Category: Science & Technology

Prof. Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail

Prof. Datuk Dr. Asma Ismail

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.” 

Wan Nadiah

Wan Nadiah Prestige Women

There is a joke that Wan Nadiah often tells thanks to her husband; one that revolves around how she is a triple minority – a young, female, Malay CEO serving in a non-GLC company. “I have come to embrace being different,” she states as a matter of fact. More often than not, the CEO of Thomson Hospital Kota Damansara and group CEO of TMC Life Sciences finds herself the youngest in the boardroom and rather unconventional as compared to the rest. “People usually focus on that the first time they see me in the boardroom. But with that difference sometimes comes the power to be heard and then the question becomes, are you using that opportunity wisely to put the attention on the right things?” Nadiah asserts. 

For a young leader, Nadiah’s resume reads like a dream. The CEO names Harvard University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine as her alma mater. Prior to completing her master’s degree in public health nutrition, she had a two-year stint in Boston Consulting Group where she was constantly working on projects related to life sciences. Her first foray into the corporate world proved to be an eye-opening experience after spending four years in the lab researching on rotavirus and molecular biology. 

Instead of opting for the conventional choice to pursue an MBA, public health called out to her. “It is a discipline that is underappreciated and is a subject close to my heart, in particular with rising obesity and diabetes. Nutrition is an area that would definitely be a focus in the future,” Nadiah reasons, citing how people often make the mistake of making decisions on things based on the experience they have had as individuals rather than looking at a system or population level. “Studying public health really made me appreciate the difference in deciding matters of policy for a population versus interventions at an individual level.” 

When she left the multinational Boston Consulting Group to join Sunway Group as manager, strategy and corporate development in 2010, she was called out for making such a crazy decision. “I was motivated by the challenge of learning the nuts and bolts of managing a company, something you don’t get in consulting,” she explains. During her tenure at Sunway Group, she climbed up the ranks and was promoted to chief operating officer before taking on a new role and responsibility at Thomson Hospital. 

According to Nadiah, healthcare is by nature very risk averse because consequences of mistakes can be deadly. “At the same time, it is a field that is ripe for transformation. Modern concepts in business like design thinking, performance marketing and even CRM/ERP (customer relationship management/enterprise resource planning) integration are still underdeveloped in Malaysia’s healthcare industry.” As group CEO of TMC Life Sciences, Nadiah asserts that she is confident in leading the group to face disruptions including climate change, digital banking and geopolitical issues, among others. 

Value-based care including enhancing the overall value of the healthcare experience for patients is also one aspect Nadiah aims to improve. “We are not just interested in having one-off transactions with our customers when they are admitted to our hospital. Rather, we are looking at the value of a lifelong relationship with our customers as they journey from starting a family, perhaps with TMC Fertility, to preventive lifestyle changes, with our health screening centre of Thomson TCM and if they fall ill, Thomson Hospital will provide all the comprehensive services they need.” She has also led the launch of several programmes such as the Positive Outlook Programme (POP) to train staff on the frontlines to embody the values they represent. Like many businesses, technology is also another aspect they are looking at to enhance the patient’s experience. 

We are not just interested in having one-off transactions with our customers when they are admitted to our hospital. Rather, we are looking at the value of a lifelong relationship with our customers as they journey from starting a family

Wan Nadiah

She names her proudest moment when staff come up to her and say how much they appreciate working with her and how they have come to see the different possibilities in how they can implement positive change in healthcare. “Fundamentally, I’m passionate about people and that translates to a passion for coaching a team to achieve things we never thought we could achieve. I am constantly amazed at what a team of people can do if they put their minds to it. I have had nurses innovate an IT system to reduce stock variance. I have had pharmacists set up a marketplace for employees to purchase drugs and a MedEx system to provide drive- through prescriptions for patients. Innovation can happen anywhere by anyone and I feel proud to be part of a culture that allows that to happen, especially in healthcare,” Nadiah remarks. 

