By Stephanie Chan
“For students to be motivated, you need to have the sense of creating an impact,” says Ying Chau, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and 2021’s Leading Woman in STEM, as selected by AmCham’s Women of Influence (WOI) committee.
Chau has long been interested in socially impactful work. After earning her PhD in chemical engineering from MIT in 2005, she had looked for job opportunities in global health and even applied to help build a charter school in the US. But recruiters couldn’t see the connection between those fields and her academic training.
In 2014, however, Chau—a newly tenured professor at one of the world’s top universities—-now had a platform for pursuing social impact, and the job security to try something risky. She decided to create SIGHT (Student Innovation for Global Health Technology), an interdisciplinary program to help HKUST students apply their creativity and technological know-how to healthcare problems around the world.
Roughly 50 students take part in the program every year, which includes a semester of training in design thinking and “conversational” prototyping (creating primitive prototypes that are used to communicate ideas and concepts). That is followed by an optional second semester, where students build functional prototypes, refine them with user input, and travel to the project sites for implementation.
Previous SIGHT teams have designed an electronic medical record system to help a mobile clinic deliver better healthcare to residents of a Phnom Penh slum; used moringa seeds for water purification in Guizhou; and co-designed a keyboard that helps students with physical disabilities enter mathematical equations and symbols—to describe just a few.
Chau says this type of experiential learning opens students’ eyes to their power to effect change in the world. “In university, you have a lot of project courses,” she says. “But very often students do not like it because they have free riders [in their group] or they don’t know why they are working on this project.”
At SIGHT, however, the real-world focus gives students powerful reasons to care about their projects. SIGHT’s emphasis on design thinking also requires that students check in frequently with the community partners, prioritizing end users’ needs and desires.
In addition to leading SIGHT, Chau also teaches undergraduate lectures and advises students on their research and career plans. Her research lab, which focuses on ocular drug delivery and biomaterials, has attracted nearly HK$20 million in funding and spun off two startups.
Whether it’s research, teaching or advising, the common thread across all of Chau’s activities is guiding her students. “My role [that feels] most natural, [where] I have fun, is as a mentor.” She strives to treat her students as partners. “Together, we brainstorm what is the next most logical step to take and what’s the best way to do it. I learn a lot from my students.”
Chau’s department is one of the most gender balanced in the engineering school, with roughly equal numbers of male and female students. While she enjoys being a mentor and role model to her female students, she also believes that special opportunities and incentives designed to attract girls and women to STEM may be counterproductive.
“I think any label of something being special—‘Oh, because you’re a girl, STEM is very special and therefore, you should do it’—it may be not the right motivation,” she says. A better approach, she believes, to avoid stereotyping things as being for one gender or another. “‘This is a “boy” thing, this is not a “boy” thing’—it just keeps so many boundaries [up] for a lot of young people,” she says. “As long as it’s open and opportunities are there, respect their choices and just let them explore.”