Interview Series with HLMA Winners – The Story of Two Young Women Pursuing their Passion in Science

Historically women are underrepresented in mathematics and science. But with equal opportunities and resources to access higher education, there has been an increasing trend of women’s representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and prove that women can too excel in mathematics and science. In this issue of Connections, we spoke with two winners of the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards (HLMA) – Ms. Ewina Pun and Ms. Dorothy Cheng, who won the Bronze Award in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Both are currently PhD students and have decided to pursue research in science.

Despite their love of mathematics, they did not choose the path of advanced mathematical studies during their university years. After graduating from the University of Southern California with a major in Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, Ewina decided to pursue her doctoral degree at Brown University, focusing on brain-machine interface. Dorothy obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Reed College, and she is now a PhD fellow at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.

C: Connections
E: Ewina Pun
D: Dorothy Cheng

C: How did you fall in love with mathematics?

E: I have been good with numbers since I was young. From primary school onwards, I have participated in the Mathematics Olympiad training and mathematics programs and learned a lot beyond mathematics textbooks. I enjoyed the process of solving problems; it just felt like doing puzzles. This joy gave me the motivation to continue my study in mathematics.

D: I think I was born with this passion. I have been fascinated by the aesthetics of numbers since I was a child, as I think they are both beautiful and logical. Take the number 7 for example: each repeating decimal of 1/7, 2/7 and 3/7 has the same six numerals but in a different order. These amazing patterns which exist in the world of mathematics fascinates me a lot.

C: Why did you participate in HLMA, a research-based competition?

E: I wanted to try something that was different from the usual mathematics competitions, which require participants to solve problems using existing methods within a certain time limit. In contrast, HLMA is on a whole new level. With an emphasis on self-learning, the participants need to decide on a mathematics topic for research, and the research process is full of opportunities for exploration and self-discovery. In the end, we have to write a research report that will be evaluated by world-class mathematicians in a rigorous review process and an oral defense. The experience offered by HLMA is unparalleled.

D: Some of my senior teammates in the Mathematics Olympiad had won at the HLMA before, so naturally I also wanted to give it a try. HLMA allowed me to understand the process of advanced mathematics research. Starting from scratch, we had to set our research topic, find the relevant information, and write a research report, solving the question that we had come up with in a step-by-step manner. While the Mathematics Olympiad trained us to solve problems in a short period of time, HLMA is a research project where you need to invest a lot of time, which is exactly how mathematicians work on unsolved mathematics problems.

C: With excellent grades in mathematics, why didn’t you study mathematics at university, but instead went for scientific research?

E: Instead of concentrating in mathematics, I aspire to deepen my understanding on the application of mathematics in medicine. From modeling neurons to developing an MRI scanner, mathematics plays an irreplaceable role in enabling us to learn about the human body and develop new tools. It is my hope that one day I might invent a biomedical instrument that can be used by doctors around the world, thereby making a significant contribution to humanity.

D: I like mathematics, but I don’t reckon myself working in advanced mathematics research. Nonetheless, I love scientific research, so I have decided to embark on this journey. Among the disciplines in science, I have chosen biology. In fact, all scientific research, including mathematics and biology, have much in common, with mathematics playing an important role because many types of research and analyses require a certain level of mathematics prowess.

C: Can you describe what you are currently researching in your PhD program?

E: I am currently conducting research on brain-machine interface, which is a rather sci-fi concept. For example, by implanting a chip into the brain of a paralyzed patient, the brain signals can be transmitted to a computer for decoding movement intentions. This allows patients to use their mind to control any device remotely. The increasing sophistication of machine learning also allows for better collaboration between the brain and the machine via our brain-machine interface, which brings hope to paralyzed patients.

D: My research field is mechanobiology. Biological research over the past few decades has tended to explore how chemical substances, such as drugs and hormones, affect our lives. However, in recent years, scientists have discovered that physics is also very significant to biological development. As a fertilized egg grows into an embryo, how do the cells specialize and develop into the different organs and structures of the body, such as skin and internal organs? This is all because the cell is governed by physics. It is the physics that “tells” the cells what to become. Structural biology is the study of how cells detect external forces and help those cells respond.

C: How did your mathematics training and the experience of participating in HLMA encourage you to embark on scientific research?

E: My previous mathematics training not only broadened my scope of knowledge, but also enlightened me in terms of how I think logically. Mathematics is a science language. It is a basic tool of science and it’s an indispensable part of scientific research. As for my participation in HLMA, I learned about the importance of self-learning and discovery through the exploration of the unknown, while I also gained a more in-depth and comprehensive understanding of the scientific research process. Some scientists do indeed spend their entire lives working on research, and I think their commitment has inspired my passion for this field.

D: Mathematics is considered the mother of all sciences. The mathematics training I received during my childhood helped me master the skills of logical thinking, reasoning, and analysis. In the experiments I conduct now, the graphs and data analysis, as well as programming, are all inseparable from mathematics. HLMA has provided me with precious learning opportunities. In particular, the academic research process that I learned from the competition – determining the research question, conducting research, repeated verification, finding the solutions, and finally publishing a research report – has laid a solid foundation for my work in scientific research today.

C: What do you like to do in your free time?

E: I like playing badminton and making artisan chocolates, so I took a sommelier chocolate tasting certificate course. In my spare time, I curated various flavors of chocolates. The process of mastering the technique and experimenting flavor combination is quite similar to conducting scientific research; both go through trial and error to succeed.

D: I like riding horses, playing chess, and reading books in my free time. Horse riding makes me feel relaxed. As for chess, it is a game that interested many people who like mathematics, probably because the logical thinking, reasoning, and problem solving in the game are similar to conducting mathematics research. I also love to read novels as this allows me to broaden my horizons.

C: Do you have any words of encouragement for participants in HLMA?

E: Enjoy the process and complete the competition. It doesn’t matter if you win an award or not in the end, as you will have successfully completed a university-level research report. There will be moments of ups and downs in conducting any type of research. As long as you enjoy it, carry on with perseverance. Grit is a stronger predictor of success than talent! Also, don’t be stereotyped by the social framework, just do what you like.

D: Choose a topic that you are interested in. When you overcome all the obstacles and successfully solve the problem that you have established by yourself, it can bring you endless fun. Keep this in mind and focus on doing what you like. Even though there can be a series of setbacks in your research process, once you have decided to make it, you should stick with it to the end!