-in-progress as we have yet to develop a working product, it is the first big step.

My recent aha moment came in the office when I developed a working programme that automatically calculates and plots sensor responses in living plants. I also created a programme that automatically computes intensity measurement for screening sensors in microplates. These two programmes have helped to significantly reduce time taken to process data for other researchers in DiSTAP.

Research can be unpredictable, with setbacks and challenges along the way. How do you handle obstacles or unexpected issues that arise during your workday?

I try to anticipate setbacks by always starting my work early so that I have more than enough time to resolve or report unexpected issues. I also seek advice from some of my experienced colleagues and superiors when I have difficulty getting the right results in an experiment.

What advice do you have for young scientists beginning their careers?

My advice is to always be patient as not all experimental work results in scientific breakthroughs. Most importantly, always be keen to learn from mistakes and from experienced folks. Some of the breakthroughs in history occur after several failures.

What is your go-to lunch option during workdays?

My go-to lunch options in UTown are usually the western food at Fine Food or Tenderfresh at Flavours. When I am in the mood for light food, I explore different cafes here.

What are your weekends usually like? How do you spend your time outside of work?

I try to balance my time between working out, studying, and enjoying meals out. I also allocate a portion of my time for leisure activities such as video games, watching football and most importantly, rest.

How do you strike a balance between work, family/friends/close ones, and me-time?

Honestly, I think that there is no perfect balance. Instead, I strive to be productive by planning things in advance, so that my time is well-spent. I also occasionally take leave to ensure I have enough time for everything outside of work.

If you had an extra hour in your day, what would you spend it doing?

Picking up new skills or learning to play new music. I used to play guitar but stopped due to time constraints. I would also love to try physical activities that I have yet to do, such as rock climbing or bouldering.

What excites you the most about your work?

I find joy in uncovering new insights about plants by utilising innovative nano sensors. I am particularly excited about engaging with cutting-edge technology and undertaking complex projects that strive to address real-world challenges and have never been explored before globally.

If you were given unlimited resources for your research, what would you do with them, and is there anything you would do differently?

I would focus on expanding the area of research for nano sensors beyond plant application. Nano sensors are an emerging technology with immense potential to be used in diverse fields, and the possibilities of developing nano sensors beyond current use cases and applications are endless. Machine learning is another useful field with the potential to be expanded upon, as it can accelerate research studies by enabling more advanced analysis of complex data.

What is your favourite food or cuisine, and why?

I love sashimi and sushi. I have a deep appreciation of the blend of flavour that comes from the freshness of the ingredients, and especially love the contrasting texture and the added flavour profile from the soy sauce and the kick from the wasabi.

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