Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan’s career choice in science communication wasn’t always clear, especially in the beginning. Upon making the switch from corporate to working at a not-for-profit organisation, she was exposed to the importance of communication and why it is crucial for the often complicated subject of science to be translated and understood by those it matters most to – students, teachers, scientists, and even policy makers and regulators. She feels that it is important for the world to know how science-based policies are developed. “Until today, there is a big void in Malaysia,” says Dr Mahaletchumy. With emerging technologies such as gene drives, gene editing and synthetic biology, complicated and advanced sciences have to be deciphered and simplified for people to understand.
In Malaysia, mainstream newspapers tend not to publish science-related stories on front pages due to the lack of good stories, as well as many scientists are not able to explain their research in a way that can capture the public’s imagination. Inspired by popular science publications such as Scientific American and National Geographic, coupled with her love of science, it fuelled her to create a medium for anyone untrained in science to be able to understand the works of many scientists. The result was the founding of Southeast Asia’s first science newspaper The Petri Dish, shedding light on the hottest and latest in science, from new discoveries to the hows and whats, through intriguing story telling.
The inclination to nurture, assist and guide those in need stems from her own arduous journey as a trained scientist and woman in STEM. Where previously there was a lack of awareness among scientists to engage the society and stakeholders, today, scientific research in general suffers from insufficient funding from investors and the government, the research priority being mostly ad hoc, and the lack of in-depth and sustainable training programmes to commercialise research. On top of those, the executive director of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre and global coordinator of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications has to juggle between responsibilities as a science communicator and a mother of two young adults.
Sacrifices had to be made, she admits, especially early on in her and her husband’s careers. But she believes there is no shortcut to success, there is only merit despite the odds. “While we are fighting for gender equality, from a different angle, we want the right women to be in the right positions. Successful women, women who work really hard and are there by merit,” Dr Mahaletchumy says with conviction, adding that there is still much to be done to combat gender bias and to promote equality in the workforce.
Discrimination remains an issue in the fields of science. Given that and the societal stereotype that science “must have been a man’s job,” Dr Mahaletchumy says, women scientists often get discredited in their research and further nudged into the shadows partly due to their bashfulness.
To overcome this, she sees mentorship as an important part in making women scientists more emboldened and encouraging more young women to take up science as a viable career choice. “We need mentors – strong women, women who went through the journey, who have failed and then succeeded. We need them to share how they managed to manoeuvre their way to become who they are now. They can lead other women,” she says, adding that more idol and celebrity scientists, enhance the appeal of science, are also needed as role models to the younger generation.
One way to influence the future generation of female scientists is through social media. She opines that social media is an effective tool that can be used to reach out to a wider audience. Instead of hosting seminars, which can be quite exclusive, information can be disseminated through social media channels.
I use social media to talk about my journey, what I do and hopefully I can make an impact so that other women and girls can be inspired by taking up science.Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan
The many gaps in the science field such as bridging science and society, obtaining the best policies and regulations and getting key decision makers to understand science, especially biotechnology, continue to motivate her to strive for the betterment of the science community. “Biotechnology plays a big role, yet many governments are not fully supportive because they feel that it is a risky thing due to their unfounded fears and misunderstanding of the science,” she says, explaining that biotechnology could prove to be vital in curbing climate change and enhancing food security – areas she is also passionate about.
At the same time, she also plays key international roles in advocating the adoption of science-based regulations and policies to ensure food security, sustainable development, youth employments in bioindustry and women empowerment. She also actively engages with students to create a new generation of Malaysia who are future-proofed to brace disruptive technologies.
Dr Mahaletchumy believes in freedom of operation and inclusivity whilst bringing awareness to the bigger mandate – getting science to the public and ensuring that the science and biotechnology industries thrive. “When people understand the main mandate, even if they are given a smaller role, they will understand how that small role fits into the bigger picture,” she explains. “They also tend to explore outside of the box and come up with ideas instead of doing the one task they are given and not knowing where it fits in.”
Going forward, Dr Mahaletchumy will introduce science to an even younger audience – children. So far, their coding workshops have been well received by the young participants and their parents. “They were excited,” she continues, “many people are looking for this sort of skill because it is going to be important in the future, a core skill for any professional.” Furthermore, she has plans to promote origami as the Japanese art of paper folding helps build the thought process and can be applied in a number of industries such as airbag manufacturing and satellites in the aerospace industry. She also reveals that they have a new module in the works, which involves combining coding with biotechnology. “It is a unique combination and I like it because both are futuristic technologies that will shake up the world.”