Alumni of the Month: Dr Paulina Chan (PhD EEE)

Women of STEAM leadership

Dr Paulina Chan received PhD, DIC in EEE specialising in Communications at Imperial College London. She is the immediate past chair of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Hong Kong Section and recipient of IEEE Membership and Geographic Activities Leadership Award 2021. She is also the chair of the Hong Kong Regional Board, Chartered Management Institute. As the Principal and CEO of Global Mutual Innovation Consortium, an international think-tank on multinational technology business, Paulina works with trans-disciplinary professionals across continents to foster collaborations and development in innovative technologies, intelligent infrastructures and green energies. She is also the Executive Committee member of ICAAHK, and is very passionate in supporting young professionals and women in STEAM. Paulina is a global citizen. She is an inspiring role model and we are very honoured to invite Paulina to share with us her Imperial stories and career.

Why did you study Electrical Engineering?

My family used to think that I would study music at the Royal College of Music because I have always been musical with absolute pitch. And I finished all eight grades of pianoforte with distinction at a very young age. However, I became interested in Electrical Engineering after meeting Professor Dennis Gabor, a great Nobel laureate who invented hologram, which later formed the basis of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). I was also inspired by Professor Colin Cherry who was the pioneer on world communications. This stimulated my curiosity in understanding new technologies that impact social changes, inspired me to pursue further education in EEE, and led me to develop my career in science and technologies. It was also how I met Dr PK Michael Lai, a passionate EEE postgraduate at Imperial who later became my husband.

I enjoy being innovative and creative. I believe education should not be separated into arts or science solely based on Plato’s utopia. In fact, Imperial has been focusing on multidisciplinary education long before STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) became popular.

What did you want to do when you graduated from Imperial?

I was always interested in developing new innovative businesses, and my technical background was a big plus. That was the reason why I chose video conferencing as the topic for my PhD thesis – back in the times when the technology was expensive and unconventional. Nowadays, video conferencing is very common, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become a staple for households and businesses.

Have you made any difficult decisions in life? Can you tell us about it?

When I completed my postgraduate studies with a PhD award, I could have chosen to continue my research work at Imperial with all the established network and become a professor one day. However, I decided to venture in the United States to develop my career in industry. My first job was at the world-renowned Bell Laboratories. When you are young, you can afford to try and explore different paths which complement your interest or talent. I encourage our alumni to be innovative. Do not hesitate in making decisions because if we have the substance, we will always get there.

Are there any interesting Imperial stories that you would like to share with us?

During my time at Imperial, I was a triple minority (Asian woman in engineering.) I was very eager to network with my professors and student peers. I was also very active in different societies, including Chinese Society, to meet friends from different disciplines and students from other universities in London and across continents. I enjoyed the Imperial orchestra playing the 1812 Overture including the 16 cannon shots on July 4th at the Queen’s lawn, and exploring all the untouchable and unofficial places such as the top of Queen’s Tower. I would also drive my colleagues and friends to Chinatown at midnight for Wonton noodles! Among fellow international postgraduate students, we often showcased unique local cuisines in the labs at nights (Brazilian, Chinese, Greek, Iranian, Kenyan, Malaysian). I also enjoyed lunch with my thesis advisor at the V&A (almost daily.)

What did you learn and gain from Imperial?

I was trained as an engineer and learned cross-cultural awareness at Imperial. With corporate experience I become an executive director in the business field. Through the work experience in ExxonMobil and AT&T (both Fortune 500 Multinational Corporations), I was able to apply my technical knowledge and translate that into business development. The global footprint of the companies that I worked for gave me the chance to work in the United States, Asia Pacific and Europe. This has helped me understand specific needs of my world clients/stakeholders in order to define and execute corporate strategies or offer product-service solutions, recognising unique cultures in different countries.