Her innate curiosity and fascination with how things worked – cause and effect, are traits that first cultivated her interest in science. Young Nadiah’s pride and joy includes a home library with her encyclopaedia set among other books which she would often read on her bed after coming home from school. “Biology in particular was even more fascinating because it seemed like it was also written in an entirely different language. It made something so mundane – like the human cell – appear almost like a magical, complex tool filled with mysterious signs and symbols. I drew anatomical figures and plastered them on my wall. I had a toy microscope with sufficient amplification to examine all sorts of things. I also had a model skull on my desk called Yorick which I liked to disassemble while trying to name the appropriate parts. Looking back, I think it’s precious to have that amount of curiosity and verve for something,” reminisces Nadiah, the eldest of three siblings. 

Though the majority of the workforce in healthcare comprises predominantly females, the young CEO points out that the situation changes at the board level. There are far fewer female directors in listed healthcare companies and according to Nadiah, this should change as the employees and customers of these hospitals are mostly females and the board should rightly reflect this diversity. Another issue she frequently faces revolves around her age as the challenge is to get people to take her seriously.

The question is, how are we as a society willing to change our attitudes in terms of power distance relationships with young women?

Wan Nadiah

For Nadiah, the world is changing and disruptive innovations today open up opportunities for women in other specialties to cross over and lead companies in traditionally male-dominated arenas. “Just as in the past, young, black women were the engine behind computing maths in NASA, tomorrow, young, Asian women could be driving the development of entirely new parts of the economy. There is no dearth of opportunity but there may be challenges in terms of supporting women, especially young women. And people like ex-NASA scientist Dr Amani Salim have spoken out on the subject. The question is, how are we as a society willing to change our attitudes in terms of power distance relationships with young women?” 

Dr Shahidah Mohd Shariff

Dr Shahidah Mohd Shariff

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.” 

Surina Shukri

Surina Shukri

“It’s my call to action, my national service,” enthuses Surina Shukri, revealing the reason for her return to Malaysia to take up the position as CEO of Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC). Since leaving her homeland years ago, Surina has forged a career on Wall Street, working at one of the world’s most prestigious banks and helping its clients to improve their businesses. Her final role with JP Morgan Chase was head of strategy, business management and innovation, middle market banking and specialised industries. It was during her time in New York that she bore witness to the changing dynamics of commerce and banking to become increasingly technology driven. In the months after her departure from the bank, she became an entrepreneur herself, trading a stable job for a transformation and growth venture studio of her own founding – SheNovation Ventures – focusing on fintech and blockchain start-ups. 

Then a call from the Malaysian government altered the path of her life. “When I look back and reflect on all the things that I have done, I feel like the universe has prepared me for this role,” she adds, “so to me when I got the call, it was a no-brainer.” 

She left behind a career and friends in New York, with the dark cloud of living away from her husband and children hanging over her head, to give her all to help build a robust digital economy for Malaysia. Established in 1996, MDEC is a government agency tasked to lead the nation’s digital economy. 

“In the early days, it was all about building up the supply side of the equation; it was all about building tech companies. But today, technology has moved from vertical to horizontal,” Surina says, explaining that the focus is not just on growing a tech company but also shifted to drive a wider digital adoption among existing businesses. 

“Everything that we do can be boiled down to three core strategic pillars. Number one, in order to build a robust digital economy, you need skilled Malaysians. We have a big, robust agenda around skilling – schools, colleges, universities and the workforce itself. When you think about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the best tech infrastructure you build isn’t going to go very far, if you don’t have skilled Malaysians attending to that. 

“The second one is unique digitally empowered businesses; you need businesses to adopt digital as well. While we continue the work that we do to build up our tech champions and make sure that they are competitive, not just in Malaysia but also in the region and globally, we are also doing digital adoption with SMEs. If you do this right, investment will start to come into the country. 

“Hence, investment is the third pillar. Investment isn’t just about getting foreign direct investment; it is also about getting people to continuously invest in digitalisation.” 

