It is an old Chinese saying. If there is a paradise in the heavens, you will find it on Earth in Hangzhou.
The southeastern city in China features the famous scenic West Lake. Smaller lakes and mountains surround it. Centuries ago, kings took their winter retreats in the city.
It’s also where HORIBA Scientific's Research and Development division Senior Optical Scientist, May Tong, Ph.D. was born and raised. And it’s where she found her passion for the sciences.
As a young girl, she knew she was different. While her friends were reading novels and love stories, Tong was devouring a science fiction series. It was written by a Chinese author about a boy who traveled through time.
Her older cousin became her early inspiration. He gained admittance to medical undergraduate studies and intended to become a doctor of medicine. She was in middle school then.
“At that time I wanted to be a doctor,” Tong said. “He taught me a lot of good things about being a doctor. I could help other people and save them from illness and pain. I thought I could also find a way for people to live longer.”
In fact, she listed medicine as her first choice when she took her college entrance exams. Physics was her second choice. Then fate stepped in.
“My neighbor had an accident and was bleeding heavily from his leg,” she said. “I was so scared of that bleeding, and I told my mom. She said if I wanted to be a doctor, I’d have to deal with it daily. So I thought if I went into physics, I would learn how to help others and learn how to improve human life without the fear of blood.”
Tong attended Teacher’s College of Hangzhou, earning an undergraduate degree in physics. She went on to graduate school at Zhejiang University, also in Hangzhou, and received a Master’s degree in Applied Optics. She moved to the U.S. and earned her doctorate in Applied Physics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Taking the physics route was analogous to medicine for Tong, allowing her to improve life through science in an objective way.
“It gives me a way to find the truth,” she said. “If you look at something wearing red goggles, you see everything as red. What you need to find is the true facts without any bias.”
Tong is responsible for the optical design of new scientific instruments at HORIBA. She focuses on designing new optical systems by using optical software called OSLO. She performs optical simulations, optimization and detailed analysis of the new optical layout before it turns into a new product. She also performs optical simulation on existing products for troubleshooting and performance enhancement.
The other part of her job is development of new product, which is quite hands-on. She works closely with other engineers in R&D division, starting from building conceptual optical bench models to testing prototypes, and final to a robust marketed new product. Those new products cover HORIBA’s Fluorescence Division and Optical Spectroscopy Division.
Tong recently was a key member in developing the Aqualog, a dual fluorescence and absorption spectrophotometer primarily made for large-scale water testing facilities.
“The fluorescence application and sales team did marketing research and found a clear market need for a high-end fluorescence instrument for water quality applications,” Tong said. “We received some preliminary requirements from the fluorescence application team. Then based on the requirements, we in R&D, as a team which also includes mechanical, electrical, firmware and software engineers, outlined how to construct a system to meet the specification.”
As Aqualog was intended to be a fast-tracked project, Tong began the system design phase by assessing the existing HORIBA optical components to see if those could meet the requirements of the product. Her job at that point was to make sure the team had the correct optical components in the system.
She conducted optical simulations using specialized software to evaluate the optical performance of the system such as spectral resolution, fluorescence sample imaging quality, optical throughput and stray light. The optical elements traced in the Aqualog system include light source, transferring optics, grating-based excitation monochromator and an emission CCD-based spectrometer.
“Once we approved the optical model, the mechanical engineers and electrical engineers designed the instrument to be a product,” she said.
After that, the development team built the prototype of the Aqualog. She tested and evaluated the optical performance of the system hardware, with the goal to ensure it performed as designed. Meantime, she needed to resolve technical issues that were not foreseeable in the design phase.
“There are always some new problems,” she said. “Even though we achieved the critical optical performance, we still had to spend time achieving decent thermal stability, system repeatability and shipping performance sustainability, among other things. Due to the complexity of the new opto-mechanical system, those essential aspects of a new product requires a lot of knowledge and experience in troubleshooting and design improvements from entire team.”
In the end, it took two years to bring the Aqualog to market. It began with six months of feasibility tests, or proof of concept. That included a couple iterations of optical re-design and breadboarding, using the components from the optical lab to represent the performance.
It took a year to develop prototypes and conduct evaluations, and another six months for the production transfer – training optical testing technicians to build the product and iron out any kinks in the process.
“That was a relatively fast new product development case in R&D,” she said. “Luckily, I was able to concentrate on the Aqualog without interruption by other projects at that time”.
Tong attributes her success to her education within a system in China that doesn’t discriminate between the sexes. She felt she and other women received equal opportunities while growing up in China.
Yet she believes there is something different about scientists.
“If women like sciences, I believe they are born with that type of gene,” she said. “Your interest in science is not something you can develop heavily later on. You just realize you have that interest when the time comes. I remember not many girls liked the kinds of science fiction books I liked. I felt odd at that time. But once I went to college, my female classmates were similar to me in the way of interest. You need that special type gene to be able to be successful in this field.”
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