Within moments of talking to BT research scientist Jia-Yan Gu, it’s easy to see why she is such an inspiration for young people. Articulate and bright, she is passionate about technology. Her enthusiasm is so infectious she can bring clarity to the most baffling subjects.
“For most of us, we know of engineering as things we use such as a telephone,” said Jia-Yan. “Few people consider the network that lies beneath it. And yet it is the network that is essential for the handset to work.
“When I talk to students I take time to tell them about what’s underneath things. Students need to touch the technology. I want them to take things apart. Even at school, they should be able to take a screwdriver and open a computer to see what’s inside. As a mentor, that’s what I encourage them to do.
“I want them to be take things apart because I believe that knowing what makes up existing technologies lets them to know what’s possible…what’s missing. Only by doing this can they create the next generation of innovations,” she said.
According to Jia-Yan, part of her role as a mentor is to engage with young people and to get them to see the world differently. And that means challenging their perceptions.
“One of the problems I find is that some students are reluctant to ask questions. If you tell them something, they accept it. And as a result, they tend to take things for granted. I try to get them to see what’s underneath and explore - it helps to open their minds. When you do it…when the penny drops and they ‘get it’…you can see it in their faces. It is so rewarding,” she said.
Since joining BT Jia-Yan has mentored 30 young people - mostly from Suffolk - and she has also visited universities to speak to undergraduates. It’s work she does willingly in addition to her research into semantic business intelligence. Semantic business intelligence, for those who don’t know, is the application of the latest technologies that underpin the ‘Semantic Web’ to automatically uncover relevant information and knowledge that can be used by people to make key business decisions. It aims to advance the field of artificial intelligence for the business world.
Or as Jia-Yan explains: “It helps you find things on the web easier. It even helps you find things that are relevant that you didn’t actually look for.”
And there, in a nutshell, you have another reason why she is such a proven role model. She translates technical things into everyday language.
Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that in 2012, Jia-Yan received two high profile awards for her inspiring work with young people. To receive such recognition when she is still in her 20s is testament to a standout personality. And it’s clear her early life has helped shape the person she is today.
“I left China in 1991 when I was just five-years-old to join my parents who were studying in England. I knew no English and knew nothing of the culture,” she said.
But that was no obstacle for Jia-Yan. She quickly learnt the language and excelled at school. Fast-forward six years, she won two scholarships at Ipswich School before attending Colchester Royal Grammar School to study her A Levels. Despite her academic ability, the school discouraged her from doing A Level biology as well as her other subjects. Jia-Yan – being Jia-Yan – decided to ignore this advice and studied for the biology A Level in her spare time. She achieved six grade As at A Level.
This success won her a place at Cambridge University where she studied engineering before graduating and joining BT in 2008 as a research scientist.
For now, Jia-Yan is focused on continuing her research but also continuing to mentor students and undergraduates. And to Jia-Yan, the reason is simple.
“To me, it remains very important to encourage girls – and boys - in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects. The future is all about skills. And for me, STEM subjects provide the best route to excelling in the future.”