Dr Sarena Che Omar is making waves in Malaysia’s agriculture industry. A senior research associate at the Khazanah Research Institute, her areas of interest include developing policies surrounding food, farming and sustainable practices within the industry. Sarena was a Yayasan Khazanah scholar at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, where she earned her PhD in Plant Science. Her doctoral thesis employed genetic technologies to explore fungal disease control in rice, the world’s most important food crop.
Presently, Sarena’s work contributes to the short-, medium-, and long-term food security planning for Malaysia. “I am proud to be able to educate the public on the importance of achieving food security and building a sense of respect for the agriculture and food industry,” Sarena says.
At the height of the Covid-19 crisis, Sarena was a voice of reason in reassuring concerned citizens of the nation’s capacity to feed the populace. She emphasised that the issue was not in food production but the transportation and distribution of agricultural products during the Movement Control Order owing to labour shortages.
The pandemic exposed weaknesses of the food supply chain during times of crisis. It also highlighted the importance of the work researchers like Sarena have committed to, dedicating effort to mitigate food wastage and securing the nation’s future in one of our most basic needs.
Sarena continues to press for increased government expenditure on agricultural research and development. She also advocates for more engagement of the private sector in the agriculture industry to help the nation reach its full potential as an exporter of local fruits and vegetables.
Although agriculture is a male-dominated industry in Malaysia, Sarena reveals it is also one of the most egalitarian. “Based on my personal experiences engaging farmers and businessmen in the agri-food sector, I have never felt unwelcome or taken for granted. It has always been a good experience. In the research arena, women are well represented, and I am very proud of this,” the Prestige 40 Under 40 alumna shares.
The young researcher indicates that to be successful in any field, setting the right mindset is crucial. “My mindset is that I want recognition for the quality of my work and experience, not my gender, ethnicity or any other form of segregation. This mindset has pushed me further forward without having to pause to worry about societal expectations, perceptions or glass ceilings,” Sarena admits.
A tip is not to think of yourself as male or female, young or old, Malay or Chinese. Think of yourself as an individual, branded by your name. In my case, I see myself as Sarena Che Omar, a person with unique qualities.Dr Sarena Che Omar
“When you do this, your body language and demeanour speak of confidence and not division,” she asserts.
While gender parity in many fields is far from equal, Sarena encourages women to abandon reflecting on being a minority to avoid fixating on being at a disadvantage. “Thinking this way affects the impression you leave, which will then impact how others in a male-dominated environment treat you in return. In short, I feel that to be a successful person, you have to move away from social categorisations and focus instead on career performance objectively.”
When it comes to role models, Sarena looks up to one woman above all others – her mother. “She was an adopted child with a challenging upbringing. One day in her youth, her adoptive father asked her what her ambition was. My mother told him that she wanted to be a nurse,” she shares, revealing her grandfather agreed to sponsor her mother on one condition. “He told her he would sponsor her studies to become a nurse, but she would not stop there. He told her she would become Professor Dr Rohani Arshad. My young mum was puzzled,” Sarena reveals. “Nurses can’t become doctors, my mother thought. Yet many years after her father’s passing, my mother achieved that dream. She is one of Malaysia’s first nurses to have a doctorate and spearheaded nursing degrees and postgraduate studies in Malaysia. She is the nation’s heroine in my eyes.”