Working for the U.N.
After graduating from NUS, Dr Lee was one of only ﬁve students to earn a place in the elite Master of Architecture (Urban Design) programme at Cornell University in the United States. She became interested in urban design after a traineeship stint at the Housing and Development Board, where she also learnt about the importance of the environment in cities. At Cornell, Dr Lee minored in ﬁne arts and art history (she incidentally also holds a diploma in piano performance and plays the violin), and saw her “dream come true” with her ﬁrst solo exhibition of contemporary Chinese paintings in New York.
With a scholarship from the American Institute of Architects, she did her doctorate in environmental man- agement and technology at Harvard, which she completed in two-and-a- half years. She ended up accepting a job offer she “couldn’t refuse” in Germany, which was the strongest in the world in environmental technology, and eventually became the group’s regional manager for the Asia-Paciﬁc.
Then, in 2001, the UN awarded her a postdoctoral fellowship to conduct research on urban ecosystems. “I took a drastic pay cut, but I thought it was worth it because it is once in a lifetime that one gets a chance to work for the UN.” Apart from rubbing shoulders with Nobel laureates, the highlight for her was meeting former US President Bill Clinton. She also learned about the power of education to empower the dis- advantaged — a lesson she has carried into her current venture, Little Sun.
Little Sun for the Poor
The social enterprise project began last year after Dr Lee met Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson — famed for The Weather Project at the Tate Mod- ern in London — at a dinner party. Mr Eliasson had a design in mind for a solar-powered lamp and roped Dr Lee in to help manufacture the product. She “worked day and night” for three months on details ranging from the type of neck strap to be used to the kind of solar panels that went with the bright yellow sun-shaped lamps. The company has since sold and distributed more than 60,000 lamps since their launch at the Tate last year, and the lamps have now made their debut at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum.
Singapore Invention won Green Award
Singaporean creator of a solar lamp that made an appearance at the London ZOfZ Olympics has won a prize at the Energy Globe Awards, considered fie world's most prestigious environmental award. Dubbed Little Sun, the lamp won the national award for best submission in Singapore. The hand-size, waterproof plastic lamp in the shape of the $m was built by Dr Irene Lee, an artist and environmental entrepreneur. It was first launched and sold at London's Tate Modern museum during the Olympic Games. Proceeds from is funded its distribution to remote villages in Ethiopia without electricity.
Art And Altruism
The daughter of a doctor and a teacher, she recalls how her love for art began in Primary 1 at CHIJ Opera Estate (now known as CHIJ Katong Convent).
She forgot her art assignment one day and hastily painted one on the spot. A few days later, she was summoned to the principal’s office and, as she watched a group of girls before her being scolded, wondered if she would be punished, too. It turned out, in fact, that she had won ﬁrst prize in a com- petition for her painting of a dustbin depicting the Keep Singapore Clean Campaign theme.
“I remember being very encouraged, receiving a S$15 MPH gift voucher,” she says. She whips out this life-changing painting, which she has carefully preserved and brought along to the interview with other personal works ranging from Chinese art to still-life drawings.
She went on to pursue triple sciences at CHIJ Katong Convent and Temasek Junior College, but she still painted and drew when she could. In junior college, she was President of the Art Club and, when she was studying architecture at the National University of Singapore (NUS), her father hired a tutor to teach her Chinese brush painting. “I would paint after my teacher left at 8pm to 5am the next day.” She speaks fondly of her dad, Dr Francis Lee, a general practitioner who supported her artistic ﬂair and taught her about altruism with his heavy involvement in the community. “My late father was a very good man and I was inspired by him. There were patients who rang the house doorbell at 3am, and he would always open the door and treat them. If they couldn’t afford to pay, he wouldn’t charge them,” says Dr Lee, who fol- lowed in his spirit by designing hospitals and schools for the needy in Indonesia and Cambodia, among other contributions.