Blind A*STAR Researcher Sees Beauty In Mathematics

She lost her sight at four, but A*STAR researcher Dr. Yeo Sze Ling never gave in to her circumstances and eventually graduated with a PhD in mathematics.

AsianScientist (Sep. 30, 2013) – In a speech after she received the Singapore Youth Award last year, Dr. Yeo Sze Ling, a research scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), said that she understood maths more than the concept of beauty.

She was alluding to a life spent without any idea of colors and light, of nurturing a passion for numbers and formulas, as the brilliant mathematician lost her sight at the age of four due to glaucoma.

“The concept of beauty is even more abstract to me than mathematics,” Yeo joked.

Her comment amused an audience that couldn’t help but be inspired by a successful scientist who chose to live a full life despite her circumstances.

Yeo works at A*STAR’s Institute for Infocomm Research, where she focuses on the mathematical aspects underlying cryptographic schemes – a work that suits her owing to her ability understand deep mathematical formulae. She analyzes fundamental mathematical problems that help make encryption schemes (or schemes that protect private data) secure or vulnerable.

Yeo has been working at A*STAR since 2006, shortly after she obtained her PhD in mathematics at the National University of Singapore. She is also an adjunct professor at the Nanyang Technological University.

Her talent for numbers and problem solving was apparent ever since she was young, receiving top grades in the process and completing three degrees on the back of a merit-based scholarship from A*STAR.

These achievements can be attributed to her mental prowess and determination, but Yeo repeatedly stressed that none of these would have been possible without the support of her family, friends and teachers.

“I believe that with the aid of assistive technology (such as Braille), coupled with an open-minded and compassionate society, the potential of every individual, including those with special needs, can be more fully realized,” Yeo told Asian Scientist Magazine in a recent interview.

Yeo herself is proof that a network of kind and supportive people can offer opportunities even to those differently-abled.

As a child, she chose to study in the mainstream school system, learning Braille in order to read the textbooks. Her teachers gave her lessons in advance so that they can be translated in Braille and classmates read lessons to her. She did her daily tasks with the help of her family and had neighbors and even complete strangers who volunteered to help her navigate Singapore’s streets and take public transport.

More importantly, Yeo was always brave enough to accept herself for who she is, and never felt that anyone should treat her otherwise. It is this belief, the support that she received, and her desire to give back that encouraged her to mentor to visually disabled students.

Yeo volunteers for the Society for the Physically Disabled – a task which she considers both rewarding and challenging.

“As someone who has completed my educational journey, I try to share my personal experience with other visually impaired students going through some of the challenges which I had encountered,” she said.

She guides her students on assistive technology and extends advice to visually handicapped people on integrating into mainstream society. She helps her students understand math concepts and write mathematical formulae using a computer instead of Braille.

“It can at times be challenging as not all the students are receptive to learn to integrate in our society and not all the strategies which work for me turn out to be effective for them, ” she said.

But like most challenges that came her way, Yeo never gave up mentoring and empowering visually disabled students. One of her most successful students is 25-year-old Tan Siew Ling, the first blind student to pass both her Chinese “O” and “A” level exams in Singapore.

“Over time, I learned to listen to their perspectives as well and to try to work out solutions to confront their challenges together. It is most rewarding to have gained a new friend and to be able to learn from each other’s experience,” she said.

Yeo also believes that government policies have helped differently-abled people like her to cope and succeed in their respective careers.

“Singapore has made much progress in recent years to reach out to people with special needs through more dedicated programs and assistance,” she said.

The Singapore government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. To this end it has implemented programs and passed laws that will benefit the differenty-abled, which comprise about three percent of the population. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong says this is what a “compassionate meritocracy” does for its people.

In addition, Singapore has a five-year Master Plan that aims to help and uplift the differently-abled. The National Council of Social Services, for instance, offers several programs that subsidizes education and purchase of assistive technology of the differently-abled, especially those that have low incomes. There’s also an existing subsidy scheme for businesses that employ people with special needs and build facilities to accommodate them. A law was passed and enforced that allows guide dogs for the visually disabled to enter MRT stations and other public establishments.

Still, Yeo hopes that the government and society as a whole would do more to help the differently-abled, by providing more educational and employment opportunities for them.

“I do think that there remains much room for improvement for our entire society to progress towards one that views everyone as a contributing member,” she said.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Singapore Youth Awards/NYC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Prime Sarmiento is a Manila-based travel and science journalist. She specializes in reporting on health, environment and agriculture in Southeast Asia.

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