Wisdom from Women Faculty in STEM

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Breaking Invisible Barriers

Wisdom from Women Faculty in STEM

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(Top row, from left) Prof. Im Eun Soon, Prof. Wang Yiwen and Prof. Angela Wu, (bottom row, from left) Prof. Rhea Liem, Prof. Julie Semmelhack and Prof. Becky Kuang Yi
(Top row, from left) Prof. Im Eun Soon, Prof. Wang Yiwen and Prof. Angela Wu, (bottom row, from left) Prof. Rhea Liem, Prof. Julie Semmelhack and Prof. Becky Kuang Yi [Download Photo]

Since its establishment 30 years ago, HKUST has been cultivating an inclusive learning and research environment where every student, researcher, and faculty members are encouraged and empowered to excel regardless of gender and background. In part one of this Smashing the Glass Ceiling series, we are bringing you tips from HKUST female members on how to break invisible barriers and get ahead to reach their full potential.

STEM is a field that is traditionally perceived as being male-dominated. In a gender-friendly community like HKUST, we are not short of female role models to provide reassurance and inspirations for younger females who want to pursue ambition in STEM. Here some of our female faculty members share with us their career stories and the revolutionizing potential of their research work. 

IM Eun Soon, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering was a civil servant at the National Institute of Meteorological Research in Korea before she joined HKUST. Prof. Im says she didn’t get to the position at first and gender barriers were one of the obstacles. 

“I was still working on my PhD and not fully qualified then, and there was gender bias in the hiring process. Regardless of the reason, I didn’t give up. I worked there for a temporary position and demonstrated my latent potential and work ethics. After six months, I secured a permanent position.”

Prof. Im’s research at HKUST focuses on one of the biggest issues of the age –– climate change. She has been working on the development and improvement of climate models for Southern China, including Hong Kong, to determine the ramifications of climate change induced by anthropogenic forcing such as greenhouse gases and land-use change.

Prof. Im says there continues to be a big fall-off rate among women in the STEM field. “About 50 per cent of my classmates were female when I was an undergraduate. However, that ratio sharply decreased as I moved up the ranks. As of now, only a few female classmates have survived in this field and held major related jobs.” But she advises young women not to get despondent, “I genuinely believe there is no singular clear-cut path for long-term success.”

Mentorship has proven rewarding for WANG Yiwen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering, who has been at HKUST since 2017.  She has mentored a number of female students, one of whom won second place in the Best Student Paper Award in the Workshop on Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) Systems at the flagship annual conference of the IEEE Systems, Man, and Cybernetics Society. Prof. Wang has been working on the development of Brain Machine Interfaces, which aims to build engineering approaches to diagnose the impairment and restore the cognitive functions for the disabled, such as memory loss, motor paralysis and attention deficit. 

Angela WU Ruohao, Assistant Professor in the Division of Life Science and Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, works with her research group on a new technology for sequencing single-cells called scONE-seq, which will help observe tumours at various stages and thus better understand cancer and help generate new therapeutic strategies. The field especially embodies a cross-disciplinary ethos. 

“Students working on the projects have to develop both engineering skills and deep biological knowledge such as cancer biology and neurobiology,” says Prof. Wu, also a passionate mentor herself. “I find mentoring and nurturing future scientists very fulfilling. There are many barriers for women in the field that are too numerous to name. But for me, I keep in mind my genuine interest and passion and disregard the barriers. If more women can persist, we will head toward a better future.”

While she encourages younger women scientists to be brave and reach for their ambitions, Prof. Wu advises them to be prepared for challenges. “I think women who are interested in STEM, love the feeling of discovery and love learning about the world around us, or love to create in the STEM field, should not be afraid to join our ranks. Girls and women in STEM should be aware of these barriers, and that it may be very difficult at times.”

A HKUST trailblazer in a field where there have historically been few women is Rhea LIEM, Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has recently been recognized with the University Grants Committee Teaching Award for her outstanding teaching performance. Raised by parents who practiced no bias in gender roles and educated in schools that had a similar outlook, Prof. Liem passes the same values to her students. “I always encourage all my students, regardless of their genders, to find their true identity, stay true to their passion and disregard barriers and general perceptions.” 

These faculty members are testimony to a rise in women working at the highest levels of STEM fields. Their research projects were supported by the Chau Hoi Shuen Foundation, which donated $10m to the University in 2019 with the aim of increasing the visibility of women in the STEM research field and supporting tenure-track women faculty whose research has the potential to influence industries and adopts cross-disciplinary approaches.

Also benefiting from the Foundation’s support are Julie SEMMELHACK, Assistant Professor in the Division of Life Science and Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Becky KUANG Yi, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. Prof. Semmelhack’s lab uses functional imaging and quantitative analysis of behavior to understand the neural circuits involved in visual behavior, while Prof. Kuang is currently conducting research to develop a synthetic RNA and a synthetic peptide-based platform for multiplex non-invasive purification of cells, ultimately to be used in multiple laboratory and clinical applications.

At HKUST, students and faculty members are encouraged to pursue advanced learning and knowledge through research and teaching in an equitable environment that the University endeavors to build. This is facilitated by a number of initiatives, including the WISE Scholarship, which encourages high-caliber female students to join the School of ScienceSchool of Engineering and Interdisciplinary Programs Office. Besides, the Women Faculty Association and the IWDxHKUST are both devoted to promoting gender inclusiveness and equality. 

HKUST has always been a female-friendly space where abundant resources and opportunities are available for women who consider a future in STEM. Our doors are widely open to talents regardless of background and gender.  

(This story was adapted from the full story “Wisdom from Women Faculty in STEM” by HKUST Public Affairs Office.)