Women in Engineering: Meet Prof Pascale Fung

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Women in Engineering: Meet Prof Pascale Fung

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Prof Pascale Fung
Prof Pascale Fung [Download Photo]
  • Professor, Electronic and Computer Engineering
  • Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
  • Chairperson and Co-founder, iVo Technologies

Founded the Women Faculty Association at HKUST in 2011, Prof Pascale Fung shared her strong passion in Engineering.

1) Why did you choose to go into engineering and your particular areas of focus?

I was born in Shanghai to professional artist parents. They expected me to follow in their footsteps. However, I also loved reading including science fictions. When I was seven, I read a science fiction book that described a future world, where robots talk to you and you can shop at home via computers. I was fascinated and wanted to see such a world developed as quickly as possible. I didn’t like playing with dolls when I was little but loved solving problems and making things work.

After we moved to Hong Kong, I went to an all girls secondary school and at one point established the Electronics Club at school (though I became the lone member at the end, but had the entire electronic lab to myself!). I watched a lot of sci-fi movies on TV and was captivated by the universal translator in Star Trek, where anyone can speak any language into it and it will be translated into any other language. At this stage, I also read in Ming Pao newspaper about a place called Bell Labs in the US, where scientists had invented cool technologies such as the transistor and the Unix operating system. I thought I would like to go there.

So I went to university in the US and chose to major in electrical engineering. In college I realized that I preferred software to hardware. For my final year project, I worked on computer vision, an area in artificial intelligence. I also finished an undergraduate humanities thesis on French movies. All of which led me to study in an engineering school in Paris later on. There I had my first encounter with speech recognition in a lab. I wrote an overview report of the research area after reading all the papers in the previous five years (in the 80s very few people were working in that area and there were no commercial applications.)

2) How did you view your career path when you set out? Were you inspired by any person or event?

I worked on speech recognition systems for the French language, and on Japanese when I lived in Japan. I learned to speak French, Japanese and also taught machines to recognize these languages. Afterward, I moved back to the US and worked for a US-DARPA contractor company (the same company that built the first part of ARPANET, the beginning of our Internet today). We built the world’s first real-time continuous English speech recognition system. Even though it was not a commercial product but for the first time I saw a computer that can recognize what we say come alive. My childhood dream came true!

When I was doing my PhD, my thesis advisor told me about machine translation. There was a group at Bell Labs and a group at IBM research labs pioneering a way to build machine translation by enabling the system to learn from a huge amount of human translation samples. I did part of my thesis work at Bell Labs. So, yes, I finally got to build the gadget I saw in Star Trek when I was little.

Computers that can talk to you and allow you to shop from home are part of real life now. Even Google Translate is being used daily in hundreds of languages. However, we still have a long way to go before we have machines that can understand your intent, your emotion and the context perfectly. We still have a long way to go before machines that can translate any language in any style at the level of human translators. Every year we make progress in research and bring the future a little closer.

I love my job and feel very lucky that I am being paid to realize my childhood dreams. Only engineers can get so much resource to build "toys" on a big scale.

I also learned to speak Spanish and Italian to some extent, and am studying Hindi. So one major research interest for me is to build machines that are themselves multilingual.

3) Why do you enjoy working in SENG? What brought you to HKUST?

When I went to the US to study my ambition was to work at Bell Labs. However, in 1994, I visited the newly founded HKUST and was fascinated by the vision of a “startup” university that was going to break the mold. During my year of visit I liked the colleagues here, who were all adventurous and ambitious. There was so much energy and it felt anything was possible. So, when I got my PhD, I decided that it would be more fun to join HKUST than stay at Bell Labs. At HKUST in 1998, we built the world’s first multilingual voice browser in eight languages. I also had the opportunity to start the Human Language Technology Center with other faculty members.

4) What do you see as your most satisfying achievement to date and what are your overall goals?

Our center was the first in Greater China to research speech recognition, machine translation and information retrieval. As a co-founder of this center, I helped recruit other faculty members and started new research directions. The center also founded a number of startup companies that launched the world’s first Chinese natural language search engine, and the world’s first online translation engine, among others.

Many of senior and excellent researchers in speech and language research today came through our center, including some who went to lead technical teams in major companies, such as Baidu and Microsoft.

My overall goals are to improve people’s lives with our technology. To make such an impact, research is not enough. It is also necessary to develop products and market them.

5) Why did you found the Women Faculty Association at HKUST?

For 20+ years I worked with mostly men but also some very cool women. My own thesis advisor was a prominent woman researcher. Tenure-track women professors all over the world seem to face some common challenges. After so many years at HKUST of teaching mostly male engineering students, and also seeing very few women faculty role models, it was time to make some changes. In addition, one of the core strengths of HKUST and of SENG is in its cultural diversity. We need to enhance and improve our diversity in terms of gender and cultural backgrounds.

6) Why should more women consider engineering as a career?

Why not?! There are plenty of women, given the opportunity, would be interested in engineering. Our society today discourages many talented women from choosing engineering as a career. This is unfair to them.

In addition, engineering is a good career for financial independence. It’s pretty secure – a good engineer can always find a job to do anywhere in the world. Engineering allows you to innovate, create and make a direct positive impact on the knowledge-based society of today and tomorrow.