Surina adds that businesses should adopt technology just like society has made electricity an indispensable part of life. Thus far, she is heartened by Malaysian businesses’ cognisance of the importance of digitalisation and they have been swift to participate in MDEC’s engagement programmes when opportunities arise. Citing an example which was an e-commerce sharing session held in July last year, MDEC had anticipated the attendance of around 200 SMEs, but the agency received 400 in RSVP. On the day of the event, people who showed up had ballooned to 700 and the venue had to be moved to the office of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in order to accommodate all of them. Similarly, another event targeted at SMEs in December saw 2,200 attendees, outstripping the anticipation of 1,000 people. 

“It goes to show that there is momentum and SMEs understand the need to adopt and they are ready. Now, they are looking for ‘how- tos’ and this is where we come in. Through the advocacy work to raise interest and awareness, now we are rolling out programmes to help SMEs along the way,” she says, adding to incentivise them further as allocated in Budget 2020, eligible SMEs may receive matching grants of up to RM5,000 for their adoption of digitalisation in their daily operations. 

“Being digital is, a way to be better, faster and cheaper. Ultimately, it makes you more competitive.” 

Surina Shukri

It has been over a year since Surina has taken up the position as CEO, so how does she rate their own performance? 

“From an organisation’s standpoint, I think so far, so good. We have established the importance of digitalisation. Secondly, I think every single person at MDEC is clear on what the mission actually is. We are building teams that work cross functional and cross divisional, and we are pushing ourselves to always do better. Today, our role as a thought partner with the private sector and the public sector is clear,” she answers with candour. 

“To me, the most important thing is to make sure that all of us at MDEC and our partners are passionate about what we are doing because we think it is the right thing to do. We are really here to help shape the country.” 

With the ease of access to the technological sphere these days, particularly the start-up scene, one wonders if gender disparity still exists. Surina, who is armed with a wealth of experience in supporting and elevating women in leadership development especially in high-impact sectors such as tech, may just be the perfect person to provide clarity. When I pose her the question are women still at a disadvantage, her response is somewhat proverbial, “Are you a glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of person? 

“From my standpoint, I am actually quite encouraged by the momentum that we are seeing. Many people don’t know this, but Startup Genome did a ranking of different start-up ecosystems across the world, and we (Malaysia) were ranked in the top three in friendliness from a start-up’s standpoint – like for female founders. 

“It is primarily because there are a lot of people that are interested and that makes it easy to start a business over here. There are still challenges, of course, like biasness in fund raising. But I think institutionally, there is a lot of momentum and we are beginning to see more role models and success stories.” 

Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

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.” 

Lovy Beh

Lovy Beh

“Not everyone gets to enjoy applying what they have learnt at university in their daily life,” Lovy Beh says with a twinkle in her eyes. A graduate of University College London’s School of Pharmacy, she is a registered pharmacist in the United Kingdom, Singapore and Malaysia. More notably, she is also the first female president of the Malaysian Community Pharmacy Guild (MCPG). Yet, the path to her true calling wasn’t always straight forward. 

“My interests after my A-level studies were actually in business and music,” she recounts, “but my father encouraged me to consider a career that would give me a good return on investment.” Deciding that she had always been more of the studious type, Lovy applied herself to the field of science. She cites the experience of her elder cousins, who offered her some insights into a career in pharmacology. “They described what a fulfilling job it is and how much you can help others,” she says. 

Helping others has since become Lovy’s raison d’être. Representing over 18,200 pharmacists, including more than 3,000 community pharmacists in the nation, MCPG seeks to promote and protect the interests of pharmaceutical practitioners while advocating for everyday consumers to have access to quality healthcare. 

Dealing with matters of trade and policy making, Lovy is a strong advocate for dispensing separation and seeks to champion the inclusion of pharmacy services in the government’s MySalam National Health Protection Scheme for individuals in the B40 income group. “We want to be seen as healthcare professionals that want to take care of people’s health, and not be viewed simply as drug traders,” she states firmly, determined to change the misinformed perception. 

