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Tech Innovator: Dr. Lihua Zhao, Global Head of 3D Lab, HP Labs

Tech Innovator: Dr. Lihua Zhao, Global Head of 3D Lab, HP Labs

Jolene Dobbin
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One of the groundbreaking and disruptive technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is 3D printing, with HP’s 3D printing technologies at the forefront of this digital transformation. Parts and products can be designed, prototyped, and manufactured in a fraction of the time needed by conventional manufacturing.
Such on-demand capabilities enable new business models that create countless applications across industries, allowing transformative approaches to healthcare and delivering critical medical devices in particular.
An important component of the engine fueling this disruptive technology is the research. And specifically, the people actually carrying out that research.
Meet Dr. Lihua Zhao, Global Head of 3D Lab at HP Labs, who manages the elite and diverse research team working on advancing HP’s 3D printing technology.
Lihua received her Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry and Materials Science from the University of California, Irvine, and her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Chemistry in China. Drawing on her expertise in chemistry, material science, and material processes, Lihua has published more than 20 peer-reviewed papers and completed 90-plus patent applications and invention disclosures in the areas of chemical formulation, 3D printing, and flexible electronics.
She was honored as a 2019 Hall of Fame inductee at UC Irvine’s School of Physical Science, and named in 2017’s “Women Worth Watching in STEM.” She and her team also won innovator awards such as the HP 2017 “Best Disruption” Award.

A diverse team

Lihua Zhao and her HP 3D printing team.jpg
When Lihua started leading the 3D team, she was the only woman in the group. Now, her team consists of several dozen men and women from across the globe – researchers from Poland, India, Nigeria, Mexico, the UK, and more – who are trained in everything from software, hardware, computer science, and the physical sciences to chemistry, engineering, and design.
“I often say that if you want to see diversity and inclusion, then you can really come to examine my team,” Lihua says. “Background wise, we represent a broad scope and space in science and engineering. We are not only technologists but also people embracing and enjoying the cultural difference each of us brings in.”

Building inclusive technologies that represent everyone

Lihua and her team of tech innovators bring their multicultural, multi-gendered, and multi-technological backgrounds and perspectives to the very research that they’re working on.
“We want to create and build technology that represents all of us,” Lihua says. “Mother nature is definitely not one race or one color, right? We bring perspectives and ideas from different angles, and many times it’s actually very different from what already exists. So we’re contributing to making technologies with less bias that are more representative of the world, which is multiple sets of people with lots of characteristics.”

Conduct the research that impacts the world and benefits people

HP Jet Fusion 5200 Series 3D Printing Solution with Operator
The ability to conduct the research leading to these kinds of world-changing and beneficial technologies is part of what brought Lihua to HP. When she finished her Ph.D., she was hired by Berkeley and worked with HP at the same time.
“I was graduating with my Ph.D. and I still wanted to do cutting-edge research,” she says, “and my professor kept telling me, ‘No, I think you should be a professor.’ I said, ‘Well, [a professor] on the cutting-edge research side; yes, I think that makes sense.’”
She continues, “But at the same time, my heart just continued telling me that I wanted to do the research that promises to impact the world and benefit people. That is the drive I had, and HP Labs at that time – and now, too – seems to be the place that meets those criteria. That is why I came here and why I’m still here.”
Aerodynamic Wing Core Printed with HP Jet Fusion 5200 Series 3D Printing Solution and HP 3D HR PA12 - Data Courtesy of Addit·ion
Lihua talks about the luxury of being able to work on several areas of research within various fields.
“In the first five or six years, I told everybody, ‘It seems like I did another Ph.D. at HP Labs in a totally different field.’ Then after that, I moved into 3D, which is absolutely a new field. I never studied anything about 3D, but I studied on the spot when I actually started. Those are fascinating points because the knowledge I accumulated through all my education in my life is that I found, well, I pick up things pretty fast.”

Close the gap between invention and innovation

Being constantly in the mode of learning, specifically learning new science and creating new technologies, is helpful when you want to turn those creations into something that impacts the world and people.
Lihua shares HP’s vision and mission to create technology that helps make life better for everyone everywhere, and she believes passionately in working on closing the gap between invention and innovation to get there.
“The exciting areas we are working on include metal 3D printing, 3D digital twins, the cyber systems of our physical 3D systems, as well as new ways to create multi-materials, multi-functions, and multi-properties of the 3D parts,” she says. “And from sustainability and supply chain angles, there is just a lot of fascinating stuff going on.”
Lihua Metal 3D Print
She continues, “But from those inventions to impactful innovation, there is also a distance. A big one! How do we close that gap to make our invention become real innovation to help and benefit the world? Every person, every organization, and every community around the globe has different needs. How do we actually continue to build the technology to help them meet their needs? I want to continue pursuing that.”

