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Rising to the challenge

Published on Thursday, 25 Nov 2010
Rising to the challenge

At one of the booths at InnoCarnival 2010, organised  this month by the Innovation and Technology Commission, Lydia Leung Lap-wai  was busy helping a group of enthusiastic elderly visitors measure the level of oxygen in their blood, using a palm-size, portable device designed by her team at the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute (Astri).

As a manager at Astri, which was set up by the government in 2000 to promote applied research, Leung leads a team of seven engineers in developing health-care electronic products. “Our goal is to produce small, convenient and affordable medical devices,” she says.

Tell us about your career

I studied electronic engineering for my undergraduate, master's and PhD degrees at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). After completing my master's in 2000, I joined a start-up firm in consumer electronics, focusing on the research and development (R&D) of wireless audio systems. I was there for a year and a half before moving on to do a PhD. When I was doing post-doctoral research at HKUST, a few professors suggested I talked to my current boss [about Astri]. I found the idea of commercialising research results very promising and exciting. I joined Astri in July 2005, developing [miniaturisation] packaging technology for wireless and radio frequency items. I switched to health-care electronics about 18 months ago.

What sparked your interest in electronic engineering?

As a secondary school student majoring in the science stream, I had two career choices – I either became a doctor or an engineer. I didn't like dissecting bodies, so the choice was obvious. But it was after attending a summer camp when I was in Form Six that I decided to specialise in electronic engineering. I had to build an automatic control system from scratch, and was fascinated by the process of creating something out of nothing.

What are your responsibilities?

 I delegate work to my engineers, help them solve problems at work, manage the projects and deal with customers, and make sure we are moving in the right direction. I am also involved in product design, which is about setting product specifications, such as iPad features, in order to bring added value to customers.

What are the differences between this role and your previous ones?

I used to do R&D only, whereas I now spend about 60 per cent of my time on it. I devote the rest to management, product design and communication. Managing people isn't easy. Luckily, I'm surrounded by high-quality people at Astri. Young engineers are willing to try and have sharp instincts to new products. They are also passionate about R&D. My task is to motivate them to sustain their passion. I have also learned a lot from members of senior management who are armed with strong industrial experience.

What is the biggest challenge?

That would be turning R&D results into a product. Pure R&D is about developing the latest technology. However, you can't always mass-produce things developed in a laboratory at a relatively low cost. A researcher who is en route to become a professional in applied technology will have to change his or her mindset. You need to anticipate if the market would be receptive to a technology, and be technology- and customer-driven.

To equip myself for future challenges, I’m enrolling in a master’s programme in marketing at Chinese University. I’ll be graduating next year. I want to improve my ability to see things from the customer’s point of view and share a range of perspectives with my team.

What are your hobbies?

I am a volunteer with Raleigh Hong Kong, a nongovernmental organisation that encourages young people to explore their full potential through a variety of programmes, such as physical challenges and volunteering overseas. I am involved in fundraising work and have been working with young volunteers on a regular basis. It is more challenging to motivate volunteers than, say, my staff at work, because volunteers aren’t paid.

How do you juggle work and volunteering?

Good time management is key. I am very focused on what I do, and I don’t watch TV that often. I typically need six hours of sleep a day. 

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