Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly gives prominence to 18 distinguished and powerful women who are successful in their own right as part of the Great Women Of Our Time awards. Meet 2020’s Science & Technology Nominee, Yvonne Gao, assistant professor in the department of physics at NUS and quantum physicist.

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Meet Yvonne Gao – Great Women Of Our Time 2020 Science & Technology Nominee

Having earned her doctorate from Yale University, Yvonne Gao went on to earn multiple accolades in her own right. In 2019, She was named one of the Innovators Under 35 (Asia Pacific) by MIT Tech Review, she was also awarded the National Research Foundation Fellowship to start a new research initiative focusing on building modular quantum devices with superconducting circuits, and now, aside from her role at NUS as the assistant professor in the department of physics she is also a principal investigator in the Centre for Quantum Technology. 

As a quantum physicist, her work focuses on building the hardware aspect for quantum computing applications. It can be likened to the earlier days of classical computers where they’re still building the technology needed to provide the platform to implement interesting computational text. 

Yvonne Gao Great Women Of Our Time

The 32 year old is currently an assistant professor in NUS and a principal investigator in the Centre for Quantum Technology.

The 32 year old shares that she’s always been interested in physics, “I guess I was pretty lucky that I always had a strong interest in that field. Even in secondary school physics was my favourite subject, it was something that I found a lot of enjoyment in. When I went for my undergraduate in England I think that’s where I actually got to understand a little bit more of what physics is about and what it is like to study it as a profession and main discipline. I was very fortunate to have a tutor in Oxford who is a quantum physicist, and over my undergraduate years I learned from him and it gave me a strong sense of what skills were required out of me and how this skill could be applied in technology. The rest is history.”

Alongside her current roles and responsibilities at NUS, she also spends her time doing more outreach and investing in mentorship opportunities. “I do prefer to do a lot more outreach and to pass the knowledge I’ve learned over my long education to the next generation of students or young scientists who want to learn about this field.”

Yvonne Gao Great Women Of Our Time
The quantum physicist believes in the importance of being proactive in seeking out potential mentorships and friendships to continually feel inspired and motivated.

“My personal aspirations are really to be in the academic domain, where I can teach and lead an independent team to investigate interesting things. So the educational setting has really set the way I see myself and my personal career better. By doing that,” Yvonne shares, “I was also able to constantly find ways to stay enthusiastic about the field and keep going.”  

When recounting her experiences in tech as a woman, Yvonne reveals “As a scientist and as a woman in any tech field, being non-assertive and not being able to stand by our points are also a potential challenge for us. As a woman, I feel like I need to be more conscious about speaking up and standing by my ideas but we risk getting talked over and lectured upon when we voice out, and we risk not being seen as vital roles when we don’t speak. So I think striking this balance was quite an interesting process and it definitely took a lot of observation of how other people do it or how they fail to do it.”

Yvonne Gao Great Women Of Our Time
As a woman in tech, Yvonne feels the biggest challenge is to be more conscious about speaking up and standing by her ideas while not being too close-minded in how they’re presented.

“It’s a very male-dominated industry. Our field is unfortunately like an old boys club. Most of the people are men, and it is very dominated not just in gender but also in background and experiences. There are certain challenges associated with this. I think I’ve been very fortunate to be in an environment where the advisors and people in power are very encouraging and support diversity, so in my experience, it’s not so much a gender issue but more of… almost like a self-selection process.”

“Because before I entered this environment I felt like there could have been many other women that could have started out on this process with me but they kind of filtered themselves out just because of how intimidating and prohibiting it looks. So from the outside, there is this stereotype that it is an extremely difficult field and is not as friendly to women in general so students actually tend to stop themselves from even trying to go into it and really trying to experience it for the first time. I think that contributes to the gender imbalance in the field.”

“Since I came back to Singapore in the higher education domain, I definitely sensed somewhat a stigma associated with girls studying physics or mathematics. Like somehow they are considered as fields where guys generally do better. I think in my conversations with some JC students through outreach, I feel like there is a little bit of that sentiment. And that kind of worries me a little bit, because in the physics department in NUS, we actually do notice that overall our enrollments are shrinking but also the number of girls who enroll in physics has been going down quite significantly over the years. So there is definitely a lot more to be done.”

As someone who’s spent years in this field, she shares that a lot of the women in the field are actively trying to encourage girls in school to give it a shot or explore it if they’re curious about it. The goal isn’t necessarily that there’s a 50-50 split between men and women in tech, but more that everyone who is interested in it would feel comfortable pursuing it without worrying about potential stigmas or unsupportive environments.

For women who want to venture into the field of tech, Yvonne’s advice is, “Just experiment as much as possible. Just try things out and just give everything a shot, no matter what you are interested in. Be brave and adventurous.”

The Great Women Of Our Time Awards 2020 is brought to you by the presenter, Lancôme.