As the youngest female president of MCPG, she describes the role as anything but a walk in the park when she first took the reins. “I was quite fresh and didn’t know anyone in the industry that well and it takes a lot of effort to get to know people,” she says. Showing grace and dignity in the face of naysayers, Lovy also shares that she grew to earn the respect of those who disagreed with her views by holding true to her principles and showing results for it.

I believe that women are smart, creative, resourceful, strong and powerful and their voices need to be heard. We want to be appreciated and not be discriminated against or insulted just because we are women – especially in higher positions.

Lovy Beh

Having served as chairperson in organising critical conferences like the Pharmacy Revolution 4.0 Summit, the Pharmacy Renaissance Summit and Green Community Pharmacy 2019, Lovy continues to lead MCPG in a progressive direction. On 8 March 2020, MCPG will hold a summit titled Advancing Pharmacists Role – Myths and Facts about Sexual Health and Family Planning. The summit aims to empower pharmacists, doctors, nurses and allied healthcare professionals to help men and women to take control of their sexual health and family planning. 

“We want to debunk the myths that grip our community, because this is a topic that most are shy to discuss,” Lovy acknowledges. She is quick to offer her gratitude towards having the support of Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow and State Exco for Women and Family Development, Gender Inclusiveness and Non-Islamic Religious Affairs Chong Eng who will be the guests of honour at the event. Participating delegates will also be able to earn their Continuous Professional Development (CPD) points, encouraging more healthcare professionals to engage in keeping abreast with developments that would enable them to provide better care for their patients. 

As a woman who has dedicated a significant portion of her professional career to the service of a non-governmental organisation like MCPG, I ask Lovy about the women that have shaped her as a person. Crediting her mother Datin Poh Lay See, Lovy says, “She is a lady of few words but she works very efficiently, can multitask and has always taught us good things”. 

Her voice is full of affection as she recites the credo she lives by, her mother’s favourite biblical verse – owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another. Having learned by example, Lovy says she watched her mother demonstrate great love in the way she cared for her family, late parents and late in-laws. This, Lovy asserts, taught her how to open her heart and share love with those around her without expectation of gaining anything in return. 

She is also forthcoming with her praise for the previous Minister of Energy, Science, Technology Environment and Climate Change Yeo Bee Yin, as a woman worthy of admiration for her zeal and unwavering commitment to put into practice a “spirit of excellence.” It is apparent that Lovy looks up to Yeo who is the youngest female minister in the previous cabinet. Having been acquainted with her for a few years, she describes her as a dynamic person, capable of expediently resolving the issues brought to her attention while successfully maintaining a good work-life balance. 

Sharing the secret to how she keeps her own work-life balance, Lovy reveals her routine, “The first thing I do in the morning is to pray. After that, I look at my timetable and prioritise things.” She acknowledges that it takes support and a collective effort to meet goals. “You have to think about how you delegate to the right committed assistants and leaders that can help you to do certain tasks – or else, you will drown. I have been there before, but we learn from the past and we improve.” 

Lovy advises young women considering a career in healthcare to gain experience through internship. “Go and look at the daily job of a particular pharmacist. Observe them and decide if this is really something that you can spend the rest of your years doing,” she advises. While passion is a quality that Lovy feels is vital for success in the industry, she also discusses the importance of being tenacious in the pursuit of professional development opportunities, as well as to contribute to society someday. 

“I have always believed in giving back. You must have a purpose in your life in how you want to give back to your community and industry.” 

Dr Mazlan Othman

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.” 

Purnima Wijendra

Purnima Wijendra is driving the increase of skilled women in technology in Malaysia and around the region as the co-founder and technical director of TechSprint Academy, an all-women coding school offering education and training to ladies already in the industry or completely new to it. “I believe the school creates a safe space for women to come out of their shell,” she says, noting an intimidating lack of gender parity in the tech industry. “I aspire to close this gender gap and empower women towards financial independence, which will simultaneously contribute to the growth of the economy of the country,” she adds. 

