Emerita Prof Datuk Seri Dr Mazlan Othman is not one to focus on the small things. “My field is astronomy,” she says. “We only look at the big things. We look to becoming an interplanetary species, which is seen in a civilisation context. We don’t even talk as a race or a nation. As far as astronomers are concerned, we are looking at civilisational impact.”
Malaysia’s first astrophysicist describes her field in romantic terms. Astronomy, she says, is something you can look at from a personal level but it is also something that can be looked at on an ideological and philosophical level. Her description gives us an inkling of her first love – English literature.
“I wanted to do Literature but my teachers encouraged me to do science by presenting a very simple argument which I couldn’t really argue with,” she recalls. “The nation (this was in the 1960s) needed scientists they said.”
I remark that it is strange that it is something we still hear today, 60 years later.
“But that makes it very obvious that it is science and technology that is driving development; it is science and technology that is driving society and it is science and technology that drives a civilisation.”
Dr Mazlan received her PhD in astrophysics from the University of Otago, New Zealand. Upon her return to Malaysia she led the creation of the astrophysics programme at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, before being appointed professor of astrophysics in 1994.
An irony, perhaps, for someone who only discovered astronomy while at university. Astronomy, she found, also encapsulated elements of philosophy and the arts, which she had initially wanted to pursue.
“Nothing is solved in astronomy,” she says. “There are a lot of mysteries. That’s what made me decide between astrophysics and say, nuclear physics.”
In 1990, Dr Mazlan was seconded to the Prime Minister’s Department as its first director-general of the Space Science Studies Division. While there she spearheaded the establishment of the National Planetarium as well as led the creation of Malaysia’s first remote-sensing satellite, TiungSAT-1, which was launched in 2000.
From there, she took on the post of director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna. Two years later, Mazlan returned to Malaysia to set up the National Space Agency (ANGKASA). Part of her task as its first director-general was to develop the Angkasawan Programme which resulted in the first Malaysian going to space.
She attributes much of her accomplishments to former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his visionary stance towards the study of space.
“My career was made by Tun Mahathir,” she says, adding “I hope history will place him rightly in the context of recent events. I have lots of experience working with him. He is a slave driver.”
“Mahathir decided how he wanted to shape astronomy and space in this country and he pushed me all the way.”
But challenges emerged after he left office, leaving Dr Mazlan disillusioned. The Angkasawan Programme, she believes, diverted from its original intention.
“I left quite broken hearted,” she states.
And so she resumed her position once again at UNOOSA in 2007, the same year that Malaysia sent the first astronaut to space. In 2009, Dr Mazlan assumed the position of deputy director-general of the United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV), before retiring in 2013.
That appointment, she says, using a metaphor, was like being in “Shangri-La.”
I was pretty much left on my own to decide things.Dr Mazlan Othman
At present, Dr Mazlan is the director of the regional office for the International Science Council, an international non-governmental organisation that unites bodies at various levels across the social and natural sciences.
Her mission now is to try to integrate the two seemingly separate disciplines of the arts and sciences.
“I never saw my life like that,” she says, referring to the dichotomy between both disciplines. “I hope to start a movement and hopefully young people will see that you don’t have to separate the arts from the sciences.”
As would be expected of someone who studies the stars, Dr Mazlan believes in fate, attributing her rise in the field as something “that just fell into place.” She does, however, admit to being quite ambitious. At the time, she didn’t realise she was but upon reflection she says it was quite the opposite. But it was a different kind of ambition. It wasn’t about getting ahead, rather it was always about breaking new ground.
“I wanted to do things that are different,” she says.
While she was often the only woman in the room for much of her career, Dr Mazlan says she never really felt any sexism. Perhaps, because she was quite “impervious to it.” But again, looking back, she felt it must have been there, just that it wasn’t something she was conscious of at the time.
Looking back I think if I was a guy I would have been better recognised. If I was a guy, they would have embraced me much faster.Dr Mazlan Othman
Regardless, Dr Mazlan continues to be focused on developing the concept of “arts- science.” She has even used her own funds to start an endowment fund to support work in this area.
“My life story is not finished yet,” she asserts.
While of late the talk seems centred on technology than science, Dr Mazlan reminds that it is science that drives that knowledge.
“If there is no science then there is no new technology, then we will all be stuck.”
For many, the relevance of astronomy may not seem obvious. But Dr Mazlan reminds that each time we look at our watch or check the date, we are beholden to the work of astronomers.
“The answer we are looking for in the story of astrophysics is the creation of the universe,” reminds Dr Mazlan. “How was the universe created and how will the universe end? The why – we are not answering. People don’t even know that when you look at your watch, historically it boils down to the work of astronomers but today you take it for granted.”