Jiawen Li - 2021 SPIE Women in Optics Planner
National Heart Foundation Research Fellow
The University of Adelaide, Australia
Born in China
Growing up, science was part of my daily life. My dad is a biologist, and my mum a medical doctor. Our dinner conversations revolved around interesting challenges they faced at work and how they went about solving them. This really influenced me, not only planting the seeds of scientific curiosity but also a love for problem-solving. A treasured element of my summer vacations was watching my dad and his students do experiments. Occasionally I was fortunate enough to take part and help them with routine–yet-exciting-tome–tasks. I got to appreciate that many fundamental scientific breakthroughs are built on new instruments pushing the boundaries of what scientists can explore and accomplish. And that’s where I found my passion: I have been striving to develop novel integrated sensing and imaging devices to help scientists like my dad to make a difference.
The main focus of my work is to collaborate with medical doctors to address their unmet technological needs. I have been developing a suite of tiny endoscopes that allow us to visualize microstructures and measure different parameters deep inside the body and to help detect diseases or study biological processes.
The biggest obstacle that I have faced in my career has been my instinctive tendency to ‘play small.’ I am a natural team player and care deeply about others’ feelings and success. I found it difficult to balance taking credit for my personal achievements while making sure not to outshine colleagues. With time and experience, I have learnt, sometimes in a hard way, that playing small didn’t actually serve anyone and was certainly not an example to set for other women. Instead, as Marianne Williamson said, “…as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” Finding positive role models and mentors has been a critical part of my journey and has helped me overcome this and other challenges.
Looking back, I wish that I had been advised on how to face my fears and grow with them. The more opportunities I get, the more uncertainties and fears I encounter. I used to think that successful people never experience fear and they were born brave. Yet the truth is they face fears, acknowledge fears, grow with fears, and keep pushing through.
Young women should talk to women in STEM and make friends with them or ask to become their mentee. People love to share wisdom learnt along the way and empower others to succeed. STEM can give you more career options than you can ever imagine. You can easily pivot and create your own unique STEM-related career path.