Women in Engineering: meet Prof Irene Lo

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Women in Engineering: meet Prof Irene Lo

  • Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Academician (Technical and Environmental Sciences) of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts
  • Chairperson of HKIE Environmental Division for Session 2014/15

Joining HKUST as the first group of faculty members in 1992, Prof Irene Lo shared what she finds most satisfying in her career.


Prof Irene Lo

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

I had been interested in math when I was a student and I studied science subjects in my A-levels in a local secondary school. My father was working in the construction industry and he brought me to see different kinds of buildings when I was small. This exposure aroused my interest in civil engineering, which I chose to study for my first degree in Taiwan. I liked civil engineering as a whole but as I learned about various sub-disciplines in civil engineering, I found that what interested me most was not structural engineering but water supply and wastewater engineering, which included drinking water and wastewater treatment, sewage pipes design and water distribution to consumers. So after I finished my first degree, I knew clearly that I liked environmental engineering most (back then more than 27 years ago the environmental engineering discipline was not developed yet in Hong Kong) so I went for environmental engineering for my MSc and PhD in University of Texas at Austin, US.

As I finished two years of MSc and came back to Hong Kong for holiday, I found that the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) was newly set up and hired a lot of people. At that time I already had my PhD offer in hand but also wanted to give a try so I applied and got an offer from EPD. I was in a dilemma but after some careful thinking, I decided that I preferred continuing my studies so I came back to US for my PhD.

2. What brought you to HKUST? How was it like when you first started in HKUST?

When I finished my PhD, I started to look for jobs and was lucky to receive an offer from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. At the same time, I also received an offer from HKUST, in the year when it was first established. Many people asked me to go to NTU because of its longer history. This placed me in a difficult dilemma again and finally I made a risk-taking decision to go to the all-new HKUST in 1992 because of the sentiments to Hong Kong as my homeland and my commitment to serve the Hong Kong society.

I was among the first group of faculty joining HKUST. At that time, the campus only included the piazza and the circular part of the academic building (i.e. lifts 1-4 area) which encircled the piazza. The office was in an open setting and there were no rooms – all of us from different departments were only separated by partitions in an open office area.

Since the University was new and many facilities just started to be developed, I felt fortunate to be able to participate in the design process of the lab space. This would not be possible if I went to a long-established institution with all the areas built. I had the opportunity to design the labs’ setting according to my needs, for example, draw the lab’s layout, decide on how to put the benches and equipment. I also got to interview technicians and other staff to build up the team. This is also a reason why I have a strong sense of belonging to HKUST, because I was involved in designing the space and area that I used.

As the faculty team was still small at the beginning, each of us needed to teach a wide range of courses. Basically I had taught in all courses under environmental engineering, including those that were not in my specialty area. The situation had improved as more faculty came on board.

3. Were you inspired by any person or event?

I would say this person is my MSc and PhD supervisor. Many professors like to push their students to conduct more research, publish more papers, etc, but my supervisor was special in that he did not adopt this approach but would encourage you to think deeper and broader. I was impressed with his approach on logical thinking training which I think is very important and adopted this for guiding my students.

4. Why do you enjoy working in SENG?

I really enjoy teaching. It is highly satisfying to transfer what I know to the students and broaden their knowledge. I think it’s useless if you only acquire knowledge but are not able to share it with others. The skill to explain difficult things in a simple way and to make others understand clearly needs to be practiced and learned. Being a PhD graduate doesn’t mean you know how to teach. To constantly improve my teaching skill, I have the practice of having a self-evaluation whenever I finish a class. For example, I mark down how I should explain a part better or how I should rearrange the sequence of the information for students’ better understanding. I also put down remarks on the amount of time I should spend on each part for better time control. And of course I updated the course materials regularly to take account of the recent development in the field. It is necessary to do this evaluation after class when your memory is still fresh because the courses are usually offered once a year and by next year you won’t be able to remember these details. So with this evaluation I improve the courses every year to enable students learn better. Knowing that I help my students learn better gives me a great sense of satisfaction. I am very glad that my effort was recognized by the Michael G Gale Medal for Distinguished Teaching in 2006, which is awarded annually to one outstanding faculty member at HKUST, and the School of Engineering Teaching Excellence Appreciation Award in 2006-07 and 2004-05.

