Interview: Dr Sonia Ortega

Sonia_1Dr Sonia Ortega, a Program Director at the US National Science Foundation (NSF) spoke to SciMy about her views on science education and her involvement with Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) in her 2-month working visit to Malaysia. We received an introduction to the life of a woman whose dedication to science is undeniable. Interview by Victor Tan and Xander Chong.

Q1. What motivated and inspired you to move from scientific research into STEM education programmes at the US NSF?
It was supposed to be a temporary position for two years. I was doing research in marine sciences. After I arrived at the NSF, I started learning about the different kinds of programmes, and I realised that my impact could be wider because I would be working at a national level. Whereas when I was doing research, I was more narrowly focused and I realized that working with the NSF gave me the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, and so I found that very rewarding. One thing led to another, I’ve been there for 23 years now, and it made a change in my career.

Q2. Could you tell us about how you became involved in MIGHT?
Yes, I’m here as an embassy science fellow and this is a programme partially funded by the US State Department and by my organisation. The US embassy here coordinates with MIGHT and with other government organisations about my involvement – They conduct and figure out my schedule, figure out how best I can work here with different Malaysian organisations to strengthen the US-Malaysia relationship through science diplomacy.

Q3. Science diplomacy… That’s interesting. Could you elaborate on what that means?
Yes. Science diplomacy… Last year, when US science envoy Dr. Rita Colwell came, she talked about science diplomacy. Science has no borders, and a way to strengthen relationships between countries is through science. When you do science, it doesn’t matter where you are, which geographic region or which country you belong to; you’re discovering things which are of interest to people. You have collaborations between scientists of different countries, and makes collaboration and mutual relationships between countries better.

Q4. That’s interesting because that’s at the core of what Scientific Malaysian intends to achieve, by attempting to increase collaboration across our borders – What do you think Malaysia’s scientific niche is?
It really is up to the Malaysian scientists. I see that there is high potential in many different areas, but it is up to the many different organisations, researchers at different universities to decide what the priorities should be. The country needs to decide to set up their own priorities – Where, what areas that would be more important for the country as well.

Q5. Apart from increasing funding, what other roles should the government play to improve STEM sectors?
For the short period of time that I’ve been here, I’ve seen that it is the education system that is important. You cannot develop research and move forward with science if you’re not preparing the future scientists, and that has to start somewhere. It has to start from the young people and the new generation that will be the new scientists of tomorrow. Some of the efforts have to be put in in that sector to start developing scientists at a very early age, to prepare young children to think like scientists when they’re young.

Q6. It is challenging to get an internship in Malaysian STEM sectors without necessary academic qualifications. What do you think could be done in light of this?
Doing science is about doing things, it’s about discovery. It is something that you cannot wait until you are a graduate student, to start thinking like a scientist. Every child is a scientist, if provided the right opportunity. They’re always asking, why is the sky blue? Why do butterflies fly? How do airplanes stay in the air?

So that curiosity is there, and it needs to be fostered at an early age, through the right way of teaching sciences in the school. It is not about memorising facts and repeating them, or learning formulas and plugging formulas in. It is about solving problems, and seeing science in the real world, also having teachers who foster that, allowing children to start thinking – That’s what scientists do.

By asking questions, and finding answers to those questions, that’s how you discover new things. It’s not just there, but you also have to do it on many different levels. At the young, elementary, and high school, at undergraduate level maybe in a more sophisticated way, by involving the students in doing the science by providing those opportunities, and at the graduate level continue allowing them to do the science – That’s how you do it. You link the scientists and the future scientists, and that’s how you become or get engaged or interested.

Q7. Do you think that there are good reasons for institutional investors to invest in STEM industries?
You have to invest in something that you value, and I think that if you value the fact that science can contribute to the progress of a country and the betterment of people’s lives, then you realise that investment is worthwhile. I think even on a personal side, you invest in what you value, and you spend time and money on what you value. If a country values science and values the improvement of people’s lives, then of course it would be a good thing to do. It’s not hard to see, science is everywhere. Everything you have is the product of science, and we take that for granted – Remote controls, cellphones, any piece of equipment, such as the iPad you’re holding in your hand, is a product of a scientific discovery, and you wouldn’t have it without the years of research leading to that product.

