Scientist Breaks New Ground

With an armful of accolades, Dawn Tan blazes a trail in engineering for women to follow.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

With an armful of accolades, Dawn Tan blazes a trail in engineering for women to follow.



She is a rising global star who has made significant breakthroughs in the field of photonics. Her work in 2017 to increase Internet speeds by at least five times is especially gaining her international acclaim. 

The accolades have been piling up for some time now for this 36-year-old electrical engineer and associate professor of Engineering Product Development at Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). In 2017, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Technology Review named her “Innovator under 35” in Asia. That same year, she received the L’Oreal for Women in Science National Fellowship award. 

“Photonics is the study of photons, which is just light,” Dawn Tan explains. “Light can be seen as particles and optical fields. For example, Internet data is transmitted using light and I work on technologies to transmit light faster and cheaper.”

Despite the spotlight, Tan often feels quite alone in her work because women are a minority in the engineering fraternity. She is determined to change the status quo because women, the scientist says, can make important contributions to the field. 

“Women are more into social responsibility,” Tan explains. “Many study engineering because they want to figure out how to make the world sustainable and a better place. They bring considerations to the table that men might not think about.

“For instance, it is well known that crash-test dummies for vehicles were not effective in assessing safety for women as the weight and height of these dummies reflected those of men. So, if you don’t have enough women in engineering, a lot of important aspects will be overlooked in many other products.”

In 2017, she gave a TEDx talk about gender parity in engineering fields and last year co-organised SUTD’s first Women in Technology and Design Conference. 

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If you don’t have enough women in engineering, a lot of important aspects (of design) will be overlooked in many products.

Indeed, working with female students, Tan sees many who give up when they encounter problems. Compared to men, women tend to believe they are not good enough. This is backed up by research and the problem, she says, is amplified in engineering because of the small number of women in the field. 

“I used to be very harsh on myself whenever my experiments failed,” she adds. “People think women give up their engineering careers because they want to start a family but actually this is not the case. Studies have shown that it is because of their lack of confidence in the workplace.”

She has travelled that lonely path herself and wants to help more women engineers fulfil their ambition. An avid video game player, Tan left for Canada in 2001 to study electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia. She followed that with a Masters and PhD at the University of California San Diego in Electrical Engineering (Photonics). 

Adds Tan: “It didn’t occur to me that there were very few girls in engineering, especially in the electrical field. So it became a challenge to see if I could beat the guys.”

She eventually received her doctorate in Electrical Engineering specialising in photonics research, and was a Powell Fellow at the university and a visiting professor at the MIT. Californian start-up Luxtera Inc then hired her for its design team and, despite enjoying the work there, she decided to move to Singapore to allow her two young daughters to be closer to their grandparents. 

SUTD hired her three months before it opened for classes in April 2012. In many ways the university was a start-up. Says Tan says: “What I love about start-ups are their flat hierarchies. You have to wear many hats and there is a lot of flexibility when doing things in a brand new way.”

Apart from increasing Internet speeds and optical amplifiers, her team has been working on sensors to discover the minute presence of harmful chemical gases in the environment. Her groundbreaking research on photonics is inspiring students. 

“When you pass on new knowledge, it could ignite a curiosity in the younger generation to discover new things and succeed at their technical endeavours. Most of all, I hope it inspires female students to be confident, persevere and have outstanding careers in engineering.”