Fascinated by how ‘invisible forces’ such as water and electricity power up human lives, Vernice Toh, 24, dived into the world of engineering. Shattering stereotypes in this male-dominated industry, she believes this admixture of fresh ideas and diverse talent will bring engineering to greater heights.
Please share about yourself, in particular your passions, interests and hobbies.
I recently graduated from NTU and am currently working at Chestnut Avenue Waterworks (CAWW) as an electrical engineer. One of the things I have missed dearly upon graduating is my hall life and in particular, my CCA, cheerleading. I joined my NTU hall team in my first year of university. This was one of the best decisions I made during these four years and I have never regretted it. Cheerleading has shaped me into a stronger person, both physically and mentally. The friendships that I have made through this sport have gotten me through the highs and lows of university life.
Upon graduation, I turned to running to keep me active. I live right beside the Punggol-Sengkang Park Connector, so running along the river allows me to explore the neighbourhood and enjoy the scenery. After work, I would usually jog with my father and enjoy some quality family time.
Another one of my passions is art. Recently, I have started on adult colouring books. Although this may seem like a child-like activity, it is actually a great means of relaxation. My grandfather has dementia, so we gave him some colouring books as a way to retain his mobility and ease any aggression. After a few bouts of colouring sessions with him, I too, found myself destressing from this activity.
What led you to sign up for the scholarship? How old were you then? Where did you find out about the scholarship?
After A-levels, there was a long waiting period before the examination results were released. During this time, I started contemplating about the future, on how I could make my life more meaningful, and the ways in which I could contribute to the world at large. I started asking around for advice whilst researching potential fields that I would be interested in. My main focus was to find a sector that would make a difference to people’s lives.
After much research on various organisations through their corporate website and on Brightsparks, I stumbled upon the *NEW scholarship, which places emphasis on the environment and water sector. Up until now, Singapore continues to be confronted with challenges regarding its water security. The idea of being able to innovate and contribute to Singapore’s future was the key reason why I decided to sign up for the NEW scholarship.
What made you pursue a degree that is not typically “feminine”? Did you face any particular challenges in a male-dominated field? Did your family and friends have any thoughts or objections?
Since young, I have always been fascinated by the idea of ‘invisible forces’ that could power up our lives in ways such as, lighting up our cities, washing our clothes, and cooling us down in the heat. My father, being a mechanic, also inspired my curiosity about the workings surrounding everyday machines. As I grew older, I had a mounting curiosity in electricity and how its versatility allows mankind to amass various achievements.
Despite this field being male-dominated, I have thankfully not yet experienced any discrimination or partial treatment because of my gender. My male counterparts have been receptive to me pursuing this career path, in addition to, bringing in new perspectives and diversity to the engineering field. Likewise, my family and friends have been extremely supportive with my decision to choose engineering.
From my perspective, the gender ratio appears to be gradually levelling as we edge towards the eradication of this “engineering is for males” stereotype. Back in NTU, it was heartening to see an increased number of females who picked Engineering as their career path. Encouraging more females to join this traditionally male-dominated industry would create a conducive environment for fresh ideas and diverse talent to thrive. This combination could further drive innovation in the engineering sector, yielding greater results in the long run. Thus, in the midst of my work, I hope to join the forerunners of female engineers who challenged gender stereotypes and brought new ideas to PUB and into the engineering field.
In your current role, what is it you do? What are your main duties? Do you have any specific focus areas in your role? How big is your team?
As an electrical engineer, I am responsible for the maintenance, replacement, and improvement of electrical equipment in Chestnut Avenue Waterworks. With a team of two other electrical engineers and seven assistant engineers, we work together to prevent any electrical breakdowns or malfunctions from disrupting the plant’s operations. We also constantly seek to upgrade our systems to allow our plant to be more efficient and resilient.
As I have only recently joined the plant in July 2019, there is still a plethora of skills and knowledge for me to acquire. Each day presents new learning opportunities for me to grow. There are several engineers in my plant with decades of extensive experience; some of them had already started working in PUB even before I was born!
Please describe one or two incidents/main challenges you have met on the job. How did you overcome these and what are the lessons learnt? How has overcoming these challenges changed you?
The main challenge that I have encountered on the job is recognising how real-life engineering is vastly different from the classroom skills that I’ve gained during my four years of tertiary education. For instance, during one of the breakdown maintenance works in my plant, my team got together to troubleshoot the issue in order to prevent any future occurrences. At that moment, I realised that true engineering is not simply defined by a degree, but by how people are able to work together to resolve problems and develop solutions. Such experiences have humbled me, sparked my curiosity and refreshed my thirst for knowledge.
Another challenge I have faced is the need to constantly adhere to the constraints of the plant’s operations. To ensure an uninterrupted water supply, plants in Singapore have strict output requirements. Hence, our electrical maintenance is largely determined by the plant’s operational needs. Despite being in the electrical team, we have to work together with the rest of the sections to prevent our maintenance from affecting the different stages and processes in the plant. This was an eye-opening experience for me as there were so many factors and constraints to consider — this was definitely something that could never be learnt within the confines of a classroom.
Professional goals: what excites you about the future of engineering; what do you hope to achieve in the near future?
The greatest aspect of engineering is that there is always room for improvement, coupled with the many possibilities brought about through innovation and exploration. Some of these developments which are highly applicable to my current role in PUB include data collection and analysis through the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as, predictive maintenance via smart sensors, etc.
The future is ever-changing, and so is the workplace. The engineering jobs of today and the engineering jobs of tomorrow will be different. Thus, for young engineers like me, it is a challenge to constantly learn and upgrade ourselves in order to stay relevant. I am excited to tackle these challenges head-on. In the near future, I hope to acquire critical skills in PUB by leveraging on my seniors’ experiences to build new solutions and bring value to Singapore’s engineering workforce.
* The NEW Scholarship has been renamed the Singapore Sustainability Scholarship since August 2020.
VERNICE TOH LI LI
Singapore Sustainability Scholarship
Attained: Bachelor of Engineering in Electrical and Electronic Engineering with Honours (Highest Distinction), NTU
Now: Engineer (Electrical)