What kind of work do you do and how did you get started?
Hong Yee: For about 13 years my work focused on research and the exploring commericallization of my research outcome. Since about 2 years ago, I also teach. I have worked on the use of nano fabrication technologies to mimic nature.
Huili: I look at how cells in our body make different types of proteins and RNAs (RNA is a relative of DNA), and as a result become different cell types that make up different organs and tissues. I got interested in this topic because we all started out from a single cell (fused from the egg and the sperm) that then divides to makes more cells. This means all daughter cells will carry the same DNA as the original cell, yet they are able to make different proteins and RNAs, and hence become different cell types in the end. To be able to understand how this happens would be really cool.
How do you come up with ideas on what to experiment? How long does it take?
Hong Yee: I read a lot, and I read all kind of books. Sometimes I get inspiration from my children’s books! When a research idea is very new, it takes many years to see the outcome.
Huili: I read a lot to find out what other people already know, then try to look for the gaps that are still unknown to decide what to experiment on. Formulating ideas is a continuous process. Often times, you will also be experimenting on other things at the same time, so it could take up to a year. If you are not doing other things on the side (and just focuses on formulating ideas), then maybe 3 to 4 weeks – much of this time is spent reading up on what others already know.
How does it feel completing a project?
Hong Yee: It is a fantastic feeling when the research results turn out as I had hoped for, in research there is hardly an end point to a project. The fun part is that with every new achievement, new question and new idea is generated. It is never boring.
Huili: In biology, it is common to take 3-4 years to complete a project. After spending such a long time (and often working long hours), completing a project feels really great! You definitely feel pretty good about yourself for about a week or so, before you dive back into the daily grind of the next project.
Is it fun to make or build things?
Hong Yee: Absolutely, I enjoy the feeling of making and creating new things, guess what? often what I end up with was not what I started with!
Huili: Yes it is really fun, especially if you know what you are making/building is something that nobody else has done before. i.e. that you are the first person doing it. This is the thrill of doing cutting-edge science.
Are there a lot of women in your workplace? What is it like being a Woman in STEM?
Hong Yee: There are not enough women in my workplace as a whole, but I am fortunate, recently my office is surrounded mostly by women colleagues. Like some women in STEM, I used to deliberately dressed down because of an unspoken impression that women who dressed up well are not good in STEM! But I have matured over it, I now dress whatever that I feel like. Being a women in STEM will not take away the feminine side of me. In most meetings and conferences, women is still a minority.
Huili: There are generally a lot more women in the life sciences, compared to the physical sciences. Women representation is actually structured like a pyramid: the higher up the ranks you go, the fewer women there are. In school (e.g. university level), there are roughly equal numbers of men and women being trained in the life sciences, but the proportion of women who remain in this career gets less and less the further along the career path you go. This is partly also because the toughest phase of the scientific training process coincides with child-bearing age, and women still tend to shoulder much more of the child-rearing duties. Continuing to stay in STEM and balancing family life is definitely one of the tougher aspects of this line of work.
Are there many risks in your job? How do you avoid them?
Hong Yee: Performing research is like an investment. The risk in research is that a hypothesis turns out to be one that is difficult to prove, and hence the results may not garner enough impact or interests. Like any investment, failure comes with many lessons learned. The lessons are new knowledge that contribute to the field. As we become more experienced, we become better at avoiding making bad investment! Very often, when we are convinced that the original research idea is too big of a challenge, we would made adjustment and redirect our focus on a related area.
Huili: We do work with dangerous chemicals that can be health risks. However, there are proper ways to handle such chemicals, and if you follow these procedures, the lab environment is actually pretty safe.
Why did you choose to be a scientist?
Hong Yee: I didn’t choose to be a scientist. Since secondary school, at every stage in my study and career, I followed my interests. (So) I pursue my interest and became a scientist.
Huili: I enjoy finding out why things are the way they are. It gives me great satisfaction to find something new after a long process of designing appropriate experiments, and completing them. The more we learn about nature (in my case, biology), the more we understand how our body works, and the more we will be able to develop new treatments for diseases. This is a major driving force to continue in this line of work.