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Women in Engineering – meet Prof Rhea Liem

Breaking Stereotypes, Staying True to Passion, Engineering Path to Success

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Prof Rhea Liem
Prof Rhea Liem [Download Photo]
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
  • PhD in Aerospace Engineering, University of Toronto; SM in Computation for Design and Optimization, MIT; SM in Aeronautics/Astronautics, MIT; BEng in Mechanical Engineering , Nanyang Technological University
  • 2012 Amelia Earhart Fellow

With aerospace engineering becoming a new strategic area of the School of Engineering few years ago, Prof Rhea Liem joined HKUST to drive the development of this field with other faculty members. Growing up, she has been totally free in exploring her engineering interest in an open environment and she hopes female students alike enjoy the same opportunities as she did.

1. Where were you born and raised? What did you study at university?

I was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, until I finished high school. Then I went to Singapore for my undergraduate study, the US for my Masters, Canada for my PhD, and finally Hong Kong for my job. I am Chinese Indonesian, but I can't really speak Chinese.

I am now a faculty member in Aerospace Engineering (part of Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), and have got frequently asked on how did I end up in this relatively rare field (especially for women). In undergrad, I pursued Mechanical Engineering with Mechatronics specialization at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The department's name was still Mechanical and Production Engineering (MPE) then, instead of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) as it is known now. I then spent a few years working as an R&D Engineer (Mechanical) at Venture Corporation, and we designed printers for Hewlett-Packard.

Afterwards, I went to MIT to do my first Master in Computation for Design and Optimization (CDO), where I was exposed to various computational engineering applications, including aerospace engineering. That was my first introduction to this really cool field, and I got hooked ever since. I loved it enough to decide to take another Master in Aeronautics/Astronautics (better known as Course 16), also at MIT.

I then went to the University of Toronto, Canada, to pursue my PhD in Aerospace Engineering. My thesis was on multidisciplinary design and optimization (MDO) for aircraft design, where I could nicely combine what I learned during my two Master studies.

2. Why did you choose to go into engineering and your particular area of focus? Were you inspired by any person or event?

I think I can credit my father to be the biggest influence for me to go into engineering. He was a businessman by profession but was a brilliant scientist. When he was still a high school student, he built his own chemistry lab in one of his father's unused office space just for fun and actually produced soaps and stuffs. He was always curious and was a voracious reader, traits that he then passed to his children.

Growing up, I was not too aware that engineering was a male-dominated field. For a few years there were only me and my older sister in our family, before our brother was born. My father would play with us the way he would with boys. My early childhood memories include my father taking us to our front yard and playing around with magnets while he explained about the north and south poles, how magnets were used, etc. He taught us about logic and why it was important; he challenged us to think about how things worked (e.g. door knob and television, among others). I still have vivid recollections on those moments. These are the things that not many kindergarten kids would typically think and talk about, but they really perked my curiosity at such a young age.

Another big influence is, I believe, being a student in an all-girl high school. While there was a general notion that “boys are better in maths and physics, and girls perform better in subjects that require a lot of memorizing,” it didn't apply to us. We competed with fellow girls in Maths, Physics, History, Biology, Physical Education, you name it. That way, each of us shined in what we really liked, without being trapped in any gender stereotyping. Similarly, when we needed to move the desks or other furniture around, or climb up the ladder to hang something on the wall/ceiling (e.g. when we decorated the classroom or school auditorium for events), we girls did them ourselves. Realizing what we would face beyond the all-girl high school walls, my school organized a five-day “Gender Studies” course for all graduating students, by inviting speakers from various background to give lectures. One key message I remember is that: “Indeed men and women are different, but the differences are mainly physical. Those differences should not affect your talent, aptitude, and career choice. Instead, choose what you really love and want to do in your life.”

During the career counseling session organized by the school, I told the counselor that I wanted to go into engineering (as my first, second, and third choice as I couldn't think of anything else). She just said “Good, go for it,” so I never thought that it was an unusual decision for a girl. Only when I was in university that I realized that I was often the only girl in the lab, classroom, and later in projects during my internship and my first job.

That said, I guess I had been very lucky to be surrounded by people who did not fall into gender stereotyping during my important formative years. I could therefore be totally free in exploring what I really liked and what career I wanted to pursue. I am really glad that I end up doing what I am doing now. Not many girls are as lucky, and it's my sincere hope to help if I could.

3. When did you join HKUST? What brought you to HKUST? Can you tell us more about the work you are doing at HKUST and why do you enjoy working here?

I have a very interesting story about how I joined HKUST, it's almost a serendipity. I always knew that I wanted to pursue a career in academia, but I never really thought much about where I wanted to do it until the last few years of my PhD. After deciding that I wanted to go back to Asia, I started weighing my options and in the end I chose Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia for a simple reason that I was (still am) really bad with learning new languages, so I could only rely on English and Indonesian. Among those three I chose Hong Kong as my first choice because I loved this place (I visited Hong Kong many times for vacation) and it had winter (a huge plus point compared to the other two candidates!). Then I browsed around the universities in Hong Kong and naturally HKUST became my first choice (for obvious reasons, don't you agree?). Back then I was still not aware of HKUST's plan to change the department from Mechanical Engineering to Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and yet I picked it as my first choice. For around two years I always confidently answered “getting an academic position at a university in Asia, preferably Hong Kong, preferably HKUST,” whenever someone asked me what I wanted to do after finishing my PhD. I am sure all grad students here know, we get that question a lot at conferences, workshops, symposiums, and any other academic-related events. Many people (mostly professors) just politely smiled at my answer but lo and behold, one day somebody who asked me that question knew somebody at HKUST, and thus he was aware that HKUST was just establishing the aerospace program and was looking for new aero faculty members. That was before I knew when exactly I would graduate, though I was already at the wrapping-up phase at that time.

