Science, The Final Frontier

25 October 2016

We speak to prominent Malaysian women scientists, astrophysicist Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman and polymer chemist cum microbiologist Lam Shu Jie, and look at the stats on Malaysias gender participation in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Globally, women make up only 28.4% of researchers in the world, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics.

So it’s only natural that the narrative surrounding women in science largely revolve around the lack of female participation in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

But would it shock you if the imbalance is not as prominent in Malaysia?

Based on the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) figures again, women make up almost half of practising researchers in this country at 48.7%. The ratio places Malaysia as among the most proportionate in the region with the average for East Asia and the Pacific being only 23%.

The past year alone saw multiple Malaysian women researchers in the headlines for both participating and leading research that led to breakthroughs or are on the verge of solving global problems.

Just a couple of examples include Dr. Oon Chern Ein who is researching a new synthetic compound that could potentially be an alternative to chemotherapy in treating resistant colon cancer, and researcher Hafizah Noor Isa who was on the team that performed the ground-breaking detection of gravitational waves by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors.

Another name most recently in the news is Lam Shu Jie, who garnered attention this year after publishing her team’s findings on their development of SNAPPs (structurally nano-engineered anti-microbial peptide polymers), which is now seen as a major possible solution to antimicrobial resistance (including resistance to antibiotics).

Her optimistic findings couldn’t have been more timely with a report commissioned by the UK government in 2014 estimating a current annual death rate of 700,000 people due to antimicrobial resistance that could go up to 10 million deaths annually by 2050.

How SNAPPs fundamentally work, is that its star-shaped form literally rips apart the cell walls of a range of Gram-negative bacteria including ‘superbugs’, as opposed to classic antibiotics that works by, to simply put, ‘poisoning’ bacteria.

“We found that these polymers are able to wipe out a superbug infection in mice, while remaining relatively non-toxic to healthy cells in the body,” Shu Jie says in an e-mail interview. “We also discovered that bacteria/superbugs are not able to become resistant to these polymers.”

Growing up in Batu Pahat, Johor, Shu Jie picked up an interest in medicine from her late father Dr. Lam Pan Nam, who was a paediatrician in their hometown.

“I considered pursuing the medical profession when I was younger, but after some exposure to the field of research in university, I found my passion in using science to solve problems in the medical field from a more fundamental research angle,” she says.

The 25-year-old is currently completing her PhD in Engineering at the University of Melbourne, Australia. A proud proponent for female representation in STEM, she was involved in Australia-based organisation Robogals Inc. during her undergraduate studies. She led an initiative called Robogals Rural and Regional, that conducted career talks and robotics workshops in primary and secondary schools in Australia.

“There is definitely a gender imbalance in engineering. The situation was not that bad in Chemical Engineering (where the male to female ratio is approximately 6:4), but in other disciplines such as Mechanical or Mechatronics Engineering, I was aware that the ratio can be 9:1,” she elaborates.

She believes much still can be done to combat gender stereotyping, starting with awareness and getting the general public to better understand the nature of STEM occupations.

“The most effective way is to impact the younger generation, such as through programmes like Robogals, so that they could make an informed decision when it comes to deciding their area of interest for their future career,” she says.

When discussing about Malaysian women in STEM, one cannot leave out science icon Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman, the former Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Aside from being the country’s first astrophysicist, she was the founding Director-General of the National Space Agency (ANGKASA) and established the National Space Centre, as well as founded the Langkawi National Observatory. She also spearheaded the Angkasawan Programme that launched Malaysia’s first astronaut to the International Space Station.

But what she’s best known for is being the former UNOOSA Director and being the subject of a rumour in the media that started in 2010 about being appointed by the UN as the world’s first point of contact for extra-terrestrial lif

“The reporter made a leap. He made many unfounded leaps in logic,” the 65-year-old says with a laugh, denying that it was ever a consideration.

She retired from the UN in 2013 and returned to serve in Malaysia again, taking on her present role as Project Director of Mega Science 3.0 at the Academy of Sciences Malaysia in 2014.

Mazlan is given the monumental task of better preparing industries – namely the furniture, automotive, tourism, plastic and composites, and creative industries - for projected scientific and technological advancements between now and 2050.

“We have a preferred future, where the ideal is that there is no more corruption and etcetera. But we also have to keep in mind that there is also a possible ‘bad’ future where the economy is totally unequal and society is totally autocratic, what we call a disowned future. So it’s about steering to as close to the ideal,” she says.

“We are doing this foresight based on educated guesses like the prediction that there will be no Alzheimer’s [disease] anymore by 2040, and on almost certainties like by 2050, 45% of the population will be older than 60.”

Unlike Shu Jie, who lists Nobel laureates Prof Elizabeth Blackburn, Youyou Tu, and Prof Françoise Barré-Sinoussi as role models, Mazlan says she didn’t have female role models at the start of her career because astrophysics was still a relatively new field.

“I was doing physics and space, where the issue of the day was not how many women there were, but the fact that the field didn’t exist in Malaysia. I had to put all my efforts, all my thinking, all my strategising, all my emotions, energy, into setting up that field. So the issue of gender representation was not there.”

“There was no space for that in space,” she adds with a chuckle.

Mazlan opines that while statistics may not show much of a gender imbalance in STEM today, the issue of general participation – regardless of gender - being low remains.

“In general, the awareness, or being opportunistic about science education, is not happening overall,” she says. “Our parents are not aware that there are so many opportunities to bring up the science in everyday things.”

And she is right.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Seri Madius Tangau announced last month that Malaysia is behind on the Vision 2020 target of having 60% of the country’s workforce to comprise of highly skilled STEM workers, with the figure only at 28% in 2015. The minister also revealed that only 21% of students in the country were even eligible to take up STEM-related courses.

But with Malaysia having such a strong talent pool despite low overall participation, it makes one wonder: what can we achieve if only we could get more people interested in science?

By Aizyl Azlee

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