LIGHTING THE PATH
her journey from student to scientist,
Dr Yeo Sze Ling pays it forward by
lending a hand to others with disabilities.
Dr Yeo felt honoured to be cited by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech in 2013. Mr Lee had lauded her as an inspiration who’d given back to society through volunteer work.
The response she got after the rally, though, was unexpected. The media rushed to interview her while strangers started conversations with her on MRT trains and at coffee shops. “Suddenly, many people became interested in me,” she says. “I was quite overwhelmed by the attention, as I didn’t think I’d done anything extraordinary.”
Those who know her will beg to differ. Dr Yeo, 37, is a research scientist at the Institute for Infocomm Research (I2R) at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). She lost her sight to glaucoma at the age of four. After studying at the Singapore School for the Visually Handicapped (now Lighthouse School), Dr Yeo went to Bedok South Secondary School and Serangoon Junior College. “I had to work harder to compensate for what I couldn’t do,” she recalls. “Getting access to learning materials, for example, took more effort.”
Mathematics has been her constant companion since she was a child. “Growing up, I’d solve puzzles in my mind,” she says. “I didn’t need any interaction with anyone. It was a thinking process I could enjoy alone.”
With diligence and grit, as well as a remarkable aptitude for mathematics, Dr Yeo went on to the National University of Singapore. She graduated as the top student in the Faculty of Science and clinched an A*STAR Graduate Scholarship.
She recalls her teachers who plotted graphs and diagrams onto plastic sheets and rubber mats so she could feel them. One teacher took it upon himself to learn Braille so that he could help her “Braille out” statistics tables. “I’m still very touched that friends in junior college and university spent countless hours helping me tape-record my notes and readings. They opened doors for me and I’m able to do what I do today because of them.”
When Dr Yeo first set her mind to research, the challenges were formidable, but she was determined to succeed. Her work at I2R focuses on cryptography, and she analyses mathematical algorithms to enhance the security of digital data. “This is where math is applied to the real world,” she says. “It’s an exciting field to be in.”
Dr Yeo now pays it forward by helping others with disabilities. Her involvement with visually-impaired youths started during her first year in university when she went to Beijing with a group of volunteers to learn Chinese Braille. Back in Singapore, they taught the language to a visually-impaired girl, who later became the first blind student in Singapore to pass her O- and A-levels in Chinese.
Dr Yeo hopes that by sharing her experiences, she can help others with special needs cope better. At I2R, she also enjoys supervising interns and young A*STAR scholars. “It gives me the opportunity to show them how math is applied in cryptography for the real world,” she says. “They teach me too, about current trends and topics I didn’t get the chance to learn when I was in school.”
Dr Yeo says she feels most passionate about working with visually-impaired youths. “Young people dare to dream and don’t let their disabilities affect their lives,” she says. “Working with them reinforces my sense of hope.”