SciMy Interview: Professor Norita Mohamed

DEPUTY DEAN IN RESEARCH, SCHOOL OF CHEMICAL SCIENCES, UNIVERSITI SAINS MALAYSIA

A chemist by training, but an ‘engineer’ in practice – such is the description that the SciMy team would like to tag on Prof. Norita Mohamed. With a good grasp of chemistry fundamentals, the chemist in her sets out to solve problems that have plagued two sectors, namely the waste environment and the chemistry education system. In a recent interview with the SciMy team, Prof. Norita elaborates on her research at removing/recovering heavy metals from the environment, as well as her involvement in improving the teaching of chemistry at the secondary and tertiary levels. Interview by Dr. Hooi-Ling Lee and Dr. Valerie Soo

Q1. On your research on metal ions removal, what methods have you adopted to separate metals from the waste solutions?
We effectively recover metals from metal-bearing solutions through the use of electrochemistry – this is a basic to electrochemistry concepts you can find in any chemistry textbook. However, the rate of reaction and selectivity of this basic system are too low for an industrial-scale application. This is where my research comes in. My group has developed an electrogenerative system based on a spontaneous reaction. This reaction occurs in an electrochemical cell that does not require external energy input. By selecting the appropriate electrodes and electrocatalysts (hence altering the electrode potential), we have shown that the rate and selectivity of reactions are controllable. So far, we have succeeded in recovering, or removing, heavy metals such as gold, copper, lead, cobalt, chromium(VI), nickel and cadmium from metal-bearing solutions.

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Prof. Norita (center) and the members of her research group

Q2. We know that you have been interested in enhancing the quality of chemistry education for a long time. Can you tell us more about your involvement in this area?
Earlier on, I was involved in developing computeraided instructional modules in chemistry. Since 2005, I have been involved in advocating the implementation of microscale chemistry experiments for secondary schools and first year chemistry courses. Microscale chemistry is an experimental approach pertaining to using small quantities of chemical substances. By using miniature labware and significantly reduced amounts of chemicals, we reduce chemical usage and waste up to 70%. Furthermore, we can save up to 75% of time spent in carrying out experiments. There is also no need for a traditional lab setting and exposure to hazardous chemicals, fire or explosions is very much reduced. Our microscale chemistry experiments based on the Malaysian Form Four chemistry syllabus are now available on the UNESCO official website1. Thanks to the Knowledge Transfer Programme funded by the Ministry of Higher Education, we are implementing this microscale approach in two schools, Maktab Rendah Sains Mara Beseri in Perlis and Sekolah Berasrama Penuh Integrasi Gombak in Kuala Lumpur.

Q3. As a youngster, have you always known that you would become a chemist? Would you mind telling us your journey towards becoming a chemist?
My taking up of chemistry was inspired by my chemistry teacher (Ms. Chan Siew Yee from Tunku Khurshiah College, Seremban) in Form Four and Five. I really enjoyed her chemistry lessons. Also, I had always done well in science and mathematics in school and this further edged me on to take up the sciences with a focus on chemistry. After my MCE (Form Five) exams in 1973, I was offered to a MARA scholarship to do a degree in chemistry in USA. I was enrolled at Northern Illinois University in 1974. After graduating with a Bachelor in Chemistry (summa cum laude) in 1977, I moved to Kansas State University (KSU) to begin my PhD in Analytical Chemistry in January 1978. I completed my PhD in early 1982, and joined USM
(Penang) as a faculty member in the same year.

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Chemistry educational activities organised by Prof. Norita involving primary and secondary school students.

Q4. How did you become interested in environmental electrochemistry?
It was largely due to the comprehensive structure of my PhD programme that eventually led me to my current research area. For my PhD, I was trained as an atomic spectroscopist (analytical chemistry), while also taking postgraduate-level courses in chemical separation methods, electroanalytical techniques, electronics and instrument/computer interfacing. In addition, I had to take courses in physical, organic and inorganic chemistry. After joining USM, I initially continued to use atomic spectroscopy for direct analyses, but eventually took up environmental electrochemistry as a research area – a subdiscipline of analytical chemistry that has already piqued my interest during my PhD programme.

