SINGAPORE – Dr Si-Hui Tan had already developed a keen interest in mathematics and science in secondary school.
From Raffles Girls’ School she went on to pursue advanced mathematics and a degree in physics, and eventually earned herself a post-doctorate degree in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Today, the 40-year-old is the chief science officer at a local start-up, Horizon Quantum Computing. The company aims to make quantum computing more accessible to software developers.
Inspired by the possibilities a quantum computer could offer in everyday use, Dr Tan has set to work, building software that will compile, or convert, classical codes so that they could be run on quantum computers.
Many of her clients, such as those in the aerospace and pharmaceuticals industries, encounter problems which require “high computational power”, and could take a long time to process through a regular computer.
For instance, in the aerospace industry, common problems include optimising flight schedules or ensuring aircraft are operating at optimal cargo and passenger capacity.
A quantum computer may process some of these problems much quicker, she noted.
And if that proves to be the case, Dr Tan hopes her company could make the technology more accessible in these industries.
Having studied and conducted research in the fields of mathematics and physics for more than 20 years, Dr Tan is used to being one of the few women in a male-dominated field.
“By the time I got to college, only 30 per cent of the cohort were female,” she said.
Of course, this came with the occasional snide remark from male counterparts.
“I was told by a fellow student in MIT that the reason why I was there was part of affirmative action, or positive discrimination as I am a woman,” Ms Tan recalled.
“I brushed it aside then, but if that were to happen to me today, I would definitely take a more active stance.”
Unfazed, she has continued to pursue her research interests.
Last year, she won the silver award for the Women in Tech’s Chief Technology Officer of the year for her leadership and work in innovation, and for fostering diversity and inclusion.
“Overall, I think I was very lucky to have a very supportive environment that wasn’t biased against women, so I’m lucky that my gender wasn’t an obstacle in my career,” she said.
“But in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry as a whole, I do think there are systematic biases against women, especially the assumption that when they start having children, there’s a lot to juggle, so many would end up dropping out.”
Dr Tan hopes that more can be done to raise awareness of gender biases in the industry.
For instance, more support should be given to both parents of young children, so that caregiving responsibilities can be more equally spread between the two.
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