Podcast - Impactful with Professor Lily Kong
In the first episode of the podcast series “Impactful by RFI” by Research for Impact, SMU President Professor Lily Kong shares about her life, career, and thoughts about research and mentorship. She also revealed her love for all kinds of writing – prose, verse, and said that “being able to sit and pass over words is a pleasurable journey”. Here are some insights from the podcast.
Prof Kong is a geographer by training but she has also been called a closet sociologist and historian as she has been quite inter-disciplinary in her approach to things. But she doesn’t think she is closeted in anything as she has come out to say that she reads widely on sociology, political science and everything else. She also shared how she got into this inter-disciplinary approach. Ironically, as an undergrad, she went into an honours programme that only allowed her to do geography. But she realised as she progressed to her master’s and PhD that her education was incomplete and she needed to read more widely on other inter-disciplinary perspectives on the same issue, for her to understand that issue better. So she looked sideways at other disciplines, and how they would come together for a particular topic.
She loves to teach
Prof Kong has also always wanted to teach. Even from the age of three, her late mum had told her that she used to line her dolls up against the wall and played teacher. She loves being in the classroom and enjoys it when students ask her questions that she herself has never thought about.
Her world of research
As an undergraduate, she discovered the world of research and was happy that she could pick her own thesis topic and write about it. After her final exams, she was offered a scholarship and a job at the same time, to do her PhD in the UK and was paid to study at the same time. She returned to serve her bond and began teaching at NUS. Thereafter, she slowly got into administrative and management roles even though she never thought that she ever would get into them, and learnt a lot throughout her career. In fact, she felt like she had a different job every three to four years!
Prof Kong shared, “We come at research thinking about the phenomenon, trying to depend on our understanding about the phenomenon and use whatever disciplinary perspectives, methodological tools, theoretical approaches that we can use to enrich our understanding of the phenomenon. This is what research should be about.”
Credits her mentors for paving the way
She had a Head of Department who was focused on nurturing young people and fought for them when they wanted to put in a research grant for $160,000. In the early 1990s, a social sciences project of this scale was unheard of, in fact the norm was about 10% of this huge figure. There were several obstacles along the way, but her mentor fought hard to make this grant possible. Prof Kong’s takeaway from this episode was that “a single mindedness about how to pave the way for others to do the work and at a scale that even she had never done before, but she knew what was possible and she fought to make it possible.”
She had another mentor who only knew Prof Kong for six months, yet had her husband vouch to be Prof Kong’s guarantor for her scholarship even though he had never met Prof Kong. Indeed, she had these two important women (and one man) in her life to thank for.
Advice for others who want to follow in her footsteps
For those who want to be an academic like her, she had this advice for them: “Believing in the importance of what you do at any particular point of time, especially if your teaching or research can impact certain policies and make a difference in the lives of people. If you are just going through the motion, or plugging a gap in literature, you will not make any difference. This also applies when you take on any management role; believe that you are doing it because you can make a difference and not because it is a title that you want to hold.”