Pushing for change as women in STEM

On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2023, four women take centre stage as they strive for both research advancement and greater opportunities in science

From mentorship to management, the scientific enterprise is built on so much more than just laboratory experiments and publications. Beyond individual merits, thriving in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) also often hinges on a strong support system, including leaders who can cultivate a nurturing atmosphere and collaborators joining forces as diverse and fervently driven teams.

The United Nations declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to better support women to rise up in science. Here, we feature four trailblazing researchers at NUS who are not only pushing frontiers in their respective fields but also showing why and how women can take the lead in STEM.

Professor Liu Bin

A prolific researcher, senior leader, entrepreneur, and mother — Professor Liu Bin can do it all. Besides being the epitome of a multi-hyphenate, she also transcends many fields and bridges various sectors through her science.

As an organic chemist by training, Prof Liu dives deep into the world of polymers and nanomaterials to develop innovative applications in biomedicine and sustainability. Her team hopes to design better diagnostic and therapeutic tools by tapping into biocompatible organic luminogens with

aggregation-induced emission characteristics.  These luminogens do not give off light in dilute solutions but can assemble into intensely illuminating bundles. “This unique optical feature allows us to develop highly sensitive light-up molecular probes and very bright nanoparticle probes, which have been used for non-invasive tracking of biological processes and various cells in real-time,” explained Prof Liu, who is from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering under the NUS College of Design and Engineering.

To translate research into impact, Prof Liu co-founded Luminicell in 2014 to expand the reach of the technology. By providing enhanced duration and brightness, their luminogen-powered technique for real-time cell tracking has supported novel applications in research or clinical bioimaging with greater accuracy and safety. In 2016, the technology won the prestigious President’s Technology Award.

“I enjoy doing research very much. It challenges us to overcome failures and find unique solutions to important societal problems, such as treating diseases or creating alternative energy solutions,” shared Prof Liu, who is also the founding director of the NUS Centre for Hydrogen Innovations – the first of its kind in Southeast Asia - which aims to bring green hydrogen from the laboratory to society.

Unsurprisingly, this extensive track record has garnered her multiple accolades, including being recognised among the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds and the Top 1% of Highly Cited Researchers by Clarivate, alongside receiving the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Centenary Prize and Kabiller Young Investigator Award in 2021. In 2022, Prof Liu was elected as an international member of the US National Academy of Engineering, making her the first female Singapore-based researcher to receive this prestigious accolade.

More recently, Prof Liu is among 12 outstanding women around the world selected for the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) 2023 Distinguished Women in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering, in recognition of their excellent basic or applied research, distinguished accomplishments in teaching or education, as well as leadership or managerial excellence in the chemical sciences.

The secret to her success, Prof Liu revealed, comes from the constant outpouring of support from family, colleagues and the university management team. “Everything can go on well with the help of many hidden heroes to support me,” she added.

Between juggling management and research duties, she highlighted the value of spending time with her family — through which she derived comfort and strength to push forward with her multitude of endeavours.

Thanks to her own leadership journey, Prof Liu knew the difficulties that rising scientists face as they hope to find their footing in the scientific ecosystem. Indeed, her passion for research excellence is rivalled only by her dedication to fostering an environment that is conducive to the growth of all.

As Senior Vice Provost (Faculty & Institutional Development), she is working with fellow administrators at NUS to develop a mentoring culture at the institution and initiate strategies that empower more colleagues to become leaders. “Having sound advice and great inspiration from experienced leaders would certainly make a difference,” Prof Liu said. “We also need to listen to what motivates women scientists and how we can support their aspirations.”

From 1 April 2023, Prof Liu will take on a new leadership role as NUS’ Deputy President (Research & Technology) where she will take charge of the University’s research strategies.

Dr Wendy Wang

Scientists are not just confined to the pristine walls of the laboratory. Many of them, including Dr Wendy Wang, head out into the field and get their hands dirty. Her interest in biology took root as early as secondary school. “In biology class, we would go on exciting field trips into the wild and observe nature as it happens,” she shares.

From a young girl fascinated by observing the natural world, Dr Wang now serves as a Curator of Entomology at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM). While museums may seem like fixed collections of what is already old and known, they can actually become a zone for new discoveries and unearthed secrets — if one knows where to look.

For trained eyes like Dr Wang, these archives were a treasure trove. LKCNHM is home to legacy specimens, she explained, including rare ant species collected from the 1920s to the 1980s that may no longer be found in present-day Singapore. Without these collections, no one would have known about their existence — or disappearance — on these shores. This includes Metapone murphyi, a rare endemic species which has not yet been spotted anywhere else across the globe.

“I feel a sense of achievement when I can find out new things from my data or satisfy my curiosity about phenomena I observe,” expressed Dr Wang. Just last year, she published a monumental 150-page paper detailing over 400 ant species found in Singapore, marking the city-state as one of the world’s hotspots for ant diversity.

While men may outnumber women in STEM fields, Dr Wang is undeterred. With her can-do attitude, Dr Wang decided it was better to focus on doing her own work well and not worry about proving herself to others.