I now run the Global Mutual Innovation Consortium, a multidisciplinary think-tank registered in various countries. In the last 5 years, we are involved in consultancy work on Smart-Tech, Health-Tech, Ed-Tech, Green-Tech, Fin-Tech etc. I am not an expert in all of those technologies, but the training in Imperial gave me a wider perspective with forward looking visions. This skill enables me to catch up with technologies as scientific researches evolve very quickly. Just as my advisor would say, “You will always see further and clearer standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Imperial also gave me an extensive professional and social network. I met colleagues and friends at Imperial from different disciplines and different countries. The Hong Kong alumni community, for example, has developed a strong alumni network over its 40 years of history. Apart from the Hong Kong alumni association, I had also joined the City & Guilds College Association, alumni associations in New York and Belgium. I keep close contact with our international alumni, and am constantly inspired by the great minds of other Nobel laureates, experts and renowned professors from EEE and other faculties.

Can you tell us about an interesting project in your career?

There was a time when my company was building the wireless communications network for a Smart City project in China. I didn’t go for the typical big cities, but instead piloted the initiative in the north-western part of China, e.g. Xinjiang, Xi'an, because this area is strategically located as the gateway to Middle East and Europe. However, the logistics system in these places were not well established which made it difficult to transport materials. In the end, I had to connect with the People's Liberation Army and with the support from the China Air Force, we successfully transported the mega components (e.g. electric tower, bundles of fibre optics) arrived from the United States across China. Manpower was another scarce resource, so we recruited farmers and local citizens to line up and install the cables for the broadband network, and used camels to carry the materials to remote areas. It was a great showcase of our agility and problem solving skills.

You are very active in ICAAHK, Imperial College, and other professional bodies, can you tell us about them?

I serve the Imperial College Alumni Association of Hong Kong (ICAAHK) as a member of the Executive Committee. As the champion of the ICAAHK mentoring programme, I aspire to be the bridge between generations, backgrounds and ages. It is a mutual learning process, and I am very fortunate that over the 7 years of participation as a mentor, my mentees have become my friends. We have a small group that we call the “Imperial knots”, where we share our latest happenings and career development.

I reciprocate my alma mater with great delight. I was appointed Honorary Imperial Ambassador by the President on the White City innovation initiative. I am the Founding Chair of Imperial Women in Signal Processing. These are exciting linkages most relevant to my Imperial experience and professional development.

I am also on the Board of Directors for several professional bodies including Chair of the Regional Board of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI, UK). I strongly encourage alumni who are leaders and managers to join CMI to gain world recognised chartered status in leadership and management.

Besides, I am the immediate past Chair of the IEEE (Hqs USA) Hong Kong Section. The Institute has over 9,000 members in Hong Kong and many of them are Imperial graduates. Among all 420,000 members worldwide I am very honoured to be recipient of the prestigious IEEE Membership & Geographic Activities Leadership Award 2021! In 2022, I am the Chair on the Public Visibility Committee of IEEE globally. It is a good platform to promote Imperial College to the world. I am also appointed representative for IEEE on Diversity and Inclusion. I am a keen advocate for young professionals and women in STEAM.

What are your interests/hobbies?

Music. I got the LRSM level in Piano. I also play pipe organ. When I was in London, I would attend concerts and go to the Westminster Abbey on Sundays to listen to pipe organ recitals. Museum visits are another must do.

I do meditation for twenty years. The wellness exercise reduces stress and calms my mind and body.

I am also interested in travelling. When I was doing my undergraduate studies, I spent three months travelling to various European countries by my Eurail Pass. I still remember taking overnight trains with my friends so we could save some money to buy beautiful clothes and enjoy delicious food. We will only stay at a hotel every two to three days to do the laundry – those were the times!

I am a devoted Anglican Christian but also respect multi-faith.

What is your advice to students who want to become entrepreneur?

I recommend students to gain more experience from corporates before starting their own businesses. I have personally benefited from the corporate training which equipped me with important interpersonal and organisation skills, and gave me the vision and network which are key to a successful entrepreneur.