Asia’s Rising Scientists: Lynette Cheah

Assistant Professor Lynette Cheah takes a data-driven approach to the challenges of urban mobility and sustainability.

Lynette Cheah
Assistant Professor with the Engineering Systems and Design Pillar
Singapore University of Technology and Design

AsianScientist (Oct. 7, 2015) – Despite the environmental damage they cause, fossil fuels are here to stay, at least in the short term. At the same time, globalization has seen the rise of the mega city, a development that concentrates people and resources but also brings about new challenges in urban mobility.

Lynette Cheah, an assistant professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), is working on ways to mitigate the harm caused by petroleum use while still enabling the smooth flow of people and goods. Using high resolution data to build models that can estimate anything from traffic to vehicle fuel consumption, Cheah and her team hope to help make cities more sustainable.

In 2013, Cheah was awarded the inaugural Singapore Challenge prize for her research proposal for an adaptive transport network that can respond to real-time feedback. We catch up with her for this month’s Asia’s Rising Scientists to hear about her latest research.

1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?

I model the environmental impact of products and systems, focusing on road transportation. My goal is to achieve sustainable urban mobility.

2. Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.

In 2008, I completed a study that evaluated the set of technologies and policies that is needed to halve the fuel consumption, or double the fuel economy, of new vehicles sold in the US by year 2035. It emphasized smaller, lightweight vehicles while abandoning the constant pursuit for better horsepower performance. This technical work generated much interest at the time when gas prices were at a high and there was a lot of concern about both energy security and climate change.

Dr. Lynette Cheah presenting her winning research proposal at the Global Young Scientists Summit 2013. Credit: Asian Scientist.
Dr. Lynette Cheah presenting her winning research proposal at the Global Young Scientists Summit 2013. Credit: Asian Scientist.

3. What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?

I am keen to move from the study of passenger transport to the understudied topic of urban freight transport. It is such a complex system with multiple actors, very little data, which makes optimizing it so challenging and fascinating. I would like to study how goods are moved in cities and find ways to make this system more efficient.

4. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

I have always been interested in the topic of sustainability. My doctoral thesis advisor, Professor John Heywood at MIT is a leading expert in vehicle and fuel technologies. He influenced me to consider sustainability challenges in the transportation domain, and we ended up working well together.

Cheah (middle) and her team relaxing over lunch. Credit: Lynette Cheah.
Cheah (middle) and her team relaxing over lunch. Credit: Lynette Cheah.

5. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?

Paperwork! But this must be some common disease that plagues every large organization, not just academia. I do dislike filling forms. But I guess the perks of the job make up for this. That is, working with bright students, and the autonomy to discover new knowledge.

6. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today and how can we fix it?

There is a general decline in the number of students taking on STEM subjects in school, and then eventually becoming researchers or STEM practitioners. So I hope we can reach out to young adults to consider this as a feasible and fulfilling career.

7. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

I am happy being a scientist and lecturing now. Growing up, I thought I might have become an architect, because I enjoyed sketching and artwork. In my retirement, perhaps I would like to be a farmer together with my husband.

Members of the Cheah lab celebrating Chinese New Year with yusheng. Credit: Lynette Cheah.
Members of the Cheah lab celebrating Chinese New Year with yusheng. Credit: Lynette Cheah.

8. Outside of work, what do you do to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?

What does “relax” mean? Just kidding. As a young faculty and parent, I am balancing teaching, research, service and family commitments. I barely have time to sleep. But I do enjoy cycling, and am trying to incorporate that into my daily commute. I like taking walks with my family and friends. I started volunteering with disadvantaged children last year and am enjoying this.

9. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

Climate change, clearly. We are faced with the following facts: (1) global demand for energy and transportation services are growing rapidly, and (2) these remain heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Clearly, this is not a sustainable picture. It will take multiple approaches, multiple disciplines, leadership and many bright minds to tackle this grand challenge.

10. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

To any researcher, not just in Asia, I would say to keep studying what you enjoy. The passion will carry you forward.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Lynette Cheah.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca did her PhD at the National University of Singapore where she studied how macrophages integrate multiple signals from the toll-like receptor system. She was formerly the editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine.

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