SciMy Interview: L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award 2015 Fellows

The Malaysian Chapter of the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science fellowship award ceremony was held at the Le Meridien Hotel, KL Sentral, Kuala Lumpur in October 2015. The prestigious award was established 17 years ago jointly by the L’Oréal Foundation and the UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and aims to recognise and support young female researchers in establishing their scientific career. Women currently make up only 30% of the researchers globally. It is hoped that through this award, the gender discrepancy in science can be improved. In Malaysia, the initiative has recognised 35 outstanding woman scientists across the country for the past 10 years, with research grant worth over RM700,000 being awarded.

Right before the event, Scientific Malaysian correspondent Dr. New Jaa Yien had the opportunity to chat with all three of the 2015 recipients, to get a glimpse of their research project that eventually clinched the honorable award.

From L to R: Dr. Normi Mohd Yahaya (2015 FWIS National Fellows, Senior Lecturer at UPM), Dr. Wan Wardatul Amani Wan Salim (2015 FWIS National Fellows, Assistant Professor at IIUM), Dr. Chern Ein Oon (2015 FWIS National Fellows, Lecturer & Scientists at USM).

Dr. Oon Chern Ein

Dr Oon Chern EinDr. Oon graduated with a biotechnology degree from the National University of Malaysia, and obtained her PhD from the University of Oxford, UK, before heading to Karolinska Institute, Sweden for her postdoctoral training. She returned to Malaysia in 2013, and is currently based at the Institute of Research in Molecular Medicine, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. Dr. Oon initially aspired to be a fashion designer among other professions such as teacher, doctor and forensic scientist when she was young. However, a clear sense of direction soon took place after she volunteered at hospitals, during which she ‘experienced’ the suffering and burden that cancer lodges on the society and felt the calling to understand this disease better through research. Currently, Dr Oon is working on an enzyme known as Sirtuin that was discovered 20 years ago. The enzyme plays a significant role in causing neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic diseases and cancer. For colon and breast cancers, Sirtuin is overexpressed and stimulates tumour growth. Dr Oon’s team came up with an approach where a chemically synthesised compound inhibits the action of Sirtuin. The compound was tested in colon cancer, breast cancer and leukemia cell lines and have delivered promising results, suggesting its potential application in the treatment of cancer. In addition, it also demonstrates synergic effect in vitro when it was used in combination with chemotherapy drugs. This is particularly useful since chemotherapy alone often leads to drug resistance in cancer patients. Armed with these positive results, Dr Oon is bringing the project to the next phase, which is to test the compound in mice and hoping to observe tumour shrinkage in vivo.

When asked about the prospects of doing scientific research, especially as a young woman in Malaysia, Dr. Oon admits that there are definitely challenges that one has to overcome. “The research culture is very different in Malaysia and you can get frustrated when dealing with it as it is difficult to push for changes. People also tend to look at you differently if you are a young researcher. There is still room for improvement in terms of analytical and critical thinking in science. People have the tendency to follow the crowd, and often lack new ideas and originality. Currently, we are still working towards achieving a world-class research status, and thus, it is important that our research mentality is aligned with our counterparts overseas”.  To those who want to become successful researchers in science, Dr. Oon has the following to share, “You need to have passion and determination to do scientific research. Learn to swim against the current and stand up for what you believe in. Establishing connections is particularly important when one is at the infant stage of his/her research career. You must always thrive to make your research internationally relevant to engage potential collaborators. Think big, dream big!” Dr. Oon also acknowledges that she has been lucky in having very supportive mentors throughout her research career.

Dr. Normi Mohd Yahaya

Dr Normi Mohd Yahaya Dr. Normi graduated with a biotechnology degree from the Universiti Sains Malaysia.  She completed her PhD from the RIKEN Institute, Japan and Universiti Sains Malaysia under the RIKEN-USM Asia Joint Graduate School Programme in Molecular Genetics, specialising in Protein Engineering. This was followed by a postdoctoral training in protein nuclear magnetic resonance, at the Institut National Polytechnique de Lorraine, Nancy, in France. Currently, Dr. Normi is based at the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, Faculty of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, Universiti Putra Malaysia. Dr. Normi was exposed to science at a very young age when her father gave her a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. A chapter on the structure of DNA stirred her interest in science. Since then, her passion for science bloomed and she started creating scrapbooks to collect newspaper clippings on science related information. She is grateful for the support from her family throughout her journey of scientific discovery.

