9 Nov 2016

women in STEM

Leading women in science 
By ROZANA SANI
7 November 2016

FROM LOCAL TO GLOBAL: Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman paves the way for women in STEM

FOR Malaysia to compete with the rest of the world, more scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technologists are needed to manage the country’s natural resources and develop new technologies for future growth and development.

This means that as competition becomes keener, the demand for both skilled male and female scientists and researchers in the sciences will increase in tandem.

With women acknowledged as equal partners in nation-building, the government has, through the years, put in place policies covering the economy, education, women’s welfare and human resources to ensure their participation.

But there is still a perception that there is not enough female presence in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and this has been linked to lack of interest in the sciences among female students in schools and universities.

However, Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman, 64, believes that the issue is not one that is gender-based but lies in the general lack of interest in sciences among all students.

“There is a large increase in the number of women in science. If you look at global university intakes, women make up 60 per cent on average compared to the past. But are these girls pursuing science or STEM stream? I believe they are,” said Mazlan.

Interest in STEM is not a female but a general problem, Mazlan observed. “There is a misconception that people don’t have the capacity to pursue science. If you have enough exposure, support from your family and friends as well as role models, you will be encouraged to take up science.”

She added that there is no lack of role models for women in science today. “Once the girls are in the science stream, they do extremely well.”


WHITHER RESEARCH? 

Mazlan herself is a role model for many women in science in the country.

And with a long list of firsts, she is proof of women excelling in the field. She is Malaysia’s first astrophysicist; the first woman in the history of her alma mater (University of Otago, New Zealand) to earn a PhD in physics; the first director of Malaysia’s National Space Agency, Angkasa; and the first head of the Angkasawan Project that successfully launched the country’s first astronaut, Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, into space.

She is also the first Malaysian to serve as director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, Austria from 1999 to 2002 and again from 2010 to 2014.

But if not for her teachers at Tunku Kurshiah College in Seremban, Negri Sembilan, life could have been very different for Mazlan.

“After Form Three, I wanted to do English Literature and arts. I breezed through science and math, and I wanted to do something challenging.

“And I found English Literature extremely challenging especially when I tried to read Shakespeare, and I was hopeless in art.

“But I scored the highest marks for math and science, and my teachers insisted that I do science. It was 1963, people were still clamouring for scientists and I was too young to have my own mind. So, I thought, ‘If you want me to do science, I will’. But, of course, I am so glad they insisted because it turned out very well for me,” she said.

She was introduced to physics in the science stream. “My passion was physics and Einstein and people like him. It was only when I went to university that I was exposed to astrophysics and I fell in love with it.

“In astrophysics, I found the beauty of art and literature. If you look at any astronomy book, you see beauty everywhere and there is so much mystery and philosophy. Physics took my mind beyond everyday things but astrophysics expanded this mysterious world,” she added.

Mazlan attended the University of Otago in Dunedin on a Colombo Plan scholarship, earning a BSc. (Honours) in 1975. She then joined the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) as a tutor, but negotiated an extension to her scholarship and returned to Otago, earning a PhD in physics in 1981.

 But Mazlan said she hardly had the chance to explore scientific research in the field of astrophysics early in her career while she was at UKM to create a curriculum in astrophysics as well as raise public awareness of astronomy and space.

“In 1989, I was preparing research for my sabbatical at the Harvard Astrophysics Lab. I was so excited and went to visit the lab. But the Prime Minister’s Office asked me to set up the National Planetarium. I had to make a choice. I knew if I answered the call of the Prime Minister’s Office, it would be the end of my research career.”

Mazlan took on the job of setting up the planetarium. “I made the choice to contribute to the management and leadership field instead of research. But I keep in mind to create a research track for the people following me.”

CHALLENGES 

Much has been said about how women in science have it tougher. But Mazlan has never felt discriminated against as a woman.

“Girls generally think that as a career, science is more difficult. There are a lot more sacrifices when you pursue science subjects. When you do research, there are no standard working hours. Researchers could be working up till two or three in the morning on an experiment or when they are writing a paper with a deadline, they work all night. This puts a spanner in the works — how do you cook dinner and put the children to bed?

 “There are sacrifices and women are quite well aware of this and they choose their careers accordingly. There are many exciting career prospects in science.”

For women to do well in the field of science, they need supporters — not just a coach to guide them to write papers for journals and proposals for research grants or mentors for their careers. Women need sponsors such as a dean or head of department who gives them opportunities.

“We have two problems: one is the lateral glass, and the other, the glass ceiling. To be promoted, one would have to have wide experience such as that of the head of department or a lab. Many missed out on the position of a dean because they didn’t have lateral experience. You must show your talents in different fields. You must not only be a good scientist, you must also be a good administrator. Sometimes women are denied, not upwardly but laterally.

“And we have to work towards rectifying that and take on any challenge.”

