Jo Shien Ng: life as a scientist

Jo Shien Ng talks about her work as a Royal Society research fellow in electronic and electrical engineering, her education and when she became interested in science, being a minority working in electronic engineering, and family life.

I am Jo Shien Ng.  I’m a Royal Society research fellow based in the electronic and electrical engineering department in the University of Sheffield.  My expertise is in photodiodes, which are semiconductor devices that convert light signal to electrical current so that it can be further processed by other equipment. [0:25] So these photodiodes can be found from x-ray scanners used in medical applications or security gates through to infrared thermal imagining cameras.  The Molecular Beam Expitaxy machine would grow us semiconductor wafers about this in diameter, and then we make devices out of them first to test.  The devices that I mainly work on, they are a more sensitive type of photodiode; they use what we call the 'avalanche effect'.  So it’s very much like the avalanche you might have from, like, say, the snow melting. As it tumbles down it gets bigger and bigger, so it’s the same thing happening in the devices that I work in.  So the tiny signal that I get initially gets multiplied and multiplied and multiplied and becomes something where it’s just very large.  And that then tends to rise above the noise flow and then the measurement can become very accurate.  I also work on sort of ultimate type of detector, which is the most sensitive that you could – you could get.  So these would be used for ranging of distance down to maybe millimetre accuracy over several kilometres. [1:58] I was born in Malaysia in a state called Johor, very, very close to Singapore.  My – my dad was, and still, and oil palm plantation manager, looking after huge estates of commercial oil palms.  My mum, she became a housewife after I was born; just not possible to look after two children and continue her work.  And I came to Sheffield about sixteen years ago - it’s been a long time - to do my undergraduate degree.  I only wanted to stay for two years but then I carried on to do a PhD, post doc and then I got this research fellowship.  So here I am. [2:45] I’ve always had a very rational mind and I always felt a bit weird when I was growing up, which could have suggested to me I’m quite suited to this kind of engineering career.  But that never crossed my mind, mainly because I didn’t do very well in the science subjects in – in school, until the very last year of my high school.  It was that physics teacher – suddenly all the concepts clicked and I went from just over the passing mark to ninety odd percent immediately.  And that was when I decided, maybe I can do engineering.  And then I picked electronic engineering because that seemed very much compatible with what I learnt at school.  I didn’t know any better. [3:39] I’m now fully aware I’m in minority being a female and non-white working in electronic engineering.  Very strangely I only noticed it actually about a few years ago.  Although I’ve always, nearly always, been the only female in any technical meeting. In a lot of circumstances that I come across, despite the fact that I’m a minority in race and in gender, when I make a technical point my expertise is respected.  People have to listen to me when I give an opinion on the area that I’m expert in.  I think it’s quite – it’s quite clear cut in the engineering community that if you have got the point you can convince others.  I’m in the stage of my career, about mid career, I’ve got two happy children.  We – well, we as in myself and my husband – we think it’s mainly because both of us want to work and have good careers and he’s extremely supportive of me carrying on working, developing as a person, professionally.  We have constructed our lives such that everything is very efficient to allow us both working and have two children growing up happily.

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