Long story short, I applied for the position before I started writing my thesis, did the interview before defended my PhD, and got the job before my graduation ceremony. The rest is history.

The key message I want to leave to graduate students here is that: it really helps to know exactly what and where you want to do, and to spend time thinking really hard about it, because there is a high chance that you could actually get it. Be careful what you wish for, because it might come true! In my case, I hit a jackpot!

When I joined HKUST in August 2015, I am one of the first hires in the Aerospace Engineering program. Establishing a new program has not always been easy, we stumbled upon many challenges at the beginning. I am teaching two brand new courses here, Introduction to Aerospace Engineering and Aircraft Design. As for research, now I am focusing on air transportation, aircraft design, and computational engineering (especially surrogate modeling). I really appreciate the fact that HKUST gives us enough freedom and support to pursue and establish our own research directions.

HKUST being a very friendly and supportive environment helped me a lot in acclimatizing to this new job and life in Hong Kong in general. I have really enjoyed the interactions I've had with colleagues (both from within and outside my home department) as well as with students. In my classes, there have always been students who make me think, who raise interesting questions and discussions, and also who make me laugh. I really enjoy teaching them and I always feel, surprisingly, energized whenever I am teaching!

4. What do you see as your most satisfying achievement to date and what are your overall goals / future plans?

I would list these three things as my most satisfying achievements: (1) living my dream (getting my dream job at my dream place), (2) being awarded the Amelia Earhart Fellowship (which is annually given to 35 female PhD students in aerospace engineering internationally), and (3) winning the Best Paper Award for my first ever conference participation. Also, as a teacher and supervisor, it is really rewarding when my students start to know more than I do in their specific research topics. This is one of the most appealing aspects of this job isn't it, that we would never stop learning, even from the students!

As for my goals/future plans, I would like to see HKUST's Aerospace Engineering be among the best in the region, if not the best :). Not only would we establish ourselves as a regional think tank in aircraft design, technologies, and air transportation, but I also want to see our graduates be reliable and competent aerospace engineers that uphold a high integrity standard in whatever they do.

I want to continue conducting research in aerospace computation, to assist both aircraft design and air transportation problems. In particular, I want to do it by complementing the more “traditional” aerospace engineering subjects with novel computational techniques, data analytics and machine learning, uncertainty quantification (UQ), etc. Aircraft design and air transportation research are typically seen as two separate fields, but people start realizing the close connections between the two. For instance, to optimize an aircraft design, we need to know what flight conditions it would operate in real-world situations. We can glean such information from studying the air transportation (i.e., aircraft operation) patterns, in which the aforementioned techniques could become useful.

I also want to see happier students at HKUST. It is easy for faculty members to be too engrossed in his/her own research, but we should always remember that students are the main stakeholder of every university, HKUST included. I believe that happiness is contagious – when we enjoy teaching and interacting with them, they would be happier, and that would affect how we feel too. In the end it turns into a cycle and results in a win-win situation! Similarly in research, the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts when a happy supervisor meets happy students....

5. How do you feel about being a woman in engineering? Why should more women consider engineering as a career?

I really enjoy being a woman in engineering simply because I love engineering. Instead of suggesting that “more women should consider engineering as a career,” I would advise students to really know what you like and what you want to do in life. Doing something you truly love for a living would be the greatest reward on its own. It might not make it truly easy, but hey, life would be naturally hectic whatever you choose to do anyway, so might as well choose something you really love and enjoy.

6. How to encourage more girls to study engineering?

First, we need to create the right environment and mindset. As a young girl, I never really thought of engineering as a predominantly masculine field because my parents and high-school teachers never made me think that way. We need to let them think that gender stereotyping is only man-made.

Second, we cannot underestimate our role as a role model/mentor to girls by being female faculty members in engineering. Back in April 2016, I gave a talk on Aircraft Design at the Asian Research Symposium at the University of Indonesia. After my talk, I was continuously approached by female students who confided in me that they were initially hesitant on pursuing engineering because many people around them kept telling them that it was not for women. To them, seeing a female engineer talking about aircraft design was an eye-opener. Well, their candid sharing was an eye-opener for me too. I hope that other fellow female engineering faculty members and I can continue reaching out to girls to whenever such opportunities arise.

7. Any other things you would like to share with us?

I am lucky to never experience any gender discrimination at HKUST, but we have to admit that it still happens in a lot of places. We first need to be aware of that, and stand our ground when it happens to us.

In my first job, I was the only female engineer working on a project (in a team of more than twenty). One day, the manager pulled me aside and asked me “Are you sure you can cope with this engineering work, since you are a female? We never had any female engineers before.” My response was “I have a Mechanical Engineering degree too, so how does being a female have anything to do with it?” He could not answer that, and I survive in that job.