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How Lydia Liu of ETS tackles the extreme work life balance with Penny Bauder

It’s important not to let the doubt and worry get to you. Much of this is out of our control. We can remain positive by ensuring ourselves and our loved ones to stay safe and well. When COVID finally passes, things will begin to become clear and our new sense of normal will slowly return. […]

It’s important not to let the doubt and worry get to you. Much of this is out of our control. We can remain positive by ensuring ourselves and our loved ones to stay safe and well. When COVID finally passes, things will begin to become clear and our new sense of normal will slowly return.


The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lydia Liu.

Lydia Liu is a Senior Research Director in Research & Development at ETS. She is an internationally recognized expert on assessing competencies in higher education and workforce spaces. Lydia holds a doctorate in quantitative methods and evaluation from University of California, Berkeley.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Iwas born and raised in Hunan Province, China. I finished my undergraduate degree in science and English at the University of Science and Technology in China, which at that time had the lowest gender ratio in China — seven men to one woman given its heavy STEM focus. I met my husband in college. He was in the nuclear physics program and always lamented the fact that among 70 students they had in their class, only two were girls!

I moved to the United States in 2001 for graduate studies and earned my doctoral degree in educational measurement from University of California, Berkeley in 2006. What I really enjoy about this field is the quantitative and analytical approach to assessment for and of learning and the decisions that can be made based on data-driven and evidence-supported results. I began my career at ETS in 2006, as an associate research scientist and worked my way up to a senior scientist before taking on management roles. I currently manage the Academic-to-Career Research Center which supports the organization’s research in the higher education, workforce, career and technical education, and transitional spaces. We have a very dynamic, diverse, and productive team. Reflecting on my career journey, I am very fortunate to have had great mentors both in and outside of ETS to help me grow.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

I can think of a funny story that happened during my interview process with ETS. As a candidate I was taken to dinner by a group of kind future colleagues. I was a bit nervous and was focusing more on the conversation than the food. As a result, I mistakenly thought a shared appetizer was my entrée and ate all of it, very quickly! After I was hired, folks were joking that we hired you in spite of that.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am the Research & Development (R&D) lead on an ETS initiative focused on Skills for a New Economy (SNE). Our SNE initiative aims to help bridge the skills gap in education to workforce transitions by focusing on higher-order skills such as critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, oral/written communication, and intercultural competency. Through a CoLab structure we engage both higher education leaders and employers in identifying pain points and common solutions to help address upskilling and reskilling among students, job seekers, and employees.

This work is very timely as we are transitioning into a new era of workplace for two reasons. One is that automation will likely replace many job tasks that involve technical abilities, but it is the kind of human judgment and interaction that is less likely to be replaced. Our focus on higher-order skills aims to help benchmark and develop such skills. The other reason is the ever-increasing emphasis on competencies rather than on degrees. Direct evidence of competencies is needed for institutions and employers to make development, hiring, or upskilling decisions.

On a related note, we are also exploring the career and technical education space to see how skills can be identified, documented, and developed. For this particular population, numeracy and literacy skills are also critical and can serve as foundations for learners to master higher order skills.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been fortunate to have mentors and supervisors along the way who provided boundless encouragement, support, and opportunities. I have a particular memory that stands out to me which is what drew me to ETS about 14 years ago. Upon receiving my job offer from ETS, I also received offers from two other testing organizations and one of the offers included a higher starting salary (significant for a graduate student who lived on a meager stipend). I remember sitting on my porch, torn with the decision making. I shortly thereafter received a phone call from Ida Lawrence, the Senior Vice President of R&D at ETS, telling me how much ETS values me and how she could see me thrive at ETS. Ida also said that even if I made the decision to pursue a career with another organization, the door would always be open. I was very surprised, of course in a pleasant way, by the phone call as this was from someone six levels above where I was to start at ETS. At that time, Ida was managing a division of around 1,000 people and I am sure she had other things to do. That was the moment that I made up my mind to join ETS — I want to work for an organization that values people and the contributions that they are going to make. That observation hasn’t changed over the last 14 years at ETS. This experience also taught me that as leaders, we should never underestimate the power of a phone call, an email, or a meeting, as they may impact significant decisions.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family-related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

As a mother of two boys, Jayden (9) and Michael (5), I’d say the biggest challenge is balancing childcare and work — just as it is for so many working parents right now. Working at home is not entirely new to a lot of us, but the current scale is unprecedented. But working from home with two active kids has been challenging. We were very fortunate to have an au pair who helped out a lot with kids. That’s why I went into the panic mode when our au pair all of sudden told us that she was very scared of the COVID-19 situation and decided to quit the au pair program and return home. Within two days, she was gone. While I completely understood and supported her decision, this sudden change threw us into chaos. In the days that followed, my kids showed up in many of my video conference calls, resulting in a hilarious photo of displeased Michael, lying on the floor under my desk, trying to lift my desk using his feet. In order to instill normalcy into our personal and work life, we were interviewing frantically for a new au pair and had the great luck to have a new one who joined our family within three days.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

With kids at home, making a schedule and trying to stick with it helps. My observation is that my kids have more concentration in the morning, so I try to have them focus on e-learning during that time. Jayden has his regular e-learning activities from his school so he is mostly covered in the morning. With Michael, he can choose three things from a range of activities: learning Chinese, doing a kindergarten workbook, practicing reading through an app, reading stories online, or painting. He has tried to convince me that watching television should be one of the activities. When the kids focus on their academic work, I get to focus on my work. Of course, there are many examples of interruptions and we have simply moved to accept our new normal.

