A fascination with light and optical engineering

Jiawen Li

Dr Jiawen Li is an inventor and highly adaptable engineer. With a career that began with her study of optical engineering, that saw her move across the globe twice, she is currently leading her own research team to develop a hair-sized ‘camera’ to help cardiologists identify patients at risk of heart attacks.

Electrical and Electronic Engineering researcher Jiawen was originally drawn to study optical engineering as an undergraduate because she found light and optical engineering both romantic and fascinating.

“Rainbow, sunrise, sunset, and water reflection are all created by light,” she said.

“During my undergraduate study, I chose this major because I wanted to learn more about this field and how I can use light to solve unmet real-world problems”.

After completing her PhD in the USA, Jiawen joined us in Australia to research the use of light to help diagnose lung cancer and brain tumour.

We’re celebrating her career and interests in the lead up to this year’s International Women’s Day.

Why does she love what she does?

Working in biomedical engineering allows me to bring an idea/design into a working prototype. Some of the devices we developed are now used by clinicians to help save lives.

Biomedical engineering is at the interface between engineering and biomedicine.

My favourite part of working in this field is that I can actively work on interdisciplinary projects. I think interdisciplinary mindset is an essential driver for innovation. Interdisciplinary collaboration allows me to think outside of the box and better address the complexity presented in real world problems.

Does she have advice for her younger self?

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.

Name an achievement that makes you feel proud?

As a woman in STEM working in a primarily male-dominant field, I sometimes find myself to be the only woman in the room. It was awkward at the very beginning, but then I learnt to think positively about it, and I am proud of this mindset shift.

Two years ago, my team was selected to give a pitch for a million-dollar government grant. As the team lead, I prepared the business pitch without a second thought. However, as soon as I arrived at the meeting room, I noticed that the panel members, all men, as in most Engineering related meetings, were surprised. They seemed to expect a middle-aged white man to present, instead of a young Asian woman who even speaks English with a strong accent.

After few seconds of feeling awkward and excluded, I told myself to use this ‘opportunity’ to our team’s advantage. If a woman of colour could give an excellent pitch, it would certainly be remembered. It turns out that the panel members were very impressed and even introduced us to venture capitals.

How do you unwind in your spare time?

I love playing basketball and travelling. I used to play basketball every week and spend ~1 month overseas each year. After having my daughter, who is now almost 3-year-old, I tried to play basketball again, but she just wanted to hold the ball and run (instead of allowing me to touch it). Hopefully she will enjoy playing with me in future.

Since the start of the pandemic, I have begun to watch movies or TV shows in my very limited spare time (i.e., when I don’t need to work or take care of my young kid) to let my brain stop thinking about work and relax.

Thank you to Jiawen for your beautiful insights and transperancy, we are very proud to have you in our faculty and wish you all the best for the year ahead!

Tagged in electrical and mechanical engineering, Latest News and Achievements, Women in STEM, international women's day