Q5. After being in the Malaysian chemistry scene for ~30 years, what do you think are the strengths that Malaysia can offer for chemistry research?
Although this also applies to several countries, I think we have a significant pool of a new generation of inquisitive, talented young and senior academics with diverse research interests, ranging from natural product extractions to spectrocopy techniques. Another unique strength offered by Malaysia is the vast resources and diversity of natural products: these two factors promote interdisciplinary research collaborations between analytical chemists and biologists, ecologists or pharmacologists, and also to have engagement with the local industries by fulfilling their needs as well as assisting in their problem solving. Q6. It is very encouraging to know that the Malaysian chemistry scene has a lot to offer. Are there any chemistry subfields in Malaysia that you think need further development? I think that analytical research requires further development by exploiting the Malaysian business environment and natural resources, in order to obtain the best return in chemistry-related investments. In addition, our quality control (QC) analyses can be improved by recruiting chemists (especially young grads) with a strong analytical chemistry background. Quality control in this sense includes obtaining robust and reliable results that meet the standard requirements in the laboratory practice or industrial production.

Q7. Speaking of recruiting a new generation of chemists, what obstacles does a young chemist expect to face in our country?
Chemistry research institutions in Malaysia, particularly those gaining the status of a research university, have sufficient core research facilities. However, there is a lack of support staff to facilitate research (e.g. maintenance and on-site repair of equipment). Moreover, most chemicals are more costly due to them being imported, and delivery by suppliers is slow.

Q8. Based on your experiences, what are the must-have qualities of a chemist?
My personal opinion is that a chemist should possess good grasp of chemistry fundamentals, be detail-oriented with sufficient analytical and critical thinking skills. These attributes would help one to question and develop hypothesis, and to test it with the appropriate experimental techniques and subsequent critical data analysis for a scientifically sound conclusion. Also, a chemist should be conscious about safety in the laboratory and proper handling of chemicals.

Q9. Do you think that the general public encourages the new generation to be a scientist or chemist? If not, why is it the case and how do we resolve this problem?
Some parents nowadays are encouraging their children to take up courses that looks prestigious such as medicine, accounting or law which are associated with high salaries. A lot of time and effort have to be invested to become a scientist that holds a PhD degree with many years of research experience. This factor might hinder parents from encouraging their children to become scientists. Hence, more efforts are required to explain to the public, especially the parents, of the career opportunities in science and engineering, as well as the significant contribution of scientists in our daily lives. This will aid in getting them to encourage their children to take up Science and Technology subjects.In the long term, one way to promote chemistry among the students is through education. I think we need to enhance the quality of chemistry education in schools and universities in order to produce chemists with a sound fundamental knowledge of chemistry and other relevant scientific disciplines including mathematics, physics, biology, geology and others. Aspiring chemists cannot be just mere rote learners; instead, they should acquire good analytical and critical thinking skills in order to meet the challenges of the ever expanding frontiers of chemistry. Inquiry based learning should be gradually introduced in our education to instil a thinking habit among our students during their early childhood. Besides, the chemistry syllabus can be made more interesting with examples relating to our daily lives. These steps can encourage students to take up science subjects particularly chemistry when they continue with their tertiary education.

Q10. Besides education, what are the suitable methods to promote chemistry among the general public, and to acknowledge the contributions made by chemistry?
High-profile ceremonies to celebrate achievements in Chemistry in our mainstream media. We could also have an annual chemistry week or month celebrating chemistry achievements and related events for the public understanding of chemistry. It must be made clear that numerous advances in the fields of engineering, medicine, agriculture or electronics could not have been achieved without chemistry. Chemistry is not just theoretical or academic knowledge but it is essential for our daily lives. We cannot advance as a nation with a community who has a weak background in chemistry.

Q11. Lastly, what is your advice for future, potential chemists or those interested in pursuing a scientific career in the academia?
There is a great potential for aspiring chemists wanting to pursue an academic career to succeed, especially so with the funding available for research these days. The rules of the game are indeed very different for academia nowadays compared to those days in the 80s. During my time in 1980s, research fundings were scarce. Very often, new lecturers started their career with minimal funding. Currently, new lecturers are provided grants from the university once they take up the position. This provides good motivation for these new lecturers to immediately start their research. If one wishes to become a scientist or pursue a career in academia, I think the best advice is to have a strong passion for your work. Have patience, passion and perseverance – simply put, “3Ps” – these are essential qualities to become a successful scientist.

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Prof. Norita with Dr. Lee after the interview

REFERENCE:
[1] http://portal.unesco.org/science/en/ev.php-URL_ID=7708&URL_DO= DO_TOPIC &URL_ SECTION=201.html

For more information about Prof. Norita, please visit the following link:
http://chem.usm.my/index.php/our-staff/academic/analytical-chemistry/82-academic/analyticalchemistry/75-prof-norita-mohamed



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