The Power of Perseverance, Professionalism and Passion

It wasn’t until around midday that Lily Hsu Laiho took her newborn daughter to the lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). When her husband finished up his full-time job at around 5:00 p.m., he would take the baby into the empty MIT conference room, where both parents had set up as a play area. She would then run between the the lab and the playroom to nurse her daughter, until her husband took the baby home at 9 p.m. It was only around midnight that Laiho got back home to nurse her daughter one more time before the cycle started over again the next day.

In the thirteen years since she started a family while pursuing her Ph.D., BioMedical Engineering professor Dr. Laiho has lost none of that work ethic.

With a B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering from Stanford University and a Ph.D. from MIT, Laiho was already a force to be reckoned with. But her degrees were only means to an end— it is her perseverance, professionalism and passion that allow her to excel in her job today.

After graduating with her Masters, Laiho worked for Carco Electronics, a flight motion simulator company in Menlo Park. She worked both roles as a mechanical engineer and project manager, and got to go through all aspects of design, manufacturing, testing, sales and working with customers. However,she was also the only female engineer on her team. Though she never faced any blatant discrimination, she was often underestimated and received comments that left her second-guessing her own decisions.  

“Sometimes I would feel like they would not give as much credence to what I was saying, and even if I was correct I remember [thinking I must be wrong],” she said. “It does get annoying; sometimes you feel like you have to prove yourself first to get to on an even playing field. Whereas for males they’d assume they already have the knowledge, the background, even though you have the same resume, the same CV and everything.”

After her job at Carco Electronics, she worked at AZLA Corporation, a pharmaceutical company where she engineered the components for drug manufacturing equipment. She wanted a diverse experience, knowing that she was going to go into academia and teach at a collegiate level. She then got her Ph.D. from MIT and taught Mechanical Engineering for three years at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, before moving back to California to teach at Cal Poly.

Today, Laiho’s office walls are covered with paintings by her children. From a finger painted pineapple to a scenic snowy mountainside, they are little reminders of her home and family. Her kids are currently 13 and 10 years old, though when she started working at Cal Poly in 2007, they were three and one. Between taking care of her children and working on lectures, she went to sleep between two and four every morning and woke up between 6:30 and 7 am. Though the flexibility in her work hours and her husband, who also works at Cal Poly, were big contributors for her being able to manage her work life and home life, it was the passion for her job that got her through the years of sleep deprived mornings making lunch for her kids and writing final lecture notes.

“Loving what you do makes that balance between work and personal life much easier,” she said. “Anytime I have to stay up late and work doesn’t seem that bad of a sacrifice because I get to love what I do and be with my family.”

Aside from teaching BMED, Laiho is also currently doing research on the protective benefits of milk on skin cells, and how it reduces the damages of UV light. She is also an advisor for the Quality of Life Plus (QL+) Lab, in which students make assistive technology for wounded veterans. She has an administrative role as the director of interdisciplinary projects, and is also on numerous committees, including the committee for hiring faculty and committee for allocating funding for student projects.

Laiho goes above and beyond in whatever she partakes in. From late nights and early mornings, to the extra committee work she does, she embodies what it means to persevere, despite adversity.