I also enjoy doing research a lot. The joy of doing research lies on that you have the freedom to decide what research to do and what problems to solve. No one will come to tell you what research you need to carry out but it is you to explore what is worth looking into and can contribute to the society. Faculty members enjoy this autonomy which employees in general seldom have. Usually employees in business organizations are assigned to work on projects but not that they come up with a project on their own to work on it. This freedom makes the research process so much fun because you are working on the research you chose and you have genuine interest in. I identify a problem, set a research question, and try to find out a solution through experiment. I have a great sense of accomplishment when I am able to find an answer to the problem. Over the years I received a lot of international awards from my research. Not that I have my eye on the awards but when you are truly interested in what you do, you will do it well naturally and the recognition will come. When you are researching into an area of your deep interest, you will be crazy about it because there is so much fun in it.

Some professors may like research more or teaching more. For me, I enjoy both teaching and research, so I always like my job and don’t feel hard at all. Of course being a professor is very busy – there are a lot of things we need to take care, but being busy doesn’t mean no fun. You can be very busy but at the same time having lots of fun, and this is what I feel.

Other than teaching and research, I hold a lot of public service positions in the government, including the advisory committees of Water Supplies Department, Environmental Protection Department, etc., where I contribute my expertise to the society. When I was still a junior faculty, my main responsibility was to do a good job in teaching and research – that’s fundamental. Now as I move to this stage of my career with 20 plus years of experience, I feel I have an obligation to extend my contribution from the university to the community. I feel much satisfied to engage myself in public service as it allows me to create impact on social issues and solve real-world problems. My contribution is no longer limited to books and theories in teaching and research within the university, but expanded to the whole society. The number of public service positions I hold are among the most compared with faculty members in university. For example, I am a member of the Advisory Council on the Environment where I provide views on the environmental impact assessment reports of major infrastructure projects in Hong Kong. Only projects with their reports approved by the Advisory Council will be implemented. To advise on these reports, you do not only need to have thorough environmental knowledge, but also need to know the Hong Kong society well. Recently, I was appointed as a member of the newly set up Advisory Committee on Recycling Fund. We discussed how to assist the waste recycling industry to improve its operation and efficiency for sustainable development. To make recommendations on this, you need to know the social and economic landscapes of Hong Kong and understand the needs of the recycling industry. I am glad that I can contribute my knowledge to my homeland through these capacities but not just work in an ivory tower. Overall, I am pleased to have achieved a balanced development among teaching, research and public service.

5. Why should more women consider engineering as a career?

I have been living in a “men society” since I got into engineering in university. In my first degree, I was one of just five female students in a class of 120. The number was just as few in my master’s degree class and I became the only female student when I studied PhD. But I don’t feel shy or uneasy because I have an outgoing personality so I got used to it easily. Of course everyone has different personalities and you don’t need to have specific personalities to study engineering. The ability to adapt to your surroundings comes naturally and you don’t need to worry too much. The most important is that you are able to demonstrate your ability to solve problems and handle tasks. Gender doesn’t make any difference in your capabilities. For example, I was elected by an all-men committee to be the chairperson of the HKIE Environmental Division for session 2014-2015 and I am also the first woman in the Division’s history to assume the position. Since I was on board, I have invited a few more female engineers to join the committee to strike a more balanced gender ratio in the committee. As chairperson, I felt it’s my responsibility to encourage more participation from women to demonstrate that women engineers are just as competent as their male counterparts.

It is a misconception that women are disadvantaged in developing in the engineering profession. On the contrary, they enjoy advantages exactly because they are in a smaller number. Male engineers do not prefer a homogeneous all-men team but welcome more female engineers to bring in new perspectives and fresh approaches. They also tend to treat their female counterparts better. If you can prove your ability and perform well, people will respect you no matter you are a man or a woman. But of course you need to work hard to develop your ability, not at the time when it was needed, but well before that. As chairperson, I needed to give speeches occasionally and be ready to speak anytime. Even if you have prepared the script, you still got to speak loudly and clearly. You don’t work on your speaking skill when you are in the position. You need to be equipped with it beforehand.

6. What is the role of the HKIE Environmental Division chairperson and how did you contribute to the society through this position?

The role of a division chairperson is multifaceted. As chairperson, I devised the year plan for activities like technical seminars, site visits and provided professional views from environmental perspective on government’s consultation papers on issues like landfill extension and incinerator, the third runway, development of North East New Territories. The Environmental Division has more than 5,000 members and we need to keep members informed of the latest developments in Hong Kong. Through this position, I created impact on society. My role as a university academic also gave me an advantage when offering professional views on social issues as I don’t have conflict of interest with any business.

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