That said, Mazlan cautioned women scientists to be careful of the “glass cliff” — a difficult task with 90 per cent chance of failure. “You have to learn to assess the cliffs. Of course, it is a challenge. I jumped off some cliffs but be careful which cliff you jump from. Once you have done that, there’s no more glass ceiling.”

Now that there are more women in science, Mazlan said that they will be winning more Nobel prizes in a decade although none won in the scientific fields this year. “The winners are getting rewarded for their work which they embarked on 40 years ago when women were new to the field.”

MOVING ON 

When Mazlan retired two years ago, she decided it was time to reinvent herself.

“I decided that I didn’t want to stick to space as a field though I would still want to be in it. Space is a part of the bigger field of science and technology.

“And that’s why I came back as the Academy of Sciences Mega Science 3.0 project director as it involves all the sciences and I wanted to see where space fits in.

“And I have the opportunity to do a forecast for 2050. I have to look beyond space towards artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and neurotechnology. Everything is new and I love it,” she said.

Having headed the panel of judges for the 2016 L’orèal-Unesco for Women in Science Award, Mazlan has this to say to young women scientists: “For these ladies (award recipients), they have to become international scientists. They know they cannot be jaguh kampung. Science is a global endeavour. They are all fighting to be published in international journals. So the way to go is to attend international conferences, get involved in other groups overseas. We cannot pursue science in isolation. So, for them, going international is a no-brainer — they have to do it.”

Then there is also the management and leadership aspect.

“Sometimes people think there is less reason to go international in this area. If you are a dean, why should you refer to other deans for instance? But you learn a lot from other people’s experience.”

 And her advice for the younger generation: “Do not stay in one place. If you only have one job, you have to explore your inner self in full. If you are in the academic field, you can make time to do something else as well.

“I always move to where I can give my best contribution. You can contribute in many ways in your niche areas.”

The greatest reward for Mazlan is delivering on her promise to younger people to help them in their career, especially in terms of financing.

“If you have a good idea, I will find the money. Ideas are important and as a senior in this field, financing is my concern.”

 Mazlan Othman (second from right) with the 2016 L’orèal-Unesco for Women in Science Award winners (from left) Nethia Mohana Kumaran, Fatehah Mohd Omar and Reena Rajasuriar. 

AT THE FOREFRONT 

THREE women scientists were honoured with the 2016 L’orèal-Unesco for Women in Science Award recently.

They are Dr Fatehah Mohd Omar, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) School of Civil Engineering for her research on wastewater treatment for palm oil industries; Dr Nethia Mohana Kumaran, a senior lecturer at USM’s School of Biological Sciences for her research on a customised treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer; and Dr Reena Rajasuriar, a lecturer at University of Malaya’s Faculty of Medicine for her research on unlocking the code of immunological ageing process.

Fatehah’s goal is to retain a clean water environment for the ecosystem and ultimately for the human living environment so that Malaysia will one day achieve a green culture similar to developed nations such as European countries and Japan.

“The aim is to understand the behaviour of wastewater in terms of surface charge and particle size so we can provide insightful data that is concrete and reliable to develop a long-term solution. I’m looking at suspended solids in palm oil mill effluents that are inevitably released in water courses even after extensive treatment,” she said.

Ultimately her research findings can be applied to other industries to filter clean water into the eco-system.

Fatehah attributed her passion for science to her mother who is a biochemist and her father, a chemical engineer. “Persistency and consistency are key to success. Be respectful and modest, for knowledge is gained even from the smallest lessons,” she said.

Nethia’s research, meanwhile, is inspired by her interest in cancer biology. She has delved deeper into understanding how normal cells became cancerous.

“Upon completing my postgraduate studies in the University of Sydney, I realised that there isn’t much done in the area of nasopharyngeal cancer therapeutics as most treatments work on the concept of one-size-fits-all. My research challenges this norm and I’m finding a solution to treat every cancer as an individual entity.

“As nasopharyngeal cancer cells are addicted to certain pro-survival protein, my research focuses on identifying the proteins and inhibiting them with drugs known as BH3-mimetics. My vision is to personalise BH3-mimetics so that we can offer more effective, customised treatments and save more lives,” she said.

Blessed with a supportive family, science, Nethia said, is her calling as it instils a love for learning.

For Reena, her school teacher mother played an important role in moulding her scientific career. She was encouraged to ask questions from young.

This quest for answers led her to pursue a different career path. “I didn’t become a researcher in a linear path. I started my career as a clinical pharmacist and became a lecturer in this field. My interest was infectious diseases and HIV, and my work in this area as a pharmacist led me to many unanswered questions and a subsequent pursuit of a PhD in the field of immunology.

“I observed that many of the health issues faced by young adult HIV and cancer survivors resembled those experienced by the elderly. This sparked an interest to explore the role of the immune system in ageing.”


Reena said her work is focused on how stress alters the immune system and impacts the process of ageing.



An annual event, the L’orèal-Unesco for Women in Science Award gives each recipient a RM30,000 grant to help pursue research. Some 139 scientists from various fields applied for the award this year.

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