Dr. Normi’s research project focuses on overcoming the problems of antibiotic resistance in bacteria infection that currently plagues the medical and agriculture sectors. As the world population is on the rise, it is imperative that problems pertaining to antibiotic resistance be addressed. Antibiotic resistance refers to the ability of infection-causing bacteria to resist the effects of antibiotics. This could occur via an enzyme produced by the bacteria to degrade the antibiotics, crippling its action and activity indefinitely. Dr. Normi’s team has discovered one of such enzyme from a newly identified bacterium in Malaysia. This bacterium is known as Bacillus lehensis, isolated from the soil obtained from the rubber plantation by another research group from Malaysia. The enzyme produced by this bacterium is able to degrade a wide spectrum of antibiotics. By studying the predicted structure of the enzyme, Dr. Normi hopes to design a novel small molecule that could inhibit the action of the enzyme. The approach uses advanced computer software to study how well the molecule binds to the enzyme and inhibits its activity. Currently, Dr. Normi’s research group has already designed a few of such molecules and will proceed to the next synthesising and characterisation phase.

When asked about the research climate in Malaysia, Dr. Normi commented that in general, the government is being supportive, however, she often finds it difficult when proposing research ideas to funding bodies. “Ideas that are novel or out of the box are often perceived as something risky. Funding bodies in Malaysia usually favour ideas that are ‘safe’, without being aware that novel and creative ideas are usually the one that drive innovation in scientific research,” said Dr. Normi. She further expressed her concerns on a research culture where projects are typically product-based, and researchers are often afraid to venture into unchartered territories. She stressed that researchers must be encouraged to explore new ideas, especially in the area of fundamental research and not just focusing on coming up with a tangible product.

Dr. Normi also has some advice for young researchers pursuing a career in research. “In anything that you do, don’t give up. Always believe in yourself and most importantly, your ideas. Never let people push you around, and remain steadfast in your own principles and ethics,” said Dr Normi with an assertive tone but with a smile.

Dr. Wan Wardatul Amani Wan Salim

Dr Wan Wardatul Amani Wan SalimDr. Amani is an assistant professor at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. She spent almost 17 years in the United States prior to her return to Malaysia in 2014. Dr. Amani graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, USA. She then pursued her PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the Purdue University, followed by postdoctoral training in the same university. Dr Amani is the first Malaysian Principle Investigator to lead a science project at NASA that was developed through a partnership between NASA’s Ames Research Centre and the Department of Agriculture and Biological Engineering at Purdue University. The project aimed to explore the mechanisms of plant cell gravity via the launch of a spacecraft known as SporeSat to the outer space. Upon returning to Malaysia, a trip with the Malaysian Relief Agency to the flood stricken region of Kuala Krai, Kelantan inspired Dr Amani to come up with a novel idea to assess the quality of drinking water. Water filtration system in rural areas often suffers from the risk of contamination during floods, and there is no effective monitoring system in place.

To solve this, Dr. Amani aims to develop a portable biosensor that could detect water contamination. The device comprises of a recognition layer that contains adhering antibodies generated against harmful pathogens like Escherichia coli. This approach requires the knowledge of both surface chemistry, micro and nanofabrication, and biology. A transducer that is made of graphene—a less than 10 nm thin carbon layer—will also be included. It will serve as a sensing region that transmits electrochemical signals from the interaction of E. coli with conjugated antibodies to a device such as a smartphone or even as simple as an open-source ARDUINO platform, where the stored signals can be sent back to the laboratory for further analysis.

Commenting on the research environment in Malaysia, Dr. Amani admits that locating the right resources can be a challenge as they tend to be scattered. “Connecting the dots can be difficult.  You need to establish connections in everything you do and have your voice heard – as a young researcher, this proves to be the challenge as well. Therefore, it is important to seek potential collaborators to work as a team in order to make an impact with your research.” She also urges researchers in Malaysia to communicate more and reach out to other members of the society such as industry leaders, business and finance leaders, and those who are not in the science and engineering, to allow the exchange of research skills and ideas. Dr. Amani has the following advice for aspiring young researchers: “Pursue your passion and your interest, even when you encounter hurdles, believe in yourself that you can overcome it. Find a good role model that can guide you and inspire you. Most importantly, always seek to improve yourself in every way.”

Further reading:

USM INFORMM website – Dr Oon Chern Ein
UPM website – Dr Normi Mohd Yahaya
IIUM website- Dr Wan Wardatul Amani Wan Salim
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