Head of Technology & CEO of Petronas Research
Hailing from humble beginnings, Dr Shahidah Mohd Shariff’s interest in science and technology only developed at a later stage in life. Her adolescent days were filled with a fulfilling childhood, growing up alongside 10 siblings in a plantation located in Batu Pahat, Johor. A daughter to a clerk and a homemaker, she was the fortunate one to receive formal education at a school in town. “My parents recognised that education was important and that’s how I started developing myself,” shares the current CEO of Petronas Research.
Upon completing her secondary education at Tunku Kurshiah College, Dr Shahidah secured a Petronas scholarship to pursue Australian matriculation at Queensland University of Technology. “I wasn’t really interested in science then,” she candidly reveals. As the first year of her university degree required her to accumulate more credit in science, she decided to enrol in chemistry, thus begin an unexpected love affair with the subject. She excelled in her first year and subsequently graduated with a bachelor’s degree of applied science in applied chemistry in 1986 before returning home to Malaysia to serve in the lab services department in Petronas in 1987.
As a junior chemist, she was tasked to conduct crude oil analysis and develop crude oil characterisation. After a five-year stint, she received another opportunity to further her studies in the United Kingdom to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry but converted the same project to PhD level. She returned home with a PhD in chemistry from the University of Leeds. Throughout her adolescent years of growing up away from home, she maintained a strong bond with her siblings. “I lost my mother when I was only 15 so I relied on my siblings, who became my pillar of strength and guidance. I lived a life surrounded by my siblings’ love,” she shares.
Even after 30 years with Petronas, life has never been dull for Dr Shahidah as each day revolves around exploring new opportunities. “I was a chemist, then I learned to become a researcher. I had the opportunity to be head of department and subsequently account manager, where I learned to manage business transactions. I also headed the technology management department and now I’m back in Petronas research,” she recalls her career path.
As the CEO of Petronas Research and head of technology research, group research and technology, each day poses a different scenario and challenge for her. “My role is to make sure that we offer technology to Petronas by maturing it from R&D right down to deployment, testing it at different fields so that one day we can commercialise the technology. Every day is about making sure things are in order and on schedule. Our funding comes from various businesses so gone are the days where technology R&D required 10 to 15 years to develop. We got to really push fast so we can get to the market faster than any of our competitors,” says Dr Shahidah, who also manages 500 researchers under her arm.
A respected figure with many accolades, she recounts several momentous achievements as part of her career highlights. She was the first Malaysian female to be awarded Fellow of Industrial and Engineering Chemical Division by the American Chemical Society International in 2018. “Being awarded in America and attending the American Chemical Society Forum, which was organised to commemorate my achievement, is definitely a memorable moment as I brought Petronas’ name to the world,” she remarks with pride. Two years ago she was also conferred an honorary doctorate by Queen’s University Belfast based on her 10-year collaborative partnership in developing the industry side of chemistry to commercialisation. “I never got to attend any of my previous graduation ceremonies so this was a first for me as I attended my first graduation together with my family. I was also invited to speak to the graduates at the ceremony and I realised I have reached the pinnacle of my career,” says the mother of four, who also deems her children as an achievement.
When it comes to gender bias in the workplace, Dr Shahidah emphasises that everyone is treated based on individual performance. “When it comes to scientists and researchers, I see more women climbing up the ladder compared to men. Currently, we have a ratio of 65 per cent males and 35 per cent females in the research department. We see many of them being recognised at an international level and I believe anyone can excel based on performance,” she states firmly.
Being a female in a leadership position, it is all about delivering results to achieve that level of success. Whatever you do, think about the end results and push towards that.Dr Shahidah Mohd Shariff
Having achieved success and recognition at this point in her career, Dr Shahidah believes it is time to give back and is currently holding an advisory role in the Petronas Leading Women Network. “We see a lot of young women who have to leave their career paths even when they are on the rise because of family and children. I feel the need to contribute by coaching them, checking in with them over coffee or tea as it may help them to rethink their decision. Last year, I was also given the chance to share my experience during the Global Women’s Leadership Forum in Houston. That was interesting because I realised through the forum that there are thousands of women in the same boat.” Being a female in a leadership position, she says it is all about delivering results to achieve that level of success. “Whatever you do, think about the end results and push towards that.”
As for her message to women this International Women’s Day, she says, “To all the women out there, I personally do not believe that there is any barrier that can stop us from achieving our dreams. Every little barrier in front of us can be overcome by looking at it positively. Whenever we start creating reasons, these are the things that will push us down so think positive, move forward and if you have a dream no matter how small, push for it.”