In the afternoon, I try to have the boys do some physical activities and have them play with less structure. We love kids exercising apps and use them a lot. When I have important meetings, I will let them watch television. We’re doing the best we can with what we have.

Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

I have an amazing team of scientists and research support staff members who have been incredibly dedicated and patient in this tough situation. Many aspects of our work are impacted due to the pandemic. For example, some data collections that are required for our research studies had to be put on hold as schools and institutions are closed and interviews with potential users of prototypes of solutions we created had to be moved online and modified due to travel restrictions. There were also challenges in transitioning the majority of our workforce to remote work and the emotional anxiety that came with it.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Making sure that our people are safe and well is always the most important thing. I have a lot of family and friends in China and that led me to see how serious the coronavirus situation could get.

With everyone working remotely, communication becomes key. Shifting priorities and resource coordination requires early communication at the center level. We built a Microsoft Teams® group to share important information and requests, and held center wide virtual updates and Q&A sessions. I also sent out weekly updates on progresses, challenges, and good wishes for our colleagues. I worked very closely with managers to gather feedback from staff members to address their questions and concerns. The crisis we are going through is truly unprecedented and requires us to be very flexible and agile as there are not too many established processes that can follow. Being transparent, empathetic, and candid always helps.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

For us, establishing a schedule for both working parents and e-learning kids is important. If possible, try to assign a space that everybody uses regularly for their work and study so there is proper separation between work/study and family life. Thanks to the advancements of educational technology there are so many tools that kids now can use to engage in learning in a fun way. Having a balance between cognitive and physical activities also helps. Kids are very energetic and need ways to keep up their exercise. We have a mini Ping-Pong® set that we put on our dining table and play almost every day. We also schedule virtual play dates so the kids can continue to interact with their friends and classmates while social distancing.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?

Maintaining a positive spirit helps and it’s really important to acknowledge that it’s OK to feel anxious, given all the inescapable challenges that we are facing during this time. Exercising definitely helps me concentrate and stay positive. For those of us who can work from home, we should feel very lucky. Extending help to people in need, even little things, can help. My older son wrote a nice note for our mailman and put some of his allowance with it as a way to show his appreciation. Our Chinese community in my neighborhood purchased bulk masks from China and donated them to our local hospitals, fire stations, police stations, post office, and grocery stores. This is an unprecedented crisis and we are all in this together. Rather than worrying too much about things that are out of our control, let’s do something to make it a better world.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel?” Can you share your “Five Reasons to Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.

When the COVID-19 outbreak first took its serious form, I had a conversation with our then au pair. I told her that I don’t know when the pandemic is going to be over, but one thing I am sure of is that it will be over eventually. In many ways, the situation is already bad enough — let’s not double down on it by worrying too much about things out of our control. Do everything necessary to stay safe and stay well. When it is finally over, there will be tears and laughter and we will be stronger than ever.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

It’s important not to let the doubt and worry get to you. Much of this is out of our control. We can remain positive by ensuring ourselves and our loved ones stay safe and well. When COVID finally passes, things will begin to become clear and our new sense of normal will slowly return. I always think that the Chinese term for crisis — 危机 — is interesting, while the first word 危means danger, the second word actually means opportunity.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is: “Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.”

I was a great student in high school and because of that I had the honor to be waived from taking the College Entrance Examination (Gaokao) and was admitted to the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), a top STEM university in China. At that time in many parts of China, high school students were split into either a liberal arts track or STEM track. Students on these two tracks took very different classes in the last year of high school. I was on the liberal arts track and we didn’t have any physics, chemistry, and biology classes senior year of high school and the math curriculum was less rigorous than that of the STEM track. My dream was to be an English major in college and was overjoyed when I learned that the program I was admitted to at USTC was in the English department.

However, right after I started in the five-year program, I was shocked to learn that it was not just an English program — its graduation requirements included four semesters of advanced mathematics, two semesters of physics, two semesters of chemistry and biology, one semester of linear algebra, and some computer science courses. English was almost like a sidekick. I was intimated by the heavy load of STEM learning and this definitely wasn’t how I envisioned my college life would unfold. To make things worse (or to make things clear), my department administrator approached me and shared that in fact my admission was a “mistake”, as whoever in charge of admissions didn’t realize that I was on a liberal arts track in high school. I don’t know if I was the first ever student in USTC history without a STEM background, but among the more than 1,200 undergraduates USTC admitted in 1997, I was the only one. And at that time, transferring to another college was not an option.

My subsequent learning was daunting. We sat in math classes with physics majors and in physics courses with math majors. I was very slow in understanding and essentially had to make up for at least a year’s worth of learning in these subjects. My confidence was also shattered when I saw that it took the girls in my dorm 20 minutes to finish the class assignment while it would take me hours. At a point I reasoned that comparing myself to others wasn’t helpful because they were really the best of the best. What I should do is really to make sure I make progress — just a little progress day by day — and see where I end up.

I spent an extraordinary amount of time studying almost every day. I always remember those early mornings or late nights where I rushed to and from the study rooms, with Boris Demidovich’s Problems in Mathematical Analysis book in-hand, and looking to the sky, believing that I was adapting better. I went to all the office hours by teaching assistants and asked questions relentlessly. Eventually the hard work paid off — I was able to receive merit-based scholarships from the University and at the provincial level, finished the five-year program in four years, and obtained a fellowship to start in a Ph.D. program in the United States, not to mention that I met my husband there. It was an incredible journey that, although started from a mistake, has led me to earn a doctoral degree in a STEM field and eventually a rewarding career in STEM.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can find me on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/loliu/.

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