Dean's Message
Spring 2015 No.26
We Love Engineering

Three women faculty members explain what they find most rewarding about their careers
Prof Kei May Lau
Chair Professor, Electronic and Computer Engineering
•  Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
•  HKUST Women in Science and Engineering Scholarship Group Chairman
•  Research interests: high frequency, high speed and photonic devices; light-emitting diodes and lasers
I attended Pui Ching Middle School here in Hong Kong and then went to college in the United States where I majored in physics for my Bachelor and Master's at the University of Minnesota. For my PhD, I switched to Rice University in Houston and electrical engineering.
I chose to move into engineering because I enjoy experimental research and making things work. I also felt that engineering had broader career prospects and my earlier studies in physics actually prepared me to be a better engineer. Making the connection between quantum mechanics and semiconductor physics can lead to the invention of novel electronic devices that become new products for our daily lives. Material and semiconductor physics are applied to produce integrated circuits, which are the heart and brain of mobile phones, computers, and most other electronic gadgets today.
I find all my engineering research satisfying in terms of the challenges it presents. As the saying goes, one can always build a better mousetrap. Take my work on light-emitting diodes (LEDs). In the early days, most people believed LEDs could only be used for displays and indicators and were not good enough or cost-effective for illumination. I was one of those who took up this quest. Now, after years of research and refinement, LEDs will definitely be our dominant lighting source for many years to come.
But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of my career so far has been to nurture successful engineering students. Sometimes students ask why we teach what we teach, with all the "useless" theories and complicated math involved. I try to explain our approach with the proverb: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. What we are actually providing are the basic tools and training to think from an analytical point of view so students can solve engineering problems throughout their career.
With technology changing so fast, we cannot just teach facts of current technology because, in a few years, things will no longer be the same. But if you know the fundamentals, you will know how to design new products that fit into the future technology. You can look for better ways of doing things and make innovative contributions. This is what ENGINEERING is all about!
I also believe that women and men are equally competent and equally adept at problem solving, and both can become good engineers. Therefore, female students should not be discouraged from entering the engineering field. Indeed, in some senses, girls are more creative, and creativity is essential in engineering design.
Prof Pascale Fung
Professor, Electronic and Computer Engineering
•  Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
•  Chairperson and Co-founder, iVo Technologies
•  Research interests: building machines that can communicate and empathize with humans
I was born in Shanghai to professional artist parents. They expected me to follow in their footsteps. However, I was also curious in many other subjects. When I was seven, I read a science fiction book that described a future world, where robots talk to you and you could shop at home via computers. I was fascinated and wanted to see such a world develop as quickly as possible.
After we moved to Hong Kong, I watched sci-fi movies on television and was captivated by the universal translator in Star Trek, where anyone can speak any language into it and it will be translated into any other language. I also read in Ming Pao newspaper about Bell Labs in the US, where scientists had invented cool technologies such as the transistor and the Unix operating system. I thought I would like to go there.
So I went to university in the US and chose to major in electrical engineering. In college I realized that I preferred software to hardware. For my final year project, I worked on computer vision, an area in artificial intelligence. I also finished an undergraduate humanities thesis on French movies. All of which led me to study in an engineering school in Paris later on. There I had my first encounter with speech recognition in a lab.
I worked on speech recognition systems for the French language, and on Japanese when I lived in Japan. I learned to speak French, Japanese and also taught machines to recognize these languages. Afterward, I moved back to the US and worked for a US-DARPA contractor company (the same company that built the first part of ARPANET, the beginning of our Internet today). We built the world's first real-time continuous English speech recognition system.
When I was doing my PhD, my thesis advisor told me about machine translation. There was a group at Bell Labs and a group at IBM research labs pioneering a way to build machine translation by enabling the system to learn from a huge amount of human translation samples. I did part of my thesis work at Bell Labs. So, yes, I finally got to build the gadget I saw in Star Trek when I was little.
Computers that can talk to you and allow you to shop from home are part of real life now. However, we still have a long way to go before we have machines that can understand your intent, your emotion and the context perfectly. Every year we make progress in research and bring the future a little closer.
When I went to the US to study my ambition was to work at Bell Labs. However, in 1994, I visited HKUST and was fascinated by the vision of a "startup" university that was going to break the mold. So, when I got my PhD, I decided that it would be more fun to join HKUST than stay at Bell Labs. At HKUST in 1998, we built the world's first multilingual voice browser in eight languages.
I also had the opportunity to start the Human Language Technology Center with other faculty members. Our center was the first in Greater China to research speech recognition, machine translation and information retrieval. In addition, the center founded a number of startup companies that launched the world's first Chinese natural language search engine, and the world's first online translation engine, among others.
I love my job and feel very lucky that I am being paid to realize my childhood dreams. Only engineers can get so many resources to build "toys" on a big scale. My overall goals are to improve people's lives with our technology. To make such an impact, research is not enough. It is also necessary to develop products and market them.
In 2011, I helped to found the Women Faculty Association at HKUST to enhance and improve diversity in terms of gender and cultural backgrounds. Other universities in Hong Kong are beginning to do the same this year. There are plenty of women who, given the opportunity, would be interested in engineering. Engineering is a good career for financial independence – a good engineer can always find a job anywhere in the world. Engineering also allows you to innovate, create, and make a direct positive impact on the societies of today and tomorrow.
Prof Ying Chau
Associate Professor, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
•  PhD in Chemical Engineering, MIT
•  Biochemical Engineer, Merck Research Labs, US
•  Research interests: biomedical engineering; drug delivery; cancer targeting; tissue engineering
As an undergraduate, I studied agricultural and biological engineering at Cornell University, with the coursework spanning life science and engineering subjects. After graduation, I went to work at the world-famous Merck Research Laboratories as a biochemical engineer. During my time there, I learned how to apply engineering skills to drug delivery and vaccine manufacturing, and I saw the demand for bioengineering research in the pharmaceutical industry. I then decided to take my Master's (University of Pennsylvania) and PhD (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
I had been encouraged to become an engineer by my father, who was a practicing electronic engineer. He emphasized the importance of quantitative thinking and problem-solving skills and he felt that engineering provided such training. He was also visionary because he could see the promise of engineering applications in life science and biotechnology in the future and suggested I pursued my major in this area.
I joined the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the School of Engineering in 2006. As I am from Hong Kong, I decided to return to the city when offered the opportunity. Currently, my two main areas of research are drug delivery for the treatment of eye diseases and the research of nano materials for building the next generation of therapeutic carriers. I really find my research intellectually interesting. At the same time, such work can benefit people's lives. Both motivate me to keep finding out more.
In teaching, I have initiated a project called Student Innovation for Global Health Technology (SIGHT). SIGHT provides a platform for students from different disciplines (not only engineering) to take part in projects with social impact. Based on the framework of design thinking, students brainstorm, prototype, and implement practical solutions for low-resource settings. Our first projects were carried out in Cambodia. I found this trip very meaningful as students had the chance to put their ideas into practice and clearly found it a transformational experience.
I like to think that I and women faculty in general serve as role models for women students. If female students are interested in engineering, they should go ahead to join the field. I enjoy the freedom of doing what I enjoy (SIGHT, conducting research), and also my interaction with different people, such as my research team, students, and scientists from all over the world. However, the most rewarding aspect to me is mentoring – transferring knowledge and values to students, and witnessing their growth during the most transformative years of their lives.