From left to right: Assoc Prof Victoria Leong, Assoc Prof Yeong Wai Yee and Prof Lam Yeng Ming.
While it is exciting to be at the forefront of science and technology, a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can be demanding and fraught with obstacles. In addition, females in STEM-related careers may face unique barriers. Although the proportion of women in Singapore pursuing university degrees in STEM has increased in recent years based on available statistics from the Ministry of Education, data from a study led by NTU shows that males still outnumber females in STEM occupations.
We speak to three NTU research trailblazers who also happen to be female and hear their advice to those wishing to pursue careers in research and STEM.
Foster an interest in STEM from a young age
Assoc Prof Victoria Leong of the School of Social Sciences was a curious child who spent a lot of time outdoors. Growing up, she was interested in topics ranging from crystals, electrical circuits, to making her own perfumes.
“My parents were open-minded about how I spent my free time. Left to my own devices, my interest in the natural world grew. I fondly remember climbing into drains to explore them,” said Assoc Prof Leong.
Assoc Prof Leong has not looked back since. Heading the Baby-LINC lab at NTU, her research focusses on understanding how babies learn by observing and interacting with their caregivers.
Recently, Assoc Prof Leong won funding from the Wellcome LEAP 1kD programme to develop toys that help psychologists to sensitively measure the development of cognitive skills in children.
Assoc Prof Leong (in orange dress) and members of the Baby-LINC lab study how social interactions between children and caregivers shape early brain and cognitive development.
Assoc Prof Yeong of the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering who is also Deputy Director of the HP-NTU Digital Manufacturing Corporate Lab, counts Physics and Biology as her favourite topics.
“I am very excited to combine both of my interests now through engineering and create new innovations for biomedical applications as a scientist and as an engineer,” said Assoc Prof Yeong, who uses 3D printing to create organs and tissues that may someday be used to replace worn out ones.
Assoc Prof Yeong won the inaugural TCT Women in 3D printing Innovator Award in 2019, an international award that recognises female innovators who are leading the charge in the world of design-to-manufacturing.
Agreeing with Prof Yeong, Prof Lam who is the Chair of the School of Materials Science and Engineering and the Director of the Facility for Analysis, Characterisation, Testing and Simulation (FACTS) lab at NTU said, “I have always found Physics fascinating as it helps to explain the things that happen around us”.
For her research on the self-assembly of peptides for sensing applications, Prof Lam was awarded the inaugural L'Oréal Singapore for Women in Science National Fellowship in 2009 that recognises the contributions of young women scientists to the advancement of science and research in Singapore.
The path to a career in research may take many turns
Assoc Prof Leong started her career teaching children with special needs. Later, she worked at the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) as an executive, developing policies for special needs schools. A relative latecomer to academia, she decided in her late twenties to return to the University of Cambridge where she had earlier completed a Bachelor’s degree in Medical Science, this time to pursue a Masters in Education, and subsequently a PhD in Psychology.
Meanwhile, both Assoc Prof Yeong and Prof Lam Yeng Ming had their starts in industry. Before becoming a university professor, Assoc Prof Yeong worked as a research scientist in a biomedical company and set up a laboratory to validate a new production line for a contact lens manufacturing plant. She subsequently joined NTU in 2013 and helped to set up the NTU Additive Manufacturing Centre (NAMC). Assoc Prof Yeong also helped win a grant to set up the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing (SC3DP).
Prof Lam joined a semiconductor company as an engineer after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering from NTU. However, she missed the freedom to explore the different applications of materials so she pursued a PhD degree at the University of Cambridge on an NTU scholarship, which started her career in research.
Far from being distracting detours, the scientists agree that their experiences outside of academia made them better researchers.
“Experiencing different jobs outside academia helped me identify a previously unexplored interdisciplinary field of research that I was interested in, which is how social interactions between children and caregivers shape early brain and cognitive development,” said Prof Leong.
Assoc Prof Yeong said that it was through her early experiences that she established a holistic view on science, engineering and innovation. “At the manufacturing plant, we ran at high speed, extracting maximum value all the time and were always in problem-solving mode. These are the traits that I develop in my research group to push for breakthroughs in science.”
Drawing on her experiences outside academia, Assoc Prof Yeong cultivates a problem-solving mindset in researchers from her research group.
The community and mindset are just as important as the research
Researchers are often perceived as preferring to be separated from the rest of the world, cloistered in an ivory tower, but this is largely false in their experience say the NTU trailblazers, who regard a supportive network and positive mindset as being vital to managing what can be an isolating experience.
For Assoc Prof Leong, support comes in the form of family, friends, collaborators and mentors, whom she enjoys spending time with.
Likewise, Prof Lam enjoys activities such as cycling, travelling and skiing with her family.
Having a positive attitude towards rejection, setbacks and failure is also crucial.
“There are always days when we thought we had the most brilliant ideas in the world, and then the idea was published the very next week by another research group. I guess great minds think alike! It is therefore very important to remain flexible with a holistic view on the targeted research field, so that we can adapt and rethink the research strategy quickly while not compromising the value of the research,” said Assoc Prof Yeong.
“There are lots of disappointments in research, but we have to keep a positive attitude that we are always learning from failure,” added Prof Lam.
Activities such as cycling, travelling and skiing help Prof Lam get through the hard days in research.
Support from loved ones and the workplace is important for female scientists and engineers who may face unique challenges
Females have conventionally shouldered the greater responsibility of caregiving duties. As such, the support from family and within the workplace is critical to helping to close the gender gap between males and females in STEM careers, say the NTU academics.
“The challenge is greater for mothers and we also see similar challenges for mothers in other workplaces. I took four months off maternity leave to care for my newborn. My research work had to stop for a while and my teaching score was also affected. NTU is a supportive workplace and I am grateful for the supporting staff as well to help me through the challenging period. My family is also very supportive and I count myself a lucky person,” said Assoc Prof Yeong.
“You need to prioritise and understand what matters most to you, what is worth putting more time in and how you can work more efficiently,” agreed Prof Lam.
“I am grateful that NTU has provided flexibility and support for young researchers to get their career off the ground and sustain it. Flexible working arrangements mean that I am able to arrange my time in such a way that I am more productive,” said Prof Leong.
Lastly, remember to have fun
Ultimately it is important to be kind to yourself and to enjoy your career in STEM, say the researchers. Assoc Prof Leong has this piece of advice: Learn to laugh when there are challenges and find the humour in all situations.
“Just because things don’t go your way doesn’t mean you have failed as a scientist. Celebrate the small moments and be happy and grateful for the people around you,” she added.
“Believe in yourself, just do it and have fun!” quipped Assoc Prof Yeong.
“When the going gets tough, always remember why you chose STEM in the first place. See everything as valuable experience and keep an open mind on what comes your way,” advised Prof Lam.