Date :Monday, September 14th, 2020 | Time : 02:58 |ID: 169739 | Print

Professor Jackie Ying, a scientist who converted to Islam

SHAFAQNA- We bring them into our labs and convince them of the impact of science, and that it’s not the dry stuff they read about in textbooks. It is great that 134 of the research attachment students have taken up science scholarships and 34 of them have come back and joined us as staff.

Professor Jackie Ying, 46, is executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), which comes under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, or A*Star. Born in Taiwan and a chemical engineer by training, she has won many awards and accolades, including being among 100 Engineers of the Modern Era named by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers; and one of 100 young people in the world expected to be leading 21st-century innovators by Technology Review – the innovation magazine of America’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She became a full professor at MIT at age 35 and was elected to Leopoldina (the German National Academy of Sciences) at just 39.

She has authored hundreds of articles in her field of nanostructured materials and devices, and has more than 130 patents issued or pending. She has served on the advisory boards of six start-up companies and a venture capital fund. IBN’s Youth Research Program ( has reached out to more than 61,300 students and teachers through open houses, career talks and workshops. More than 1,680 have participated in research attachments at IBN. She was recently selected as a 2013 Materials Research Society Fellow. The society is the world’s largest organisation of materials researchers.


Q: What’s a typical day for you?

My day usually starts the night before, when I jot down what I really need to finish, and last-minute things that pop up. I arrive at the office at around 7.30am, and do the reading and writing related to my own research before things get busy.

Then the day is filled with research discussions with staff and students, meetings with companies and visitors, proposals and paperwork. What I enjoy is going to the lab to talk to my staff about experiments, and how their research is progressing. I try to be home by 6.30pm.

I get some exercise by running up and down the stairs, then I help my 12-year-old daughter Hsi-Min with her Chinese homework. After dinner it’s back to work till midnight. There are just too many e-mails to answer.

Q: What’s the appeal of research?

In research, there’s no fast track. It’s about having a passion to tackle an important problem, taking risks with an innovative approach, and persevering through lots of hard work.

To me, this is not a career but a life-time journey that allows me to learn and do many different things. There’s a tremendous amount of growth, that’s the fun part. Even when things are not going smoothly, I persist because I love science and want to make a difference.

Q: You are known to work 80 hours a week. Do you have a life?

Not really. Outside of work, I spend most of my free time with my daughter. I was born in Taiwan but lived in Singapore from age seven to 15, and my schooldays here were the best days of my life. But now, there’s so much pressure to perform in school, and little time to read or play. Occasionally we do go to the park, and on overseas trips when she’s on holiday. Exposure to different cultures is important and children learn by many processes. I feel the system here has become too rigid. It’s killing their curiosity and creativity.

Q: With so many accolades and world firsts, what has been your proudest moment?

When I was younger, I think the achievements probably meant a lot more. The Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology turns 10 this year. I’m most interested in setting the institute on the right path so that it can continue to generate impactful research.

It’s very important not to become complacent but on the other hand, we need to set our own internal goals and not let key performance indicators dictate our behaviour, which can happen very easily. People might become too obsessed with publications or industrial funding if that is the KPI, for instance. When people are only after glory, the work they do can become short-sighted or dominated by self-interest. So it’s important not to be distracted by short-term recognition.

Q: When and why did you convert to Islam?

I have a good friend who is a Muslim, and I was exposed to Islam through her in secondary school. But it wasn’t until my early 30s that I became more interested in religion, and converted about 12 years ago. Islam is a simple religion and makes sense to me. It was also a very personal choice to wear the tudung (headscarf) after I went on the umrah (minor pilgrimage) three years ago.

To me, it’s a religious obligation, what other people see or say really doesn’t matter. I remember when some of my Caucasian colleagues first saw me in it, they thought I was going to a party! My boss joked that he needed my fingerprints to make sure it was me. There were no negative reactions.


Q: How do you reconcile your faith with science?

When you do biomedical research, you can’t help but be struck by the intricacies of biological systems and how they work. It’s so complicated that the probability of everything falling in place by chance is infinitely small. So for me it’s simple, there has got to be a Creator.

Q: You are a woman, a Muslim, an engineer and a scientist, you are a minority among minorities. What’s your advice to others on succeeding against the odds?

When I joined the MIT faculty at 25, I was one of only two female Asian professors. I pushed myself, worked twice as hard and was fortunate to be promoted quickly on the tenure track. However, the glass ceiling still exists for women in many fields. It’s a real loss when very capable women are not placed in the highest echelons because of the old boys’ network.


Q: You and your institute have been active in promoting science to the young. What do you tell them?

This is something we’re very very proud of, and it was our own initiative. Over the years, fewer young Singaporeans have wanted to go into research because they see it as extremely hard work.

We bring them into our labs and convince them of the impact of science, and that it’s not the dry stuff they read about in textbooks. It is great that 134 of the research attachment students have taken up science scholarships and 34 of them have come back and joined us as staff.

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