Q8. According to PISA 2009 results, Malaysia is ranked at 53 and 57 in Science and Mathematics respectively, out of 74 countries assessed. How do we improve this?
I think every country has the same issues! I just returned from a meeting in Jakarta, and I learned that the issue of science and science teaching and learning is more or less not restricted to one particular region or country – It’s something more universal, something that a lot of countries are facing.

Most countries are facing issues of how you teach science and get students interested, to learn the basics, and to see fundamental issues of science. A lot of this has to do with how you do it – How you train teachers, how to teach sciences, and I see that Malaysia is already involved in some of this inquiry based learning. It is a methodology that seems to get students more involved and engaged, known as hands-on science. That is one of the ways – It might not be the only way. I have worked with the NSF on a program that we call Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12), which is a programme that brings graduate students to K-12 classrooms, connects graduate students with young people, and the graduate students in the science serve as role models that bring their own research to classrooms, work with youngsters to get them involved inside scientific research and scientific methodology.

In the US, some programmes worked in rural areas, some things worked in urban areas, some things worked in big schools and other things worked in smaller schools. You can use the technology in some places, but in other places technology is not available, so you have to work with your own reality, your own resources, and your own setting, and you have to adapt to your own realities and your own environment.

Sonia_2Q9. There had been a 29% decline in science stream enrolment in Malaysia since 2007. Do you think it’s fair to say that this is the case for many other countries in the world? Do you think that interest in scientific education is declining?
Yes and no! In the natural sciences, for example, in the US at least, we have seen a decline in the environmental sciences because the children are spending too much time indoors, so we see a decline of children going outdoors, lesser appreciation of sciences like ecology. They are losing contact with nature, so there is that balance you have to understand – Young people are using technology, but maybe too much – They’re not going outdoors, so they’re not seeing the real world outdoors. That is one of those balances that needs to be taken into account, and it has to involve also parents, teachers, the community, and it’s not that simple.

Q10. What do you think could be done to rectify this situation?
You have to start exposing children at a young age, and when they discover that this is an exciting way of making a living but you won’t find that until you try. A lot of it is exposing people and letting them know what their opportunities are. I know a lot of scientific societies are trying to do a little bit more public relations in explaining to people what it is that scientists do. There are a lot of people who don’t know what mathematicians do, how they spend their time, what kinds of things they do to make a living. So it goes with science – There are different ways of being a scientist – You can be a researcher, you can be an entrepreneur, you can work in different areas but people, at least, need to know.

Q11. In your opinion, what should be done to increase a nation’s teaching quality?
For teaching quality, three things. A fixed curriculum, teacher training, and evaluation. When you put those three things together, you have an entire package. You cannot look at them individually, you must look at them cohesively. If the curriculum covers enough and the teachers are prepared to cover the curriculum, you need to understand whether the students have actually learnt what the curriculum has set out to accomplish.

Q12. What motivates you to carry on with this job?
When I was a field biologist, I loved going out to the field. It was a constant vacation. I had a little boat, and I went out into the water – It was a great experience, and I was much younger then, too. Now, what drives me is the fact that every day is a new day, and that there are no days that are like one another. What motivates me is the idea that my rewards come not by publishing papers, but rather things like getting emails every now and then from people who I have funded, saying “Oh look, I’ve won an award.”, or “Hey, I got featured in the New York Times.”

These things make you feel like you can make a difference directly in somebody else’s life, and what gives me a lot of motivation is realising that I’m contributing to the future generation. With all the things that are happening in the news, there are terrible things happening in the world. But in spite of all the terrible things, I visit projects that I’ve funded, schools I’ve funded, and I get a lot of hope – It’s that hope for a better future, through science, through seeing people get excited and lighting up their lives about seeing a part of the future rather than seeing a negative future – That’s what makes me get up and go to work.

Q13. What are your words of encouragement to someone who wants to be involved in science in the future?
Do what you love. Secondly, be open to possibilities. When I came to the NSF, I had no idea that my life was going to change. But I was open to the possibilities. Thirdly, take some risks, because with risk, there is opportunity. Especially young people – When something doesn’t work, do something else. If you don’t like it, do something else.

Interview video:

About Dr Sonia Ortega and MiGHT:
Dr. Sonia Ortega is a Program Director for the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Program at the US NSF. She has served as advisor and board member of education and scientific organisations in the US and abroad. Dr. Sonia was on a 2-month working visit as an Embassy Science Fellow at the Malaysian Industry- Government Group for High Technology (MiGHT). MiGHT’s mission is to serve the nation in advancing competency in high technology through partnerships towards sustainable development.

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