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[IWD2023] “The path to success is very dependent on the system you are in”

March 8 is the International Women's Day, an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women all around the world. HKU-Pasteur is committed to work towards a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination, that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Let’s continue our series highlighting the work and journey of inspiring figures at HKU-Pasteur with Sook-San Wong, Assistant Professor.

What is your educational background and training? And why did you chose to work in science?

Sook-San Wong: I did my Bachelor of Biomedical Science and Master’s of Science in Malaysia, followed by my PhD at the University of Melbourne. I did my postdoctoral training at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in Memphis TN which is also the WHO Collaborating Center for the study of influenza in lower animals.

I have always been interested in biology, really enjoy the process of inquiry and problem-solving and was motivated to be of service to the community. I started my research career during my final year thesis, working on dengue virus and found that I really enjoyed science. Stayed on this track ever since!

My role models are the senior scientists that have mentored or are currently mentoring me in my career.

How do you feel about the role of women in science today?

Sook-San Wong: I felt gender became more of an issue after I became a mother. This is only because of having to manage the added responsibilities on top of my career. There are a lot of societal expectations for a woman to balance work and family life. However, the expectations also change with the society you live in. I have lived and worked in 4 different countries, spanning a spectrum of culture.

The way I have been a mother and scientist will change with where I have lived and what sort of system is available to support these roles. One big example is how child care is set up. In the US, there are no helpers but the work culture can be amenable to flexible hours. Whereas helpers are available in Hong Kong and flexible hours are less common. So we have to navigate our work around this. Prior to that, I have been very lucky to have worked in environments where I have never felt any discrimination with regards to gender.

My tip to younger generation is to be good at what you do and treat others well. Those are the most powerful currency for respect, regardless of gender. Second tip is to find an mentor who can guide you. Finally, I will quote something that Sir Gustav Nossal, an eminent Australian scientist once said at a lecture: “intelligence is normally distributed (in a statistical context) in any population but opportunities are not”. This is a reminder that the path to success is very dependent on the system you are in, therefore it’s important to consider your own journey and learn to seek where the opportunities are. Lastly, work hard and listen! I don’t feel like I am denied opportunities. Perhaps, there are even more opportunities these days due to the growing recognition of gender imbalance at the workplace and a need to correct that.

So I feel like I am benefiting from the sacrifices the previous generations of women scientist made. There is an awareness of gender inequality in science, especially at higher level academic positions. Science can be very demanding because knowledge “never sleeps” and this can be hard to balance with family obligations in a system where support is lacking, like it was 30 years ago. So there are lots of changes that have been made to correct this- for example, funding bodies in the US will make exception for time taken off for childbirth during a grant application. Changes like this is important in order for us to keep women in science and harness the talents and skills that women can bring. Of course, this movement and the rate of change is not equal across the world and we should recognize and address that. There are studies being done on the challenges women face at the workplace and this should be within the context of the local culture for women in science. But maintaining the momentum and raising awareness where it is lacking about the situation is the first step to initiate change.

There is definitely room for improvement in terms of the societal expectations we place on women. Instead of thinking “she will not have the capacity to handle this task because she has a family”, we (as a society) should think “how can we help her manage her responsibilities so she can excel?”. In addition, we should also be mindful men’s role trying to address the gender inequality in science. I am lucky because my husband, who is also a scientist, understands and supports my career, particularly in carrying out parenting duties. So I think in order to make effective changes, both men and women roles must be considered in today’s work-family culture.

What is your role at HKU-Pasteur and what projects are you working on?

Sook-San Wong: I am an Assistant Professor at HKU-PRP and I work on population immunity to respiratory viruses, including to emerging ones and to understand drivers of protective immunity after infection and vaccination. One of the projects we have is to understand why some people don’t respond to vaccines, how we can identify them and develop better strategies to protect them. Another project is to study if people around the world have the same level of population immunity to zoonotic influenza viruses, which is important in the way we assess the pandemic risks of these viruses. We also work on these questions in the context how past infections affect our current responses. It’s been fun!

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