Let our shared passion for science and engineering shape the world around us

International Women's Day, observed on 8 March, is a global occasion that celebrates the resilience, achievements, and empowerment of women. As we honour the strength, wisdom, and indomitable spirit of women who continue to shape our world, NUS News speaks to two young women in NUS who share a common passion for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and are determined to make a difference in their respective fields.

On the nature of luck and the transformative power of catalysts

Assistant Professor Iris Yu believes that the quest for personal knowledge and self-discovery is not an easy task. But it is an important process that can guide one’s life work and lead to individual fulfilment. Analysing one’s childhood predilections and propensities, as well as the feedback received from teachers and peers, can be especially instructive, she said.

“When I was a little kid, I enjoyed watching documentaries about the natural and physical world, such as those on animals and space. I knew that I wanted to do something related to the environment,” she said. But it was only in school that this interest gained traction and direction.

Luck played an outsized role too, she recounted. She had the good fortune to encounter not one, but two chemistry tutors in secondary school who solidified her desire to pursue a career in STEM. “They made chemistry seem like magic – and showed us that everything can be created with chemistry.”

Asst Prof Yu, who joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the NUS College of Design and Engineering in 2023, said that even though the journey may seem circuitous, “it’s absolutely alright to follow at your own pace.”

“I came across the field of green chemistry during my PhD studies in Environmental Engineering. This aligns with my interest in both chemistry and environmental protection.” Her current area of research focuses on understanding the effects of microwaves within a catalytic system, and converting food waste into useful chemicals efficiently.

Asst Prof Yu’s ground-breaking research recently earned her a spot on MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 (TR35) Asia Pacific list in 2023.

“I consider myself lucky and did not encounter extreme difficulties. As an early career researcher, doubts and failures are normal. I tend to take the constructive feedback and improve myself and my work and leave the negativity behind. I hold on to the belief that ‘there must be solutions’. This helps me face problems, failures, and rejections.”

While hard work and resilience is important, there are factors beyond one’s immediate control that can shape a life’s trajectory. “I must say I am very lucky that I’ve got to work with very supportive and outstanding supervisors or mentors at different stages of my career. Their sharing and advice have added new perspectives to my thinking.”

A devotion to the spirit of scientific inquiry

Chaithanya Laxminarayan, or Chai, is a curious and ambitious student who wants to understand how the universe works.

Chai’s interest in understanding the physical world began early in her childhood. She recalls being fascinated by questions like: “Where does everything come from? How does it all work?” Theology was a natural starting point. Slowly, she gravitated towards the disciplines of Science and Philosophy, drawn by the rigours of the scientific method and analytical thought.

She soon found a home for her diverse interests in NUS. The third-year student in the NUS College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) is currently pursuing a double major in Physics and Philosophy. She is also undertaking a year-long independent research project in Physics, at Associate Professor Alexander Ling's Spooqy Lab in the Centre for Quantum Technologies. Broadly put, Chai is working on improving the efficiency of a silicon chip single photon (light particle) source.

“The fusion of Physics and Philosophy resonates perfectly with my interests. Physics teaches one how to describe the universe with its useful methods and mathematical language. Philosophy, on the other hand, gives you tools to derive meaning and understanding of the workings of the world from these descriptions,” she shared.

As a CHS student, Chai enjoys the varied opportunities to combine her scientific rationality with philosophical inquiry. “I am very grateful for being able to explore different disciplines. I have taken Math, Computer Science, and even South Asian Studies classes, along with Physics and Philosophy. This broad exposure expanded my mind and values.”

Her parents, who had STEM backgrounds and jobs, are supportive of her wide-ranging interests, and Chai is also grateful for the opportunities to interact with and study under many brilliant women. For young women who are considering to embark on a journey in STEM fields, Chai shares this advice, “You’re the only one who gets to define your limits. So, explore and pursue what you choose, on your own terms. University is an opportunity to learn about various disciplines, join different groups, and know your interests and priorities better. Allow those experiences shape your path ahead!”