Get the buzz on Sean Loh, a final-year Food Technology student who had a one-of-a-kind learning experience during his Overseas Integrated Work Study Programme.
Sean Loh (top row, extreme left), together with his teammates at Chiang Mai University’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology apiary. (Photo: Sean Loh)
When Sean Loh’s hand swelled up and went numb for two weeks after he was stung by a bee during his Overseas Integrated Work Study Programme (OIWSP), he was completely unfazed. Bee stings were a common occurrence at the apiary he was working, located at Chiang Mai University’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology.
“My Thai colleagues told me that the first time is usually the worst. Any subsequent stings after that will not be as bad, which I found to be true,” he explained.
Allergic reactions to bee stings are just a minor downside to Sean’s seven-month internship stint. The 25-year-old has had an avid interest in entomology since young and keeps stick insects and ants as a hobby. Naturally, it was a dream come true for him to get up close and personal with the biology of honeybees and the ins and outs of bee farming, a vital part of northern Thailand’s agricultural and animal husbandry economy.
Adapting to a Different Way of Life
Sean was no stranger to Thailand, having had a previous internship in Pathum Thani. However, staying in a smaller town where the university is located, right next to the Thai countryside, is a novel experience for the city boy from Singapore. The minor cultural differences he encountered working as part of a team of laboratory researchers there taught him a lot about respect and acknowledgement.
“One of the first things my Thai colleagues taught me was how to address our seniors, including our professors properly. It was a form of respect. I was initially unused to it and would call them by their names, but they would gently and affably remind me,” he recalled.
Sean was part of a small team of six. Led by a Professor, the rest of the team comprised of a PhD researcher, a master’s student and interns from other parts of the world. Together with his colleagues, he would help tend the apiary, or bee farm, when they were not working in the lab.
“I would help to harvest the honey every two months, learning the entire process from start to finish. It’s very labour-intensive work,” he revealed.
Working with Nature
Bees that Sean worked with during his OIWSP in Chiang Mai. (Photo: Sean Loh)
The team would also make field trips to visit bee farms in neighbouring provinces to check on the well-being of the honeybees and the progress of any collaborations the university had with them.
“One of the projects our lab did was to develop supplementary pollen feed for the bees during the colder months when food was scarce for them. This would help keep the bees producing honey all throughout the year,” he said.
In fact, the results for the project – in which he was one of the contributors – were showcased in a poster presentation at an International Conference in Jeju, South Korea.
As insects are an acceptable form of food to the Thai people, Sean worked on a project developing soy sauce from the honeybees. “I fermented the honey from giant honeybees in a brine solution for 30 days and subjected it to analysis and evaluation. The resulting flavours were comparable to commercial soy sauce but with floral notes,” he shared.
He found that the lab training and experimental methods that he learned at SIT prepared him well for his stint there. “I was able to dive right in and work independently on my own,” he said.
Going Beyond the Sylla-buzz
Sean’s contributions did not just stop at bee farming and lab work. His department also regularly played host to visiting international researchers. As one of the team members who was conversant in English, Sean stepped up and helped as an unofficial interpreter to these foreign guests from Germany, Switzerland, USA and Korea. This gave him the opportunity to share his own project work and imbibe ideas from them, helping him build connections with a professional network of researchers working in food science and entomology.
Sean Loh (right) and his teammate visiting Doi Inthanon National Park. (Photo: Sean Loh)
Outside of work, Sean formed close bonds with his teammates, frequently hanging out with them after work. By the end of his seven-month stint, he found himself very much a part of the research team there.
“My seniors would give me projects to handle independently on my own, and I would join them on their work exchange trips to other universities within Thailand. They treated me like I was one of them, not an intern,” he said.
Calling his OIWSP experience an extremely rewarding one, Sean said, “This was a rare opportunity linking my love of entomology with food science. It has taught me a lot about the potential of insects as a sustainable food source and brings me closer to my personal goal of formulating edible insects as novel products suitable for human consumption.”
To his fellow SIT students about to embark on their OIWSP stints, he has some practical advice: “Set realistic expectations and approach challenges with an open mind and a positive attitude. Stay proactive to continually expand your skills and professional network.”
Watch Sean on his OIWSP journey here.