STEM is vital in the development of many game-changing innovations that we see today. Yet, many women and girls continue to be systemically underrepresented as innovators and leaders in these fields. A UN Women report has found that less than 30 per cent of researchers globally are women and only about a third of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study are female.
To promote and achieve equal, transparent access to and participation in science for both women and girls, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly marks every 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
At SGInnovate, we firmly believe that a gender-balanced world is critical for an equal, diverse and inclusive future of innovation. As part of promoting diversity and gender-equal opportunities in STEM fields, we have launched a Singapore Women in Tech conversation series to celebrate the women among us who have contributed significantly to our local science and tech fields.
In this interview, we speak with Sierin Lim, who is currently an Associate Professor of Bioengineering at the School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Associate Dean (Global Partnerships) at the NTU Graduate College, as well as the Co-Deputy Executive Director of the NTU Institute for Health Technologies. She also leads the Bioengineered and Applied Nanomaterials Laboratory (BeANs Lab), which focuses on the design and engineering of hybrid nano/microscale devices from biological parts by utilising protein engineering as a tool for applications in health, cosmetics, food, and the environment.
Outside of her established scientific research career, Sierin is championing current and future generations of females in STEM — she founded [email protected] in 2018 and is a STEM ambassador for the Girls2Pioneers section of the United Women Singapore. She is also the Co-founder of the Promotion of Women in Engineering, Research, and Science (POWERS) programme — it aims to empower girls and women to change the world with STEM — which will launch in 2021.
Could you share more with us on what you do, and what a typical day looks like for you?
I lead a team of researchers to solve health and environment-related problems. The core technologies in our lab are protein cages, plastic degrading enzymes and bacteria as biofactory. In the area of health, we repurpose nature-derived protein cages to deliver active molecules and use them to formulate medical (e.g. contrast agents) and consumer products (e.g. skincare). As for our research on environmental challenges, we engineer enzymes for increased activities to address plastic waste problems – 1 million plastic bottles are generated every minute worldwide! We leverage molecular and cellular engineering as tools to achieve our objectives of tackling these pressing global challenges.
A typical day will start with checking emails and following up with various parties, meetings with my team or other stakeholders (for my administrative roles) to monitor the progress of multiple projects and decision-making. I would try to make time to sit down to read or write at least once weekly.
How did you enter STEM, specifically in scientific research?
My mother is the biggest driving force for introducing me to the wonderful world of science. She used to take me to bookstores and drop me off at the kids’ science section. We also did some experiments at home like germinating and observing the growth of green bean sprouts. That was how I became interested in science and I continued to cultivate that interest throughout my education — it eventually led me to major in chemical engineering. During my junior year in college, I joined a biochemical engineering lab and discovered how fun research was, so I kept going to this day!
Why did you pursue this field? Were there influential forces that led you to where you are today?
The field of bioengineering was introduced to me during my undergraduate education. My adviser — one of the key influential people in my life — provided me with the first research opportunity, which was to find novel enzymes at the boon of genome sequencing. That opportunity made me realised that I really enjoyed thinking about scientific problems and solving them through creative engineering. Bioengineering is at the intersection of science and engineering, which is why I am still pursuing and having fun in this field!
What led you to start POWERS (The Promotion of Women in Engineering, Research and Science)?
Throughout the years, I became more aware of the lack of women representation in the STEM fields. McKinsey and Company’s recent study found that a 5 per cent improvement from gender inequality in Singapore’s workforce can add $20 billion to its annual GDP by 2025. Therefore, having more women in these fields will provide inclusive viewpoints and solutions, translating to positive economic outcomes. Through various discussions across the NTU campus, I co-founded [email protected] with a colleague, Kimberly Kline. The founding of [email protected] provided us a platform to secure an operating budget from MOE’s STEM, Innovation, & Enterprise (SI&E) grant to promote women in STEM. The POWERS programme aims to empower girls and women to change the world with STEM. Our CoRE (Connect, Research, and Educate) approach will provide mentorship, role models, data-driven recommendations and educational materials that will reach out to households, various industries and the community.
What do you think are some of the challenges faced by women in STEM?
The classic negative stereotype that women are not capable in STEM has been perpetuated for generations and is still present in our society, leading to a history of self-imposed and sabotaging beliefs. Another challenge is the lack of role models and mentors, such as female faculty in the college. These challenges are experienced in all layers of society, starting from home, educational institutions and the workplace. Therefore, my goal with POWERS is to address these challenges using data-driven approaches in our research and then develop intervention strategies relevant to Singapore’s society.
How do you think the ecosystem can support and empower these women?
To build a supportive and empowering ecosystem for these women to enter and thrive in STEM, it is crucial for educators, employers, government and other stakeholders to collaborate. Firstly, the ecosystem must be aware of and remove implicit biases toward women in STEM, then, make proactive efforts to create and sustain inclusive education, hiring and policies. Finally, stakeholders who can cultivate a sense of belonging and safety will go a long way in retaining women in STEM fields. We are trying to achieve all these steps with the POWERS programme — we are currently concluding our study and will provide some recommendations on creating a supportive ecosystem for these women. The white paper would be published, in conjunction with the International Women’s Day!
What advice would you give to women considering a career in STEM?
Go for it. You can do it! STEM provides a multitude of opportunities through robust and systematic training and it is a key driver for many of the innovations we see today. I am glad to have chosen to stay in STEM, and hope that more girls will join, and women will continue to establish strong careers in this field.
At SGInnovate, we are committed to support women in their roles to drive innovation in tech. We believe gender diversity is the key to an inclusive and diverse workplace. Glean insights from female leaders who spoke at the SG Women in Tech 1 Year Anniversary webinar here.