Dr. Ying Lia Li, a quantum physicist, shares her experiences and views on inequality and ownership in STEM
Writer: Elizabeth Jovena Sulistyo
Editor: Gracie Enticknap
Dr. Ying Lia Li is a Royal Academy of Engineering Fellow at UCL, an Executive Fellow at QTEC Bristol University, and the CEO of Zero Point Motion.
She fell in love with quantum technology while studying physics at Imperial College London, building lasers from scratch during her final-year MSci project. Subsequently, she worked in the defence industry, but felt this to be a weird experience. “I’m a woman. I’m Chinese. I have a British passport. So, they let me in, though I felt marginalised for different reasons,” she says. “Some of it was self-imposed, but I stuck out like a sore thumb when entering a room.” Although she enjoyed working with the scientists around her, she felt disconnected with the company’s values and quit to pursue a PhD at UCL.
Growing up in the UK, she was one of very few Asian students at school and felt the pressures of being stereotyped, along with a conflicting sense of cultural identity. Choosing science as a career was difficult because she loved music equally, and looking back, she reflects, “There was a lot of fear in why I didn’t choose music, as I felt Chinese culture wasn’t as tied to creativity, though that’s a false fallacy.” She adds that feelings of being different manifested as imposter syndrome, where she could never live up to the image of the ‘model minority’.
“There’s a reason why I have pink hair now, that I talk very openly and don’t mind if people think I’m ‘woke’ or whatever. I’d rather shatter every stereotype than selectively pick the ones I feel are going to let me survive, because no one just survives.”
After completing her PhD, using lasers to cool down glass spheres and remove vibrational motion in the hope of reaching a quantum ground state, she realised that “it’s an uphill battle to become an independent researcher, especially if your thing is the most expensive experiment ever”. So, getting rid of the quantum aspect, she went into classical sensing, which is what she’s been working on ever since. In fact, she currently holds two fellowships and won innovation funding last February from UCL Quantum to create a startup company, Zero Point Motion, where she works for free in her spare time.
Unfortunately, inequality is intertwined with academia and the startup industry, an issue she’s acutely aware of. In particular, “there’s a reluctance to give people in minority groups the praise and credit they deserve… which history tells, time and time again”. For instance, she recounts the sexist backlash against Katie Bouman, one of the lead scientists involved in capturing the first image of a black hole, and how the one time the idea of a ‘lone genius’ was applied to a woman, people rallied to break it down.
Truth be told, she almost prefers company talk, where ownership, control and power are asserted via percentages. “There isn’t the same backbone in academia and science research,” she argues. “Students should be entitled to own all their contributions and ideas, since you never know whether that work will lead to papers later on. Research should be accessible to everyone… but there should also be a level of ownership.”
Taking the opportunity to make change, Dr. Ying is currently part of the UCL Race Equality Steering Group, as well as TIGERS (The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM), which leads the ‘My Science Inquiry’ to connect funding data to stories of real people, highlighting how minoritised researchers are consistently underfunded. “The funding stream creates the most amount of change,” she explains. “If you divert a 5 million pound grant to a minority researcher, they’re more likely to hire minority students, and the pace of that trickle-down is much faster than convincing three women to do a physics undergraduate.” She adds that TIGERS is also a great supportive network where one can talk without fear of being gaslighted, since there’s a myriad of politics involved in running a university.
For those who aspire to become researchers, she has two pieces of advice. The first is to find a community which reflects your vision, morals, the way that you want to be treated and the way you want to treat others. The second is to develop the strength to articulate your ideas with ownership. She recounts how others took credit for her work, which is never how that lesson should be learnt. “That’s all you are to some people: the things that come out your mouth. They may look at you and have their own stereotypes, so your only weight is the ideas you have, which you’ve got to protect. Never ever back down on your creativity.”
We would like to kindly thank Dr. Ying Lia Li for taking the time to participate in our special issue on diversity and share her unique ideas as part of this interview.