The former civil engineer and data scientist also founded the Kuala Lumpur School of Artificial Intelligence. The non-profit school is geared towards educating those interested in artificial intelligence through monthly coding classes, with close to 3,000 members to date. Roughly 5-10% of participants comprise women eager to join the growing industry. 

Committed to empowering women, Purnima is also the founder and president of Pertubuhan Harapan Wanita, better known as HAWA. The non-profit organisation introduces the digital economy to women in rural areas, single mothers, housewives and even students wanting to kick start their journey in entrepreneurship and gain fiscal independence. 

“Ever since I was a child, I was always attracted to computers, gadgets and technology,” Purnima says. Her love of coding is rooted in an experience shared by many millennials that began in secondary school at the advent of online journaling. “Blogging was such an in-thing, and bloggers were always looking for some fancy designs for their blogs. My sister and I used to build designs using HTML codes from scratch. Through this, we managed to generate income to use as pocket money,” Purnima describes, confessing the pair had not expected to stumble on a profitable hobby.

As I grew older, I realised how tech could revolutionise and positively disrupt everyday lives, and that’s what made me venture into this field. Since then, I have never looked back.

Purnima Wijendra

In 2020, TechSprint introduced the Full Stack Development Bootcamp in collaboration with CodeOp Spain. The intense 15-week course prepares women for a mainstream career in the tech industry as junior developers. Believing that education should be accessible to all, Purnima offered Covid-19 Relief Scholarships in the form of subsidies up to RM4,000 on a range of boot camps. “What I aspire to accomplish is to give women that have been out of the career loop an opportunity to build their skills and confidence to return to the workforce,” she explains. TechSprint also developed the Rebound Career Comeback Programme, giving those facing pandemic-related job losses a chance to reinvent through the pursuit of a new digital livelihood.

Looking at her efforts, Purnima acknowledges that there is much more work to be done in Malaysia. “A few months ago, I was able to meet a group of women in a village in Sabah. They shared with me how they wished for the opportunities we have in Kuala Lumpur so they too can be financially independent. They aren’t looking to be rich – an income of RM600-RM1,000 would be sufficient for them,” the Prestige 40 Under 40 alumna explains. Devastated by their plight, Purnima organised a day course, training the women on using technology to earn an income. 

Education in technology not only positively impacts the suburban workforce but transforms the lives of rural women too. As such, Purnima hopes to foster greater participation from women in rural areas and other states. “The biggest challenge besides the pandemic is encouraging and educating women to try coding. Many women are still intimidated by this field because they still believe it is a male-dominated domain which is tough. But slowly, we are managing to encourage more women to participate,” Purnima confesses, patient in challenging internalised misogyny. 

Having a career in a man’s world can be challenging

Purnima Wijendra

As a self-professed “tech geek” with the occasional bout of impostor syndrome, she found it hard to fit in but was fortunate to build a strong support network over the years. Purnima mentions her best friend Reena, a fellow tech geek and engineer, as a critical source of support, encouragement and inspiration in her life. “When I felt low in my career, Reena was always there to give me a push,” she says. Reena taught Purnima to ignore negative chatter and to walk away from those who make her doubt her self- worth while undervaluing her efforts. 

“I would like to emphasise that it is important for every woman to have a solid support network of like-minded individuals. Those with nothing but good intentions and love for watching each other grow. You don’t need many, but even just one person will make a lot of difference,” Purnima says, sharing one of the secrets to her success. 

Dr. Jezamine Lim Iskander

Stepping into the room armed with a Duchenne smile, Dr Jezamine Lim Iskander is a self-professed people person with the unique ability to pull you into her pace. Without airs and graces, this driven personality lives by the philosophy of her hero Oprah Winfrey – you are responsible for your life. Doing the best at this moment, puts you in the best place for the next moment. 