Fireworks and a curious mindset

The ability to pick up things quickly coupled with a curious mindset is something that Lihua has had since early childhood. She talks about being in elementary school in China and telling a classmate in first or second grade that she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up.
“At the time, we actually barely understood what [being] a scientist meant,” she says. “But I always liked wondering about how so many different things work. I didn’t build many things growing up because of resource limitations, but certainly I was not afraid of learning, fixing, and trying out things.”
In fact, she tried out a proto-scientific experiment at a very young age. “It’s an interesting and funny story my parents are always telling that when I was only about two, I surprised them in quite a big way. I was using matches to light up the very small fireworks that are available for our families during Chinese New Year.”
She found a way to do it and not hurt herself. “I found some little holes outside our building and put them in, lit them up, and then heard the boom. My parents discovered that when they heard the noise and couldn't believe that’s what I was doing. Both of them, especially my mom, like to tell this story all the time about how kind of clueless and brave I was.”

Mom as mentor

Lihua cites her mother as her first mentor, one who supported her desire to go to school and create her own path to success. “I definitely appreciate my mom,” she says. “I grew up at a time when girls were not expected to achieve their highest potential. She encouraged me to be who I wanted to become.”
As is the case with most successful people, Lihua continued to be mentored throughout her career. “I was pretty lucky to have people who supported, coached, and believed in me,” she says. “My Ph.D. advisor is certainly one of them and some HP fellow members. Although I never really had ‘official’ mentors, some of those people may not even know [how much they helped].”
She also mentors a few young women in tech herself. “I'm very thankful to take advantage of reverse mentoring, and I really appreciate how they actually help shape me to be more open-minded and grow young every day.”

If there is one, there will be more

To those who she’s mentoring, as well as any others seeking advice in careers in the high-tech industry, Lihua offers a bit of sage guidance. “Go for it as long as it's your desire or you just want to give it a try,” she says. “Don't worry too much how many women are in a field and if you are the only one. If you can be one, there will be more.”
Another piece of wisdom that Lihua imparts she also shares with her two daughters, ages 13 and 10. “I always tell my girls ‘Continue to stay who you are. You can grow all the time, but do not compromise to fit in.’ Because we need to shape the environments that we all can fit in, not compromise to fit in. I think I still continue to practice and work on it.”

Take measured risks

While recent college graduates may not share the same experiences as those already in the tech industry for a number of years, Lihua’s advice to them is similar. She recalls specifically a newly graduated young woman who she hired several years ago.
“She said something that was funny to me: ‘My goal is to live to 120. So I'm just at the beginning of it.’ I just thought, wow, that's really true. Technology and science continue advancing so it could very well be like that. When we’re really young and full of opportunities, that’s the time to just go for it. Try it out if this is something you want to do. Obviously, everyone is in a different situation or role, so you want to take a measured risk, but you can still do so and pursue what that really feels right for you.”

Managing priorities vs. attempting a work-life balance

As one of the influential women in tech with a very demanding position as well as the parent of two young children, Lihua is familiar with the concept of work-life balance.
She says, “I remember one of my girlfriends who had a pretty phenomenal career told me, ‘Don't ever think that you're going to have work-life balance. You either have work or you have a life. You've got to manage them with priorities, not balance them.’ So I choose to give up things rather than balance everything.”
When her eldest daughter was born, Lihua’s mother back in China offered to raise her until a certain point. “This is pretty common in China. It's grandparents taking care of the grandchildren for a long time to support their children to be successful in a career. I told my mom that if I don't have the ability to raise them, then I shouldn't actually have them.”
At the same time, a friend offered Lihua some advice about taking it easy on herself and not trying to be perfect at everything. “That's where I actually started learning and thinking about the idea of giving up rather than just balancing things. For instance, generally I would not go out just for social or networking in the evenings like a lot of other people, partners, those without children, or people who have a different type of support system. Because I would choose to stay with my kids, working with them, and playing with them.”

Embrace the fear: You’re qualified to be here

To those colleagues who find themselves to be the only woman, or one of only a few, on a team, Lihua shares that she has been in that situation at various times in her career and mentions intersectionality in particular.
“I'm a woman. I'm an Asian. I'm an Asian woman. I work in tech, and I achieved my degree in science with the highest degree you can possibly get, which is a Ph.D.,” she says. “So even if you have fear or awkwardness, remember that you're there because you're qualified to be there professionally. I have to constantly remind myself multiple times. But once you embrace that, then you will bring ideas and results just like everyone else in that room.”
Lihua believes strongly that data and facts are not only incredibly important, but also speak for themselves. “When we bring that to the equation, it makes a difference. The key point is to trust yourself and your ability. Embrace the fear and awkwardness. We are here not because we're women, not because we're a minority, not because we're whatever. It's because we are qualified to be here professionally.”
About the Author: Jolene Dobbin is a contributing writer for HP Tech@Work. Jolene is an East Coast-based writer with experience creating strategic messaging, marketing, and sales content for companies in the high-tech industry.

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