– Yow Ying Ming Ivan –
Women are commonly stereotyped to be more artistically inclined, coupled with limited talent for mathematics. No one explicitly mentioned to me about these discriminations, but such thoughts are subtly imbued in the Asian culture. When I was back in high school, subconscious mentions of ‘guys are better in engineering’ or ‘girls cannot do technical stuff’ hinted at how students, and even educators, condemned women into the connotation that science is not for women. Guilty as charged. I harbored those thoughts during my younger days. But all this changed the day I met her.
She was an inconspicuous figure in the Group Endeavors in Service Learning (GESL) orientation camp during the start of our postgraduate diploma in education program at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. The GESL camp aimed to inculcate servant leadership mentality in future teachers and we had to come up with a service learning initiative to reach out to the local community. I was one of the leaders of the group and my role was to gel the group mates together and to take care of their wellbeing. No one knew – even the other leader of the GESL group – anything about her.
I was fascinated by both her personality and her passion for physics.
I carefully approached her with the intention to learn more. I took the first step to introduce myself with a “hi, my name is Ivan and I am one of your GESL leaders. I would like to know more about each of our team members and I thought I would start with you first.” It didn’t quite work as she seemed hesitant to respond. Nevertheless, I had to strike a conversation and I went on with a “so, what’s your major in your undergraduate studies?” Like a freezing arrow striking through my body, she gave a chilling reply by saying “physics.” I was taken aback by her response. You are probably wondering why. Well, I still held prior beliefs from my younger days that girls would not venture into such ‘hardcore’ fields. I really did hold this view.
I foolishly proceeded to ask her, “so tell me, why are you in physics? Isn’t it tough for a girl?” Exasperated, she looked away without looking into my eyes and asked me instead, “so what did you major in university?” I mentioned life sciences and she quickly responded, “so tell me, why did you major in the life sciences? Isn’t it supposed to be for girls?” This was a slap to my face. I was awakened up by her swift and witty reply. Instead of feeling ashamed or angry, I smiled and apologized to her. Thankfully, she reciprocated with a smile I had not seen before. On the surface, she looked like a snow princess with a heart of ice, deterring many from starting a conversation with her. Once we warmed up, I could see a sunny and cheerful character beyond the layer of ice.
I was fascinated by both her personality and her passion for physics. We continued to talk night after night. Her knowledge of physics to quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics allowed me to better appreciate physics from a bit-size point of view. In view of my interest, she even provided me with her university textbooks and notes so that I could read them during my spare time. Likened to Marie Curie, she was a physicist who was also versed in chemistry.
I continued to learn more about her.
Despite her achievements, she shared with me that no one had ever acknowledged her strengths in physics and chemistry. She felt this was because she was female. I was saddened and felt ashamed and angry on the spot. I wanted to learn more about her story in science. Coming from a family without anyone in science, her motivation to do physics was purely self-driven. In her younger days, she would play with all kinds of toys without any differentiation by gender because the toys were passed down from her elder brother and sisters.
Without stifling any experience, she could build up skills such as dismantling and fixing stuff which ignited her passion for engineering. In elementary and high school, physics became her best performing subject due to her ability to relate the physics concepts she learned to the engineering problems she faced in sports. Interestingly, she is petite in size but an avid lover of basketball. She even used physics in biomechanics to facilitate in her games – no doubt shooting became her forte based on her preferred displacement from under the net using her pre-calculated projectile motion.
In her undergraduate course – not only was she one of the top six in the honors class of which three were females – she was able to publish two scientific articles. In my view, this was a feat that awed me. But to this woman in front of me, her achievements were mere stochastic events independent of her. As our conversations increased in frequency, I begun to understand how gender could mask a woman’s accomplishment in science. I was clearly fascinated by this lady and without any doubt, I pled for her coaching in the field of physics.
My encounters with female scientists were plenty as I had the opportunities to converse and work with female scientists and principal investigators. The respect was never demanded, but earned through their intellectuality and perseverance in science. As for the lead woman in this story, my respect for her has only grown with time. After an amazing teaching career, she decided to pursue a doctorate in physics. Halfway into her graduate studies, she conceived and gave birth to her second child.
Nothing has stopped her from doing well in her research as she continues to develop metamaterial designs of broadband frequencies for applications in technology. And of course, even given her heavy family commitments, she continues to publish articles in her field. I guess I can only say I am fortunate to have this superwoman in science as my wife who continues to inspire me each day.
Yow Ying Ming Ivan is a PhD Student in the Mechanobiology Institute at the National University of Singapore. LinkedIn