A graduate of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia with a PhD in stem cells and tissue engineering, Jezamine shares that she was surprised to learn that she was the first female doctorate candidate in the field. But this determined mother of three was not satisfied to set a precedent without having more to show for it. “If you stop your work after six years and think your job is just to publish a journal and graduate with no follow up, it’s going to be a complete waste of time and money.” Being passionate about wanting to see research in healthcare sciences has a real-world impact, she acknowledges, “there has to be a change of mindset in young scientists and researchers that are coming out.” 

Jezamine’s strong views led her down the path of using her own medical and research experience to establish Cell Biopeutics Resources (CBR), a centralised and comprehensive hub for accessing global stem cell therapies on the market. “We will pioneer the frontier of producing, manufacturing and commercialising stem cell-related therapies or products upon successful completion of clinical trials,” she says. CBR aims to deliver mesenchymal stem cell derived treatment options for unmet medical needs such as regenerative diseases and anti-ageing therapeutic therapies. 

Proud of her effort, Jezamine puts into layman’s terms the aesthetic revolution of Cutisera, an anti-ageing skincare product commercialised by her company. “When they (researchers) culture cells, they have a medium. We usually discard this medium,” she says referring to the waste material of cultured human bone marrow stem cells. “These researchers collected this medium and found it contains proteins, growth factors, and something called cytokines in it which are good for your skin.” The first cellular product that’s been approved in 

Malaysia, Cutisera is said to enhance ageing skin by reducing fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots, evening skin tone while improving skin firmness and hydration. Currently sold out worldwide, she is working closely with the biotech company that developed Cutisera to develop a full range of products including cleanser, moisturiser and anti- ageing serum to be released in late September, barring obstacles. 

But beauty is only skin-deep, and Jezamine’s aspirations have always been to make a far more meaningful contribution to society. “I wanted to make a difference in the medical world. I want to serve but there are many ways to do it,” She says she hopes CBR and its collaborative partner will soon be able to proceed to conduct phase 4 clinical trials in Malaysia for the treatment of chronic limb ischaemia due to Buerger’s disease. A type of vasculitis that results in inflammation of small- and medium-sized arteries and veins in hands and feet, the narrowing of these blood vessels can result in damaged skin tissue, and in severe cases lead to gangrene that requires amputation. 

“I think that (giving patients hope) keeps me going,” Jezamine reflects as she points out that money does not drive her motivation. Aware of the enticement of greed in a billion-dollar industry, she has this piece of wisdom to share, “It’s essential to have people surrounding you whose ideals match yours. I would emphasise, only work with people with the same level of integrity, honesty and with strong moral principles. Forming a solid team with an aligned vision is important.” 

Not only is Jezamine invested in her business, but she also continues to serve as managing director of Harith Iskander’s V Day Productions as well as being the co-founder of The Joke Factory, a comedy club that has been operating in Publika Shopping Gallery since August 2018. Divulging that the path forward is not easy, Jezamine looks to the UK and US with respect for their established stand-up comedy culture and compares it to Malaysia. “It’s a new culture we’re starting and it’s a very niche business, and I think I’m driven towards businesses like this.” She confesses to being drawn to the challenge, adding that, “if it’s not going to be challenging, I’m going to get bored.” 

It’s a new culture we’re starting and it’s a very niche business, and I think I’m driven towards businesses like this. If it’s not going to be challenging, I’m going to get bored.

Dr. Jezamine Lim Iskander

A woman wearing many hats, Jezamine is steadfast when she says “my main role here is as a mother. It keeps me composed and grounded. At the end of the day, the reason why we do what we do is because of the children.” Mother to Zander Xayne Iskander, seven; Alessandrea Jayne Iskander, six; and Zydane Xayne Iskander, four, Jezamine is adamant about not letting her businesses interfere with giving her children a nurturing and supportive home to thrive in. “I’ve not used the word ‘busy’ with them,” she describes wanting her children to know that they have a parent who will always be accessible to them. 

