Asia’s Rising Scientists: Dawn Tan

Academia and industry are not necessarily at odds, as demonstrated in the career of Dawn Tan, an assistant professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Dawn Tan
Assistant Professor
Engineering Product Development
Singapore University of Technology and Design

AsianScientist (Nov. 17, 2016) – At the point where creative design and photonics meet, wide-ranging applications in optical communications, computing, imaging, biomedicine and sensing are possible. Dawn Tan, an assistant professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), conducts research in experimental optical physics, and loves her work—a love that all began when her family bought their first computer with internet access. She believes that it is possible to create innovative solutions that balance profitability, scientific impact and design, effectively bridging the industry-academia gap.

Below, Tan tells Asian Scientist Magazine about her first experiences with engineering research projects, the challenges of conducting research in a startup environment, and the awesome academics she has met along the way.

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

    The study of how photons (particles of light), may be harnessed at timescales as small as one trillionth of a second, for telecommunications, computing, sensing, medicine and energy applications.

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

    One of my more recent achievements which I am very proud of is the development of a supercontinuum light source, a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair, which may one day power low-cost sources for medical diagnostics and datacom. This work was featured as the front cover article of Laser & Photonics Reviews, and received coverage in several media outlets.

    I also previously worked on a photonics device with world record performance, which has now been deployed into a successful, commercial product.

    The broad goals of industry and academia tend to be viewed as a dichotomy, with profitability and scientific impact being the respective measures of success. But, I feel it is possible to contribute significantly on both fronts, using the appropriate design approaches.

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

    In the field of datacom, one of the grand challenges of emerging solutions lies in the expensive light source used to power complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS)-based optical links. The light-on-a-chip technologies developed in our group use a single laser to generate multiple light coherent wavelengths at low powers, each of which can be used to power a single channel.

    This technology could enable any transceiver or optical interconnect system to be scaled up to as many as 100 channels while requiring only a single laser, thus eliminating the cost barriers inherent in CMOS-based optical interconnects.

    Our near term goal is to develop an inexpensive, highly energy-efficient, multi-wavelength light source which will be able to power these interconnects.

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

    Growing up, I was always interested in science and engineering, building things and technology. I remember when we first got a computer with internet access, I started learning day and night how to code a website and dabble a bit in rendering images. Along the way, I’ve had many opportunities to be exposed to technology and how it enables our way of life, supported by great encouragement from my family.

    I have also had some incredible mentors in college, who gave me my first shot at conducting engineering research experiments: first on supercapacitors and then on antennas, lasers and light-matter interaction. It was extremely cool.

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

    This is not necessarily an adversity, but it was challenging at the time. I worked in a startup in California prior to returning to academia. I loved the environment: it was stimulating, fast-paced, and we got to wear many different hats.

    So when given the opportunity to return to Singapore to be a pioneer at SUTD—another startup—I was psyched. I continue to love the university, and one of the biggest perks is that unlike a traditional university where we get silo-ed into our own individual departments, I get to interact with awesome academics from fields completely different from mine.

    Needless to say, a lot of interesting cross-disciplinary ideas can arise from such a rich environment. The difficulty initially as a pioneer came from having to build up my lab while still being at a temporary campus with not many research facilities. However, it gave me the impetus to learn how to build external relationships and cultivate close relationships with facilities which I need for my research. I’ve made some long-lasting collaborations (and friendships) in the process.

  6. Tan with lab members. Credit: Dawn Tan
    Tan with lab members. Credit: Dawn Tan

  7. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?

    I would say that the biggest challenge is the difficulty in translating cutting-edge technology from one very specific field into a tangible product. Many fields of academic research involve steadfast focus on a specialized problem, and being able to solve that one thing extremely well is typically the technology’s value proposition. However, it is often the case that that particular value proposition becomes practical only if it is integrated within a larger system.

    Academic researchers are also not always privy to manufacturing options available to them. Fortunately, we are seeing larger numbers of translational research today, facilitated in part by technology incubators, who I think really bring a lot of merit to the high-tech field.

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

    Cliché as it might sound, I would likely have gone into medicine because it was what all my friends at the time were going into—but it wouldn’t have been for the best reasons. I’m pretty sure what I’m doing now is what I was meant to do, and I love it.

  9. Outside of work, what do you do to relax?

    Travel, and hanging out with my husband, wonderful kids and family!

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

    The quest for cheaper internet, data access and storage is one of the wicked problems which has emerged in our generation. While not easily solved by researchers in a single field, I hope my research will contribute significantly to the technological fabric used to solve this ongoing data challenge.

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

    It’s important to find the right field which leverages your interests and natural inclinations. The process of selecting a field, whether consciously or unconsciously, starts as early as (or even earlier these days) in college.

    Where possible, look for research opportunities in diverse fields early on to get a sense of what you are good at. Students at SUTD, for example, can partake in research from day one.

    I know a large numbers of individuals are already exposed to scientific research even in secondary schools, so that sort of exposure definitely helps the next generation to find their passion.

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: Dawn Tan.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Coming from a design background, Filzah brings a fresh perspective to science communications. She is particularly interested in healthcare and technology.

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