A beautiful mind

A Beautiful Mind

As a young girl, Dr Yeo Sze Ling fell in love with mathematics, solving maths problems like little puzzles in her head.

The fact that she had glaucoma and lost her sight at age four did not stop her from pursuing her love for the subject, winning an A*Star scholarship in 2002 to do her PhD in maths.

Dr Yeo, 35, now a research scientist at A*Star, spends her days at its infocomm security department doing cryptography, a field which protects data as it transfers from one computer system to another.

Her dexterity with numbers has won her praise from her bosses, who describe her as someone with a “resilient spirit, perseverance and willingness to help”.

Dr Yeo’s sight started to blur when she was a preschooler at a PAP Community Foundation kindergarten. She could not see what was being written on the board unless the teacher wrote “very large and bold” letters.

It was an ordeal her mother Tung Poh Mui, 65, a hawker assistant who is now retired, remembers well. As her daughter always clamoured to be carried, she did not notice the worsening vision until she noticed her child’s writing did not stay between the lines in her exercise books.

As Dr Yeo’s sight ebbed, Madam Tung transferred her at age seven to the School for the Visually Handicapped, now known as Lighthouse School, where she took her PSLE and scored 222 points.

In school, she learnt the best way she could, tape- recording each lesson. Teachers helped by reading aloud what they had written on the board. At home, she transcribed the lectures into Braille, a tedious process that took her till almost 1am on most nights.

“You have that limited amount of time to master that information, so you just learn to do it,” she says.

It was this attitude that impressed retired Serangoon JC principal Thomas Tan, 76. “Our teachers helped to accommodate her learning by drawing graphs on a piece of plastic using the sewing machine’s needle so she could feel the graphs,” he adds.

He describes Dr Yeo, who studied there from 1995 to 1996, as a “courteous and cheerful student” who left a lasting impression.

Her examinations were taken in Braille. Mathematical symbols have their own Braille versions and when she is unsure, she checks the Braille equivalent of a dictionary. Dr Yeo also uses a “talking” computer with a standard keyboard – without Braille lettering – which reads out words as she types. It took several days for her to learn the software, she says, using how-to tapes.

She uses an iPhone 4, with its voice-over function telling her what is being written on the screen as she swipes her fingers over the words.

Describing her daughter as an independent, quiet person who craved alone-time in her room, Madam Tung says that watching Dr Yeo go on stage to receive her PhD in 2006 was one of the proudest moments of her life. She says: “My husband and I did not expect her to study so hard and to do so well. We feel very fortunate that she is able to do so well for herself.”

Learning to cope has given Dr Yeo an arsenal of know-how to pass on. Apart from working as adjunct assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University, where she teaches graduate-level students, she also mentors five blind students at junior college and polytechnic level, who asked her for advice after reading about her or whom she met through mutual friends.

Helping younger, blind students is what Dr Yeo calls her “greatest satisfaction”. She says: “So many people in my life have helped me along – my teachers, peers and even just random strangers on the street, so I want to pass it on by helping others.”

 

Edited from the article published in The Straits Times, August 25, 2013

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