Raising the most unusual ‘pets’ for Dyson (2024)

Raising the most unusual ‘pets’ for Dyson (1)

Raising the most unusual ‘pets’ for Dyson (2)

Irene Tham

Tech Editor

SINGAPORE - Ms Joanne Kang raises hundreds of what she calls “pets” at her workplace as part of her job. They feed on soya agar and brain-heart infusion broth.

But they are not pet dogs or cats – they are pet bacteria, mould and fungi, and Ms Kang, a microbiologist, must ensure that they grow into massive colonies in sterile conditions.

This is a rather unusual activity for her consumer technology employer, Dyson, to indulge in.

But what the 44-year-old lead research scientist does is crucial to the firm that is famous for its futuristic-looking, expensive stick vacuum cleaners, air purifiers and hairdryers.

“These cultures are used in experiments to evaluate how well Dyson machines remove and kill the micro-organisms. These experiments are extremely important for assessing the effectiveness of our machines and the benefits they provide for the owners, giving us the necessary evidence to confidently make our product claims,” said Ms Kang.

She leads three other microbiologists here. They are part of a global team of 11 in-house microbiologists located in Singapore, Malaysia and Britain that also studies dust and allergens.

Her three years of work supported the claims Singapore-headquartered Dyson made for its latest WashG1 all-in-one wet floor cleaner that went on sale here on July 3.

For instance, motorised rollers on the WashG1 cleaning head let users pick up both dry and wet debris in a single pass.

While Dyson engineers determine the amount of mechanical head force, number of roller rotations, type of roller materials and hydration levels to achieve the best cleaning result, Ms Kang’s team studied the amount of bacteria life on the floor after cleaning.

Specifically, her team analysed, at a microscopic level, swab samples of puddles and moisture left behind on the floor to check if there was a significant reduction in viable bacteria count.

To achieve a high standard of hygiene, Dyson engineers built separate tanks for clean and dirty water. They also built capabilities to extract dirt from the WashG1 rollers before hydrating the rollers again with clean water.

Ms Kang, who completed her PhD in microbiology and immunology at the National University of Singapore in 2008, said she had never expected to work for a tech firm.

Many recruitment firms The Straits Times spoke to also said that their tech clients do not hire microbiologists. Jobstreet’s Asia-Pacific data showed that the biggest employers of microbiologists tend to be in the healthcare, medical, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, education and business consulting sectors.

It was curiosity that prompted her to respond to an online job ad from Dyson for a microbiologist in 2021.

She had spent a decade working in government agencies involved in public health and food safety, and interacted mostly with scientists.

So it came as a “culture shock” to her that she needed to translate scientific terms and interpret test findings for the benefit of her Dyson colleagues in the engineering and business departments.

Raising the most unusual ‘pets’ for Dyson (3)

“When the engineers need to send samples to external labs for testing, they might be unsure about the required parameters or how to interpret the results,” Ms Kang said, noting that she needs to bridge the gap.

Eventually, she got used to frequent interdepartmental interactions, and even acquired an appreciation for engineering terms and techniques. “Sometimes, I also help to refine the testing methods,” she said.

Before joining Dyson, Ms Kang spent a few months as a contract worker training hundreds of part-timers to use an automated liquid handling system to prepare nasal swabs for lab tests to detect any active infection with Covid-19.

The bulk of her professional experience was a decade at Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA), where she specialised in studies of food-borne bacteria and viruses to support national campaigns on food safety and health.

Among her most memorable contributions, she said, was a paper she co-authored, titled Microbiological Assessment Of Chicken Meat Sold At Chicken Rice Stalls In Singapore.

It was a study into the safety of chicken meat sold at hawker stalls in the aftermath of Singapore’s worst case of mass food poisoning in 2009.

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That year, two Singaporeans died and more than 40 people were hospitalised after eating rojak from a popular hawker stall at the Geylang Serai temporary market.

Investigations showed that the chopping board at the stall had faecal matter. Utensils used on raw seafood were also not cleaned properly before they were used to handle cooked food.

The stall owner was fined the maximum of $9,000 and banned from running a food business again.

Following the mass food poisoning incident, the authorities wanted to educate food handlers about hygiene. The study and the paper Ms Kang did helped to shape the content of the campaign, which focused on the most popular hawker fare: chicken rice.

After examining samples of boiled, fried and soya-sauce chicken meat from more than 60 stalls across Singapore, Ms Kang and 10 other fellow researchers found that boiling was less effective than frying for killing bacteria, possibly due to undercooking or cold-water dunking after the chicken was boiled.

The risk of inadequately boiling chicken meat was then communicated to hawkers. Hawkers were also advised to sell cooked chicken within two hours of preparation to minimise the risk of food poisoning.

Ms Kang’s expertise also came in handy in a 2013 case involving a hawker passing beef off as mutton. She provided a quantitative DNA test to determine the threshold for any accidental contamination of mutton with beef.

It was found that the hawker, located at ABC Brickworks Market and Food Centre in Jalan Bukit Merah, had deliberately adulterated mutton with beef, as the latter was cheaper. The hawker was subsequently fined $3,000 and had his stall operating licence revoked for selling adulterated meat.

In a way, Ms Kang’s current job at Dyson has changed her life – she has given up on keeping common house pets.

She used to keep birds, fishes, rabbits and dogs at different times.

“My choice to not have any house pets is partly influenced by my occupation. I’m now hyper aware that animals like dogs can carry fleas, ticks and allergens into the house,” she said.

More On This Topic

Dyson’s S’pore base aims to connect to future devices via Wi-Fi for real-time performance insights

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Raising the most unusual ‘pets’ for Dyson (2024)

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