A few weeks ago, I went with my nine-year-old daughter to our local LEGO store in Singapore. Her eye was caught by a set of female scientists working for NASA. It came home with us and an hour later, she’d built it. She was so excited to see women, and women of colour, working on a space mission.
That set was more than just a toy. It shows how important it is that girls see themselves represented in the worlds of science and technology. To aspire to something truly amazing, you need to have representation and role models to look up to.
Growing up, I didn’t really have many role models for women working in science, but I looked up to my mother. She was a secondary school maths teacher and always encouraged me to pursue my passion. I loved studying science in school, especially chemistry and biology. The laboratory sessions were the most fun – I enjoyed getting my hands dirty and running experiments. So, I chose to study Applied Sciences, pursuing a degree in Food Science & Technology at Delhi University, India.
While studying, I did a summer internship at a food processing plant and worked on a project to improve the shelf life of packaged juice. I learnt about the science behind choosing the right materials to package food items and the crucial role it plays in avoiding food wastage. I was eager to learn more and pursued a professional degree in packaging technology.
Keeping an open mind and staying curious helped me to find the field of science and technology that I love until this day.
From prototypes to production lines
Over the last 16 years, I’ve worked in food, confectionery, fast-moving consumer goods and over-the-counter medicines. Now, I work as the Packaging Development Manager in GSK Consumer Healthcare R&D in Singapore. I lead the end-to-end development of innovative packaging solutions for pain relief products. We learn from consumer insights – for instance, parents telling us they find it difficult to give the right dose of painkillers to their children – and develop concepts for new packaging in the lab, which are then tested, developed and rolled out around the world.
I don’t spend too much time in the lab myself anymore – a lot of my time is spent working with external partners in their labs, visiting their production lines and working up prototypes. It’s a job that has taken me all around the world visiting consumers, manufacturing sites and technology trade shows. I’ve learnt so much about virtual design and research to rapid prototyping using 3D print technologies, and modelling and simulation.
It always makes me proud to see a new product that I worked on displayed on the shelf of a supermarket or pharmacy. One of my first successes was while working for a pharmaceutical company in India. There were big issues with fake medicines and I was able to implement anti-counterfeit solutions for pharmaceutical packs. This was an early realisation for me of what impact the right technology can have – in this instance, ensuring consumers got access to authentic and safe medicines.
Innovations need to work for everyone
When working in the office, it doesn’t strike me that I’m in the minority as a woman working in this field. But when I go out to production facilities, I’m often the only woman there. From India, to Japan and Europe, it’s the same story.
How do I deal with that? While early on, I didn’t have many strong mentors, I did have a handful of female alumni who I could turn to and would ask – how do you deal with it? How do you be assertive in a situation where you’re the only female, and people aren’t used to being told what to do by a woman? This helped me to form my own style. For me, building relationships and trust is important – once you’ve established that credibility, it doesn’t really matter that you’re a woman.
We do need more women in these fields, though. The innovations we need for the future world will have to work for the whole of humankind, not just a section of it. If 50% of the population is women, how will you make innovative technologies inclusive if you don’t have women working on them? The technologies of the future must be created by people who understand what the different needs are, including women.
What’s more, when working in a team, you need diversity of thought. As a woman, you challenge things from a different point of view. If you don’t have that voice, you’re missing out on that perspective and not being challenged enough to bring out the best in the team.
I feel excited about the breakthroughs that the next generation of scientists and technologists will bring to transform the future of packaging and healthcare. I hope plenty of young women will be a part of that generation. For girls who wish to pursue a career in science, the possibilities are endless. You can engineer solutions to the world’s biggest problems and make a difference. I advise you to find mentors and role models who can guide you to pursue your passion and encourage you to take risks.
If my daughter is inspired by her astronaut LEGO and wants to be a scientist, I’ll tell her to go for it – because if you don’t try, you’ll never know.