Biomedical scientist thrives on motherhood

Becoming a mother has put more on her plate but it has not slowed biomedical scientist Lin Zhaoru down. If anything, it has given her a new focus and drive at work, she says.

"I think most working mothers are very efficient. You maximise every second you have at work," says the 32-year-old with a laugh. "In the past, I used to stay in the lab past dinner. Now, by 7pm, I want to rush home to my daughter."

Last year, a year after her daughter Isabelle was born, Dr Lin made a major switch from academic research to industry work when she was seconded to biomedical diagnostics start-up Vivo Diagnostics from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

As one of only two people in the company, she picked up a whole range of different responsibilities, from project management and organising meetings to business development.

"I went from caring about only research to caring about everything," she says.

Vivo is working on commercialising a 15-minute diagnostic kit for hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD), which could be used in schools.

It is just one way that research scientists can apply their skills in an industrial setting, and it is an achievement Dr Lin is most proud of so far.

She also helped set up the first Asian chapter of the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable here in 2013, to give scientists in academia the chance to network with those in the biomedical industry.

"We wanted to allow other scientists from research institutes and universities to be more aware of what the industry is looking for," she says.

The organisation is now known as Biotech Connection Singapore and generally sees more than 100 people at its events.

Science is something Dr Lin has been keen on since being inspired by her secondary school and junior college teachers, and she pursued the subject all through her schooling years, doing a PhD in pathology at Cambridge University.

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It was there that she met her husband Eliot Read, 32, a fellow researcher doing his PhD two labs down the corridor in Cambridge.

Despite the field remaining a male-dominated one in Singapore, there are few barriers for women who want to excel, she believes.

Her hope is that prominent women in leadership positions in both research institutes and private companies here will inspire girls and women interested in science to join the field.

"Having women in top positions sends the message that the field is friendly to women and that the sky's the limit, regardless of your gender," she says.

Numbers on the rise since 2004; govt initiatives could be a reason, say experts

Singapore continues to present opportunities for women in science and engineering, and they are making up a growing proportion of those working in such fields.

Nearly three in 10 research scientists and engineers here in 2014 were women, according to the latest statistics from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), which is good news considering the gender gap worldwide in science.

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The participation rate here, at 29 per cent, has climbed steadily from 23.5 per cent in 2004 and 26.5 per cent five years later.

A total of 9,516 female university graduates, not including those doing full-time postgraduate research, were working in the public and private sectors in 2014 - more than double the 4,438 seen in 2004.

Female leaders in the field here, such as Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology executive director Jackie Ying, who was named one of the 100 Chemical Engineers of the Modern Era, could be inspiring more young women to take the plunge.

The growth could also be due to the increasing variety of courses and industries within science and engineering, and government initiatives to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics, say experts. Said Mr Foo See Yang, vice-president and country general manager of Kelly Services Singapore: "Given the recent awareness building around science and engineering job and career opportunities available, more graduates are taking up jobs in these industries."

Last year, the recruitment firm placed an equal number of female and male scientists and engineers.

More women could also be entering these fields rather than switching to another after graduation. At the National University of Singapore, about four in 10 students graduating from those courses are women.

Over at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the same ratio is seen at the undergraduate level, though it falls to three in 10 at the postgraduate level. But there has been an almost threefold increase in the number of women taking up postgraduate degrees in science since 2010, an NTU spokesman said.

Research scientists and engineers The Straits Times spoke to hope more women will join their ranks as technologies become more exciting and work environments improve.

Dr Yvonne Koh, 32, a biomedical scientist who helped develop genetic test kits for a disease called fragile X syndrome, said many fresh science graduates tend to be unaware of the career options they have, or feel the remuneration is not enough.

"We should remind people that a technical degree can provide a lot more possibilities," said the A*Star scholar, who hopes to use her experience in a start-up to help other scientists learn to be entrepreneurs.

A*Star Graduate Academy's executive director, Professor Alfred Huan, said that A*Star has expanded its scholarship schemes and outreach efforts over the years. It also introduced a programme to provide research attachments for Singaporean students pursuing undergraduate or master's degrees abroad.

In the engineering sector, Singapore is facing a manpower shortage, with high levels of attrition once students graduate.

More can be done to showcase the growing range of design work engineers can be involved in, said MP Lee Bee Wah, an engineer by training. More support for women and mothers, such as offering them a role change if their pregnancy is difficult, could also help raise retention rates, she added.

Dr Dawn Tan, an assistant professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said holding workshops in primary schools could get more young women interested in engineering .

Dr Tan, 33, whose work on using photons - particles of light - has twice been featured on the cover of the Laser & Photonics Reviews journal, said she enjoys "being able to compete alongside some of the best brains in the world".

Mr Andrew Tan, chief executive of civil engineering and building firm BBR Holdings, noted that more women engineers have joined his company in recent years, and while some prefer to work on-site, others do design work in the office.

"Hopefully, new technologies will raise the profile of the sector and improve the work environment, and attract more engineers, whether women or men," he said.

This article was first published on March 25, 2016.
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