It’s not everyday that you hear someone say they enjoy cryptographic and algorithm design. For Aileen Zhang, the elegance of Pure Mathematics is what drew her to this unique field of work. Her peculiar passion may be difficult to comprehend for most, but for Aileen, Mathematics is about more than just numbers. It is both an art and a science; one that requires an in-depth understanding of the logical reasoning behind formulae and their application to everyday life.

It is this fervour for Mathematics that drew Aileen to the DSTA Scholarship. Aileen knew that the DSTA Scholarship would provide her with a unique opportunity to apply her passion and expertise in an area of work that is meaningful and has an impact on the nation’s security. It also gave her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a holistic education at Cambridge, one of the world’s top universities.

Aileen has vivid memories of her scholarship experience, where she learnt and interacted with some of the brightest and most respected experts in the field of Mathematics. One of her lecturers, Professor Tim Gowers, is a Fields Medallist and an inspiration for her. The Fields Medal is often described as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics for the prestige it carries and is regarded as one of the highest honours a mathematician can receive. Professor Growers introduced her to Pure Mathematics and her interest in the subject grew tremendously under his guidance. Aileen was amazed at his innate ability to explain abstract mathematical concepts in simple terms and embraced the challenges of the University of Cambridge’s rigorous academic curriculum. ‘It was hectic, but very fulfilling. I enjoyed being pushed to new levels and getting as much as I could out of it.’

Indeed, an overseas experience can often be a challenge for many individuals. However, Aileen believes she has grown through the experience and it has made her more diligent in many areas of her life. From basic laundry tasks to the stressful deadlines of her school assignments, she has learnt to manage her time better. Her positive attitude and thirst for knowledge also means Aileen excels at other areas besides Mathematics – cooking, that is. In the beginning, it was a question of cooking for survival. However, with Aileen’s penchant for unravelling mathematical formulae, it is no surprise that the finer intricacies of European cooking intrigued her. She started researching recipes from cookbooks and the Internet. ‘You can’t go wrong if you follow recipes with extreme precision,’ she quips.
This dedication and pride is apparent in every endeavour that Aileen undertakes. At DSO National Laboratories (DSO), Singapore’s national defence R&D organisation, Aileen ensures that Singapore’s defence information and communication networks are tightly secured. ‘What I am doing is meaningful work and has a significant impact on the defence and security of our nation!’

Yet it was only not so long ago that the defence engineer was exposed to the world of cryptography. Her first adventure began during her internship with DSO under the DSTA Scholarship. Aileen was intrigued by the opportunity to work on algorithm designs, and creative use of mathematics in the field of cryptography to innovate new defence solutions. It was a challenging period, but staying true to her nature, she gave it her best.

Having worked in DSO for more than a year, Aileen has been given the flexibility and freedom to explore new research areas. With DSO’s strong culture of continuous learning and development, Aileen has numerous opportunities to attend seminars and courses, where she meets like-minded individuals and experts in the academic field to exchange ideas and share knowledge. This also keeps her up-to-date with cutting-edge research in her field. ‘We are not just focused on project work in DSO, but also in applied research, so new ideas from these seminars can inspire greater ideas!’ Such knowledge sharing and cross-fertilisation of ideas is important in DSO, as defence scientists and engineers like Aileen continually seek to develop novel innovations so as to further enhance the security of Singapore.