Science & Technology

Prof. Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail

Malaysian Academic & Molecular Biologist

Dignified, articulate and professorial — these are just some of the traits that define Prof. Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail. Among her accolades, she is the first woman to be appointed twice as the vice-chancellor (VC) of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM). Furthermore, she served as the first female director-general of the Higher Education Department and went on to become the first female president of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM). There, she champions policy reforms which will positively impact the science community while hoping to reshape attitudes towards “impactful research” – research that makes effective use of government and publicly funded grants, translating academic efforts into real-world solutions to real-world problems. 

With a career that speaks volumes of her passion, it is difficult not to imagine Dr. Asma was always focused on a career in science, but this was not the case. “I’ve actually always been interested in the arts. I always wanted to be a lawyer or an interior decorator, but I was good in science,” she shares with a knowing smile. “I think my father straightened me out when I was in form 4 or form 5. He said that ‘the future is science’, and in retrospect now, I find that science, technology and innovation drive the economy and the future of the country.” She is firm, however, on the symbiosis of the arts and science, saying “you need the combination of the arts and social science to actually give science the face of humanity.” 

An animal lover by nature, she describes her decision to pursue microbiology was made easier by the fact that she would not have to kill host subjects simply to observe virus progression. With bacteria, motivation was fast ignited. “I can grow it without any qualms, it grows quickly, and I can oversee the experiments during my lifetime and I can accomplish things during my lifetime,” she says. As part of her accomplishments, she became the first woman to identify the protein that would diagnose for S. Typhi, the positive agent for typhoid. Consequently, she was able to commercialise four rapid diagnostic kits for typhoid, better known as Typhidot, which is advocated by the World Health Organization and used globally today. With a total of 13 patents to her name, her success is no small feat left to chance but the result of unwavering drive. 

She acknowledges that the support of her family is critical in offering peace of mind, allowing her to dedicate long hours to research. She also describes her husband and fellow scientist Prof. Datuk Dr. Ahmad Zakaria as the wind beneath her wings. “You’re vulnerable to the one you love,” she comments, with hope for women to sit up and take note. “If they clip your wings, you can’t fly.” Filled with gratitude, she understands her position of privilege, “When you have that kind of support, failure is not an option, because not many of us get that kind of support and if you do have that opportunity, do the best that you can.” 

When asked about the performance of women in science in the nation, Dr. Asma is quick to cite a 2015 study by The Association of Academies and Societies in Asia which indicates that women make up more than half of the undergraduate students in science and technology. The same study details that women accounted for 63.6 per cent of all university enrolments in 2014, with a total of 22,456 (51.9 per cent) women in science and engineering, 64.8 per cent of women in science/computing majors and 44.5 per cent of women in engineering. The figures drop in graduate school, with 43 per cent of PhD students in science and technology made up of women. “There is a leaky pipeline,” she agrees while positing that the pressure women face to juggle a work-life balance is an astronomical factor in the decline of women ascending to become principal investigators and leaders within their fields. “When you’re taking care of the family, you’re torn from paying attention to what’s going on in the lab,” she explains, adding “in the end, something has got to give.”

She sees her students as her own children. 

“They call me mama,” she smiles broadly at the thought of her former students, numbering 32,000 in USM and 12,000 in USIM respectively. While she co-helmed the writing of the blueprint of higher education which is still used today, she confesses that “at the national level, I couldn’t change things very much – so that’s why I went back to become the VC of USM.” 

When you have that kind of support (from loved ones), failure is not an option, because not many of us get that kind of support and if you do have that opportunity, do the best that you can.

Prof. Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail

Among her efforts were building a global village by mixing locals with foreigners to promote networking between students across 73 nationalities at USM. Emphasising that data is the new oil, she hopes to push Malaysia towards a knowledge-based economy. “If you are a parent once, you do not discard the child. My job now is to ensure that the environment is there as president of ASM, to make sure that the environment is conducive for these future talents.” 

As ASM is set to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2020, Dr. Asma hopes to continue to encourage a new model of conducting research in the nation by making use of the quadruple helix model, an innovation system that combines engagement between the government, academia, industry and civil society. It is crucial, she believes, for researchers to stay in touch with the masses and to engage public interest, to ensure grants contribute to impactful research, and academics have greater focus on converting “output into outcomes.” 

Through programmes like I-Connect and the ArtScience Initiative, she hopes to further develop the Malaysian Open Science Platform. “The future is about the sharing of data,” she says while adding, “for artificial intelligence to now be able to connect and collate all the data around the world, you can do really good science because what you think is novel may no longer be novel. I look forward to that future, hopefully it happens during my lifetime.” 


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