A*STAR scholar poisoned lab mates (2014)

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In November 2014, an Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) scholarship holder was arrested for trying to poison the drinking water of her classmates at Stanford University, California.[1] A*STAR is a statutory board in Singapore under the Ministry of Trade and Industry that aims to develop science, engineering, and biomedicine through research.[2]

Background

A still from the CCTV footage of Ouyang (bottom right) near the vicinity of the Nusse Lab on the day of the sabotage. Photo from The New Paper.

Singaporean Ouyang Xiangyu was a former Temasek Junior College student. Originally from China, she was awarded A*STAR’s National Science Scholarship (PhD) in 2013 for her outstanding academic performance as an undergraduate at Imperial College London. She was expected to complete her PhD studies at Stanford University by 2018, before returning to Singapore to complete her five-year bond.[3]


She was described by her Stanford University peers as a “nice, quiet and shy girl” who appeared to be under some stress as a result of her cancer research.[4]  She became a full-time member of the Nusse Lab at Stanford in June 2014, a department of developmental biology which was part of the Stanford School of Medicine.[5]


Since August 2014, a string of unexplained events occurred in the Nusse Lab. Researcher Ms Youngsoo Rim observed that her experiments had been repeatedly sabotaged. Ouyang came under suspicion when CCTV footage revealed that she had entered the incubator room used by Ms Rim for her experiments.[6]

Details of incident

Ouyang Xiangyu was an A*STAR scholarship holder who was pursuing her PhD at Stanford University, California. Photo from The Straits Times.

In September 2014, two graduate students experienced an immediate burning sensation in their throats and mouths after drinking water from their water bottles. Upon sniffing the contents of the bottles, they noticed that the water smelled like paraformaldehyde (PFA), a readily available chemical in the lab that was used to preserve tissue samples.[7]


As a result of the events in August and September 2014, Stanford University placed Ouyang under “involuntary psychiatric hold” where she was hospitalised. Ouyang was arrested in November 2014. When questioned, she confessed to sabotaging Ms Youngsoo Rim's experiment and attempting to poison herself and her classmates by spiking their water bottles.[8]

Police questioning

Ouyang spiked two of her labmates' water bottles with PFA (Paraformaldehyde), a readily available chemical in the Nusse Lab used to preserve tissue samples.

After a series of questioning, Ouyang claimed that she had been suffering from severe insomnia and dizziness since September 2014. At times, she admitted to not being fully conscious of her actions. While she did seek help initially, she was only given anti-depressants by a psychiatrist. Eventually, she stopped consuming them as she claimed that the medication made her headaches worse.[9]


Ouyang admitted to putting Trypsin, an enzyme that degrades proteins, in her own cell cultures to kill them, as well as those belonging to Ms Youngsoo Rim. Ouyang claimed that she was in a “state of sleepwalking” and could not explain why she sabotaged both their experiments.


With regards to her poisoning attempts, Ouyang stated that she first started to mix dishwashing detergent into her water before drinking it. At the lab, she would put random chemicals, including PFA, into her bottle as well as two other bottles near her. She insisted that she did not know who the bottles belonged to.[10]


Ouyang was subsequently detained but was out on a S$68, 600 bail and not allowed to leave the United States of America. She was also expelled from Stanford University following the incident.[11]

A*STAR Singapore is a statutory board under Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Responses

Ouyang’s case spurred a series of discussions relating to scholarship holders and their mental health.

Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)

In their statement, A*STAR stated that their overseas scholars are encouraged to network and form close ties while looking out for each other. The agency said that it “maintained close contact with its overseas scholars, monitoring their overall well-being through emails and in-person”. Each scholar was also appointed a scholarship officer who contacted them regularly.[12]


Although A*STAR monitored the case closely and expressed their deep concern, they could not take action until the court proceedings in California was wrapped up.[13]

Ouyang Xiangyu's peers at Stanford University

Other Singaporeans at Stanford University who knew Ouyang did not find out about the incident until much later. When inquired, Stanford University clarified that they did not alert the rest of the campus about the incident as Ouyang was no longer an “immediate threat” and the victims requested that the matter be kept private.[14]


When interviewed, Ouyang’s classmates and acquaintances described her as a shy person who found it hard to make friends. She would often keep to herself and rejected invitations to group gatherings organised by other A*Star scholarship holders and Singaporeans, stating that she was busy with her work. She appeared to be under immense pressure to succeed in graduate school.[15]

Court verdict

On 15 January 2016, Ouyang was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to complete 176 days of community service. She pleaded “no contest” to the four counts of poisoning. The verdict was reached after the judge considered her character references, victim statements about their current physical conditions and Ouyang’s mental condition. Ouyang agreed to carry out community service five days a week, starting on 22 February 2016.[16]


When interviewed, the deputy district attorney, Anne Seery, said that she decided not to push for jail time as the victims agreed that Ouyang would be better off getting counselling and therapy.[17]

References / Citations

  1. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star researcher ‘nice and quiet but appeared to be under stress’”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-researcher-nice-and-quiet-but-appeared-to-be-under-stress
  2. "A*Star is born, Boon conies on board as MD". The Straits Times. January 5, 2002. Accessed on August 12, 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  3. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star scholarship holder charged with poisoning classmates”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.tnp.sg/news/others/schoolmates-astar-scholar-trial-us-she-was-brightest-bulb-school
  4. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star researcher ‘nice and quiet but appeared to be under stress’”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-researcher-nice-and-quiet-but-appeared-to-be-under-stress
  5. Sim, Melissa. “A*Star scholarship holder Ouyang Xiangyu expelled from Stanford”, The Straits Times. April 8, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-scholarship-holder-ouyang-xiangyu-expelled-from-stanford
  6. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star researcher ‘nice and quiet but appeared to be under stress’”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-researcher-nice-and-quiet-but-appeared-to-be-under-stress
  7. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star researcher ‘nice and quiet but appeared to be under stress’”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-researcher-nice-and-quiet-but-appeared-to-be-under-stress
  8. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star researcher ‘nice and quiet but appeared to be under stress’”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-researcher-nice-and-quiet-but-appeared-to-be-under-stress
  9. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star researcher ‘nice and quiet but appeared to be under stress’”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-researcher-nice-and-quiet-but-appeared-to-be-under-stress
  10. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star researcher ‘nice and quiet but appeared to be under stress’”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-researcher-nice-and-quiet-but-appeared-to-be-under-stress
  11. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star scholarship holder charged with poisoning classmates”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-scholarship-holder-charged-with-poisoning-classmates
  12. Ng Jun Sen. “Schoolmates of A*Star Scholar on trial in US: She was ‘brightest bulb’ in school”. The New Paper. May 17, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.tnp.sg/news/others/schoolmates-astar-scholar-trial-us-she-was-brightest-bulb-school
  13. Lim, Joyce. “A*Star scholarship holder charged with poisoning classmates”. The Straits Times. April 2, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-scholarship-holder-charged-with-poisoning-classmates
  14. Lim, Joyce and Pearl Lee. “A*Star scholarship holder ‘stressed, shy and insecure’”. The Straits Times. April 3, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-scholarship-holder-charged-with-poisoning-classmates
  15. Lim, Joyce and Pearl Lee. “A*Star scholarship holder ‘stressed, shy and insecure’”. The Straits Times. April 3, 2015. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-scholarship-holder-charged-with-poisoning-classmates
  16. Sim, Melissa. “Former A*Star scholar Ouyang Xiangyu gets 3 years’ probation for poisoning lab mates”. The Straits Times. January 16, 2016. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-scholarship-holder-charged-with-poisoning-classmates
  17. Sim, Melissa. “Former A*Star scholar Ouyang Xiangyu gets 3 years’ probation for poisoning lab mates”. The Straits Times. January 16, 2016. Accessed 7 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/astar-scholarship-holder-charged-with-poisoning-classmates