Writing has always had a central role in Nam Cheah's life (MSci Geology 2015). During her final year at Imperial, she was the Felix travel editor and, encouraged by her journalism experience writing for Imperial's student newspaper, Nam decided to make writing her career. Her upcoming book It's a Match is a young adult near-future SciFi about online dating, AI, and algorithms, and is partly based in Imperial. Find out more about Nam's books, including It's a Match, on her website.
We caught up with Nam to hear about her studies at Imperial and her favourite places on campus, and discover how her science degree and time at Felix have helped her to write this book.
Can you tell us about your studies at Imperial?
I did an undergraduate MSci Geology, which means I got my Masters at the end of a four-year degree. A lot of people I met have no idea what Geology is or that Imperial actually offers it, but it’s a fascinating field of studies that opened my eyes to the history of the planet.
One of my favourite projects was researching the genus Homo in my third year for a presentation and getting to learn so much about the evolution of our species!
Another thing that I love about Geology is all the field trips we go to. It’s a rare chance to get to know all of your classmates and you can do that in Geology. We visited some spectacular places like the Spanish Pyrenees, Sardinia, and I did my mapping project in Samos, Greece for six weeks.
Tell us a bit about the work you’re doing now.
I’m a writer, both fiction and non-fiction. My latest project is a young adult SciFi novel It’s a Match under my writer's name Samantha Cheah. It is set in the near future London and follows 22-year-old Sarah, who is the last single girl in her group. She thought it would be clever to get her AI Virtual Assistant to get her online dating matches. That is, until matches start approaching her on the streets and she discovers that her AIVA has been influencing her entire life.
My previous books are a YA post-apocalyptic trilogy under Shadow Cheah. It is set in a world 300 years after a bio-nuclear apocalypse where people live in walled cities that safeguard them from mutated animals. Except animals weren’t the only ones that have mutated.
Outside of that, I’m a freelance writer and run my own travel blog Laugh Travel Eat. I have also written for GastroObscura, Whetstone, National Geographic, Matador Network, Culture Trip, South China Morning Post, and other outlets, mostly on travel, food, culture, and sustainability.
How has what you learnt at Imperial helped you in your career so far?
Geology has helped me learn how to be analytical and think in 3-D and longer time scales, and to combine observations with research. It is an important skill for any line of work, and, in particular, writing.
In a sense, trying to piece together the geological history of an area is almost like piecing together a novel or story. I’ve learned to be structured when I write and methodical, which pushes me through when I’m on a creative block. Not to mention that as a lover of SciFi, having a science background gives me a better understanding of what can and can’t happen, and the lingo when I research.
All the skills I have learned from my degree have been immensely helpful. When you write SciFi, world-building is very important and having a background in science helps, too. For freelance writing, it’s important to fact check and make sure I present all the information.
My experience in running clubs and societies has also taught me how to be a self-starter, which is important when you have your own schedule.
What is your fondest memory of your time here?
My fondest memories are all the field trips we had gone on in Geology, which really pushed me outside my comfort zone. I always remember being told that there’s no such thing as a fair-weather geologist, and we all had to work in the rain on our field trip to Scotland. It is these kinds of experiences that let me know I can push myself and that I can get things done.
I also became the travel editor for Felix in my third year and it was great seeing my articles published. I’ve also learned so much about journalism which helped me with my freelance writing career.
What have been your career highlights and lowlights?
My highlights include seeing my books for the first time in physical copy, and my soon to be published new book It’s a Match. My travel blog has also taken me to some spectacular places like Nepal, Luang Namtha in Laos, and getting published on National Geographic and GastroObscura are both amazing.
My lowlight is when COVID-19 hit and I had to stop travelling and many of my freelance writing gigs stopped. But the silver lining is that it gave me the time to finish It’s a Match.
What does a typical day look like for you now?
A typical day for me used to be quite varied, but in general, a working day involves checking the emails in the morning, then writing until lunchtime. I’ll write some more before taking a break to exercise, then dinner and more writing, because I work best at night.
If I’m travelling, I usually try to pack as much as I can into the day, then have an early dinner and write/work after.
What is your favourite place at Imperial and why?
I’m very partial to my department, the Royal School of Mines. It is such a beautiful building and I love everything from the lecture halls to our third-floor cafe to the ancient lift at the back stairs. It is where I spend most of my time in Imperial and it feels like home.
What are your plans for the future?
I plan to continue writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and hope to travel again when it’s safe!
What would be your advice for current students?
Don’t be afraid to try new things and figure out what you like. I think the best thing about Imperial being a science and engineering university is that we have so many societies to expand our horizons. I learned journalism and writing in Felix, Photoshop skills from Photo Society, and many other skills! You don’t have to stick to what you study for your career, because the skills you learn can still be applied to so many places.
What makes you proud to be an Imperial alumnus?
Imperial has such an incredible standard for education that I am proud to have worked my way through the four years. It fosters a great environment of learning for students from all over the world, and the friendly atmosphere from the Earth Science Department is something that I miss and cherish.