Published on 08 Mar 2024

Levelling up in the STEM field

As NTU celebrates our alumnae’s progress this International Women’s Day, we speak with Assoc Prof Lydia Wong, an advocate for women in science, on her career journey and how she has been unafraid to push the envelope in scientific research and education.

By Sadia Roohi

As a young student, NTU’s Associate Professor Lydia Wong (MSE/2002) was fascinated with chemistry and excelled in the subject. She was intrigued by how it could be applied to discover or manufacture real products used in daily life.

“These new compounds may prove to be especially useful in future for other inventions. For example, semiconductors were at the heart of the electronic devices that kickstarted the internet era and smart devices, and materials innovation in the nanoscale may bring out new functionalities in materials," Assoc Prof Wong says, describing her passion for the field.

Assoc Prof Lydia Wong (MSE/2002) is an NTU alumna and a faculty member at her alma mater.

Despite coming from a family with a background in business, she chose to pursue her interest in science and research. After her high school education in 1998, she took up a tuition fee loan to study in Singapore at NTU’s then School of Applied Science, majoring in Materials Science and Engineering. After finishing her Bachelor’s degree, she continued with a Doctor of Philosophy in Materials Science and Engineering under a corporate sponsorship jointly funded by Chartered Semiconductor (now Global Foundries).

Today, Assoc Prof Wong, a mother of two, holds multiple roles in academia, receiving teaching awards and gaining international recognition for her research work.

Assoc Prof Wong with her husband, Hendra Wijaya, who is an MAE alumnus, and their two daughters. It was during her university days that she met Hendra, who graduated in 2001.

She is a Cluster Director at the Energy Research Institute @NTU and the founding Executive Director of Indonesia–NTU Singapore Institute of Research for Sustainability and Innovation (INSPIRASI).

In early 2023, she was appointed the Associate Editor of the Journal of Materials Chemistry A, a leading journal in Sustainability and Renewable Energy. She has also been elected as a Fellow of Royal Society of Chemistry, the oldest chemical society in the world.

From January 2024, she has taken on an additional role as the Director of the Global Alliance of Industries @ NTU (GAIN) at the NTU President’s Office to drive industry-university partnerships by connecting industries to NTU's robust ecosystem of resources.

Pushing the boundaries in science

Assoc Prof Wong is a highly cited researcher who publishes widely in her area of interest: functional materials for clean energy and electronic applications.

While pursuing her Ph.D degree, Assoc Prof Wong travelled the world to meet other scientists and researchers and collaborated with A*STAR and the National University of Singapore. These experiences laid the foundation for her interdisciplinary research approach.

After graduation, she took up the role of a senior engineer in industry but left after two years to rejoin her alma mater as a lecturer in 2008 and then rise through the ranks.

Gatherings with fellow alumni provide an opportunity for Assoc Prof Wong to catch up with her former university mates, some of whom are accomplished leaders in STEM.

She frequently emphasises to her students the importance of interactions with peers from diverse disciplines to push the boundaries in science through collaboration, and that the insights acquired should be shared with the broader community.

“The knowledge gained should be disseminated to non-scientists and those unaware of the critical role science plays in various aspects of our lives. Scientists and students’ journeys in science are not only for personal achievement but also about contributing to the greater good of society,” she said.

Assoc Prof Wong with some of her research group members in her lab.

She is working on discovering materials that can convert solar energy to electricity or fuels. “One way is to use materials to generate green hydrogen by splitting water using solar energy. Out of all the elements in the periodic table, only 5% of the potential combinations have been discovered. Imagine what we can do with the 95% of undiscovered materials,” she remarks.

Assoc Prof Wong met Johnny Widodo, President of the NTU Alumni Association (Indonesia) (2nd from right) and fellow alumni at the NTU Alumni Regional Conference in Jakarta on 26 August 2023. Also seen here are, from left, Ikhsan Ramdan and Teezar Firmansyah, former ExCo members of the alumni association.      

Paving the way for women in STEM

Reflecting on her journey, Assoc Prof Wong acknowledged there were challenges for a woman working in the STEM field.

Her mission is to encourage more young girls, including her daughters, to pursue STEM careers. To young girls and women contemplating STEM careers, Assoc Prof Wong's advice is to be fearless and confident.

“Girls can do whatever they set their mind to. There is nothing physically or biologically different in us that prevents women from being as successful in STEM as men. Do not be afraid to break barriers and challenge stereotypes," Assoc Prof Wong urged, drawing from her own experiences. "The scientific community benefits from diversity, and we need more women contributing their unique perspectives.”

She personally knows many accomplished women in STEM, some of whom are NTU alumnae and have regularly met up together in gatherings. She said that these women make a positive impact in the corporate world and can be role models for young girls.

A younger Assoc Prof Wong at her graduation in 2002 with her parents (right) and Prof Wong Chee Cheong (left), her Ph.D thesis advisor.

Assoc Prof Wong's daughters, aged nine and 11, eagerly request visits to her lab, displaying a fascination with their mother's profession. She believes their interest in science is not solely influenced by her work but also rooted in their early exposure to the subject in school. Both Assoc Prof Wong and her husband engage with their daughters' numerous questions at home, providing explanations that connect with the girls' school subjects.

She emphasised the importance of early exposure to STEM disciplines, "We need to prepare the future generations of girls going into science as early as secondary school or polytechnic. Initiatives such as creating awareness, introducing role models, and providing scholarships for women pursuing STEM education will help."

Support women in STEM at NTU

NTU aims to make a more profound impact on the future of women in STEM fields. POWERS (Promotion of Women in Engineering, Research, and Science) is a homegrown initiative that started in 2021, and focused on recruiting and supporting women aged 13 to 30 in STEM education and careers.

You, too, can make a difference by donating to the "Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WiEST) General Development Fund." Your contribution will support scholarships, mentorship programmes, research opportunities, and networking events for talented young women pursuing STEM careers. Make your gift by clicking here.