If you like Engineering, put your ring on it
How do you picture an engineer?
Type that word into Google Images, and you will be inundated with photos of men wearing hard hats — all impeccably dressed, for some reason — staring intently at construction blueprints.
But in real life, engineers look a lot like people we know and love — men and women of all ages and from a variety of different backgrounds.
“When I tell people that I’m an engineer, the typical reaction I get is that they stare at me and say ‘Really?’” said Ms Olivia Seow, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) in 2015.
Ms Seow was speaking on 20 July at a session entitled ‘Introduce a Girl to Engineering’, held as part of National Engineers Day (NED) 2017.
“Many of my female friends don’t really know what engineers do and have never considered engineering as a career,” Ms Seow told the audience of secondary school and pre-university students.
Ms Seow herself decided to major in engineering only after taking some time to explore her own very varied interests of math, design, art and photography.
“I realised I was pretty good at creating things. I moved beyond pictures and drawings to dreaming of and making products,” she shared. These included a bag and kick scooter combination she made for a friend, and a bath chair she made for her grandmother.
She eventually decided to enrol at SUTD because its curriculum emphasises both technical competence and creativity.
While engineering programmes have traditionally been male-dominated, women shouldn’t let this stop them, she added.
“[Marrying technical competence and creativity] isn’t something that can or should be limited by gender. The reality is that everything around you was invented by people like you and I, people who simply had an idea and took steps to make it happen,” said Ms Seow.
“So if you have an idea and you want to change the world or to define the world in which you live, then maybe engineering is the choice for you.”
At SUTD, Ms Seow lived by her own advice.
Realising that she often wasted precious minutes digging through her bag to locate her student card (which lets students access campus buildings and make payments), she came up with an innovative solution: Embed the access and payment chip into a ring instead.
“I wanted to create something that was more intuitive and that would fit in naturally with how I interacted with the environment,” she said.
The Sesame Rings became so popular that SUTD eventually ended up purchasing one for every matriculating student.
Ms Seow then turned her idea into a company, Ring Theory, which now develops wearables for micro-payment and security.
“Entrepreneurship, similar to engineering, is intrinsically about solving problems,” she said. “It’s where you take what you’ve made and put it into other people’s hands.”
Learning to fail
Another engineer-entrepreneur who spoke at the session was Professor Ong Siew Hwa, a biomedical engineer who founded molecular diagnostics company Acumen Research Laboratories, where she is now Director and Chief Scientist.
Biomedical engineering, she shared, is a hybrid field that combines knowledge from biology, medicine and engineering to solve difficult problems: How to make artificial organs for people who need transplants but cannot find a match, for example — or how to engineer microorganisms to produce anything from beer to biologic drugs.
Although scientists and engineers often fail when trying to solve these problems, that is all part of the process, said Professor Ong.
“Failure doesn’t bother me — not because I haven’t failed, but because I didn’t consider it failure. If I do something and it doesn’t lead me to where I want to go, I’ll just try a different method,” she added.
“But you need to be cleverer about things each time.”
In addition to Ms Seow and Professor Ong, three other women engineers also shared their experiences at the session:
- Er. Grace Mui, a civil engineer who is now Group Director (Manpower Strategy and Planning) at the Building and Construction Authority (BCA);
- Signal Processing Engineer Dr Chong Chin Yuan, a research engineer at the Defence Science Organisation (DSO) National Laboratories;
- Ms Jasmine Foo, Principal Engineer at the National Environment Agency (NEA), who trained in environmental engineering.
The variety of disciplines represented on the panel reflects the huge number of opportunities that the field of engineering can offer.
But for Ms Seow, these different disciplines share a common thread.
“There are many kinds of engineers, but there’s one thing that links them — that engineering is the skillset to build anything you dream of in your head,” she said.
Ms Seow ended her presentation by challenging the young audience to think big.
Showing them a picture of a hoverboard — that coolest-of-the-cool invention made popular by movies such as Back to the Future — she said: “There’s just one catch: it hasn’t been invented yet. Your time at school is going to fly by whether you choose engineering or not, so you need to make the most of every single moment.”