On a broader scale, gender imbalances and minority representation pose a complex challenge for the scientific community. But the root causes of these inequalities vary across fields, Dr Wang noted, highlighting that no one solution can be the silver bullet to fixing the underlying socio-economic and cultural issues as well as implicit barriers in STEM.

As a start, however, an increasing number of institutions and organisations are stepping up with concrete actions to support underrepresented groups. Dr Wang shared that most job advertisements in her field now explicitly encourage females and minority races to apply, and that these groups would be given priority consideration for the advertised positions.

“I believe it’s also important for leaders in the field to adopt fair practices, and not discriminate against underrepresented groups,” she emphasised. “Leaders in STEM should lead by example and be understanding and empathetic.”

Professor Tulika Mitra

For Professor Tulika Mitra, solving problems is her core driving force, be it in her research on the Internet of Things (IoT) at NUS Computing or her role as Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. “My mantra is to do the right thing and give my all to any effort that I am involved in,” she shared.

Her mantra precisely reflects the foundation that allowed her to build a long and thriving career in STEM. Even back in her days as a student, she was the type of person to charge valiantly into unfamiliar but thrilling territory — during the dawn of computer science as a discipline — and push forward regardless of what others thought.

“I was quite oblivious to the gender stereotypes in the early stages of my career,” she shared. “I loved maths in school and greatly enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of computer science at university, so I did not see myself as any different from my peers who were almost exclusively men.”

As the tech industry has now ballooned into a staple of everyday life, Prof Mitra has grown and evolved with the field, with her research revolving around one of the most innovative and emerging technologies to date. From smartwatches to automotive, computers are hidden inside our favourite electronic devices, together materialising as embedded systems and creating an IoT framework.

Prof Mitra, who is from the NUS Department of Computer Science, navigates this boundary between software and hardware, aiming to develop energy-efficient yet high-performance embedded systems to advance the next generation of computing technologies. “My dream is to bring the power of today’s desktops to tomorrow’s tiny IoT devices,” she expressed.

But beyond designing optimised embedded systems, she also envisions to provide an optimal environment where everyone is granted equal opportunities to succeed in STEM. Even though she thrived in tech despite the odds, Prof Mitra recognises that there is yet work to be done to create a more supportive and empowering environment for women and girls to pursue science.

“The biggest challenge facing us is to convince young women to choose STEM as a career option. The serious lack of role models in these disciplines alienates young girls as they cannot envision their future,” she pointed out.

As not only a veteran researcher but also a part of the university management team, Prof Mitra walks the talk by being a mentor and cheerleader to junior researchers. She encourages them to voice their perspectives by creating a space where they can freely express their ideas and explore novel ground, as well as urges them to persevere when they face disappointments and failures, letting them know that they can reach out for help when they need it.

“My simple advice to early-career STEM women: Just go for it!” she expressed. “If you are excited about what you are doing, you will have fun and everything else will fall into place.”

For Prof Mitra, the hope is that as more women stay in STEM and take up leadership roles, the perception about women scientists will change for the better and the gender gap will eventually close.

Assistant Professor Yvonne Tay

One such rising scientist is Assistant Professor Yvonne Tay, who helms a vibrant research group at the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore and NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. In making the leap from a follower to an independent researcher steering the ship, she credited the leadership at the institution, including the RNA programme grant led by Professor Daniel Tenen, and the collaborations formed that have long supported her as her team expanded and matured.

Asst Prof Tay’s research group works at the cutting edge of cancer science, hunting for breakthroughs in the world of non-coding RNAs — molecules that have recently entered the spotlight for their potential regulatory roles in important biological and disease processes. By gaining a deeper understanding of their functions and how their expression changes in disease, she aims to uncover non-coding RNAs as novel cancer biomarkers to guide improved detection or designing more effective therapies.

Within her domain, Asst Prof Tay looks up to the many brilliant women scientists, such as Nobel Laureate Professor Jennifer Doudna and Professor Joan Steitz from Yale School of Medicine, who have revolutionised the field through their ground-breaking discoveries and innovations.

“I am always inspired by their approach to science, and the thoughtfulness and rigour that they have for testing scientific hypotheses,” she said. “What excites me the most is the potential to make ‘disruptive’ discoveries that will change how we think about science and that can advance patient care.”

But while her research could potentially help save lives and benefit many families in the future, Asst Prof Tay still remembers to keep her own family front and centre. Her decision to pursue science stemmed in part from her father, who had advised her to choose a career that she would find exciting and meaningful.

“My mother has been a great role model in how she always looks after family and friends and gives back to the wider community,” she shared.

Now as a mother herself, Asst Prof Tay makes it a point to strike a balance between work and personal duties, especially as a researcher’s responsibilities sometimes include odd hours and traveling overseas. “I am blessed with a supportive husband and parents — it really takes a village to raise a child!” she quipped.

Her familial matters also influence her outlook on academic life. As education and mentoring are critical pillars in the academia, she hopes to do her part in nurturing the next generation of young scientists.

To these up-and-coming stars in the scientific sphere, Asst Prof Tay encouraged: “Be true to yourself and focus on research that you find impactful, yet be resilient and flexible as rejections and changes are a part of science!”