She presents a united front with her supportive husband, ensuring that schedules are arranged to allow time to sit down with the children after school to do homework and discuss their experiences. “I want to know what’s happening in their lives, especially in school!” she exclaims, having recently learned of her eldest son’s growing interest in girls and emerging curiosity over where children come from. “When he throws questions like these at me, I say go and ask daddy,” she laughs, before quoting her son’s response, “Daddy said you are the science person; I should ask you!” While masterful in side- stepping the topic, she is still pleased to engage in dialogue with her children, to offer them guidance as they are exposed to new ideas and peer pressure. 

“I think bringing them up in an old-school way is very important,” Jezamine comments, detailing the responsibility her children have in packing their own schoolbags and learning to clean up after themselves. 

Characterising herself as a strict, disciplined woman, Jezamine describes her mother raising her without a sense of being limited by her gender. Enrolled in Taekwondo, she grew up participating in tournaments as a 10-year-old, she reminisces “It didn’t once hit me at that age, ‘oh, I’m the only girl here’,” Valuing that mindset, Jezamine is actively raising her daughter to chase after her dreams without inhibition. “I realised in the world out there, we do separate ourselves based on gender,” she goes on. “It starts from home, we will need to teach them at a very young age,” the power to free themselves from binary thinking is in their own hands. 

Lilian Tay

“Architects are dreamers in some way,” says Lillian Tay, vice president and director of Veritas Design Group. “They sometimes feel that through the planning of space they can change the world.” Having worked in the industry for several decades now, l is quite aware that changing the world may be a tad idealistic but she still strongly believes that the role of architects isn’t confined to just ensuring the quality of one’s immediate living environment but to enhance the quality of the city. 

“Even side-walks and pedestrian lanes,” she says. “Here we don’t talk about it but in other cities they need to plan so that sunlight falls on the street,” she says, quoting New York as an example. “You realise that all of this is the work of architects and planners and it ends up creating the quality of life or lack of it in forming the city.” 

Perhaps it is because Lillian adopts this school of thought that she describes architecture as being a consuming profession, not something that you can shut the door on when you clock out at five. 

“You carry it with you everywhere,” she says. “Architecture has to do with the whole creation of the environment. You are constantly aware of it, even when you go on holiday because you are thinking about how people use that space and of how design has been used to create that environment.” 

It is also, she adds, not something that can be compartmentalised, which makes it one of those fields that is “never-ending.” 

“It is not exactly an objective science,” she explains. “Ideas can continue to be developed so you can’t just walk away.” 

It is this aspect of the profession that she says may have resulted in the small number of women who choose to work in the industry. There were not that many women architects when Lillian graduated from Princeton where she studied architecture and civil engineering in the mid-’80s. Today, she says, the number of women studying architecture has increased significantly but many don’t make it a career because of the all-encompassing nature of the profession.

Particularly in Asia because the expectation for women is to do the usual family role so a lot don’t continue in the profession and that’s why you see so few women in the industry.

Lillian Tay

Lillian joined the Veritas Design Group in 1992, started by David Mizan Hashim in its fifth year of operations, now it is in its 34rd year. The projects that bear her creative imprint include Menara Binjai, 1 Sentral, the Digi headquarters and the Putrajaya Transport Terminal. 

“I suppose at first, I thought it would be a stepping stone and that I would venture out on my own eventually but I found that the partnership was good because the scale of work that we now do allows us to look at a larger public component where there are multiple needs to address.” 

A partnership is good, she explains, because it allows you to split the tasks and do all the things that are needed. “It is not just about sitting down and designing. You have to implement.” 

This is particularly important for Lillian who is involved in other issues related to the field, which are aimed at enhancing the living environment. Apart from her work at Veritas, where she oversees the general design direction, Lillian is involved in numerous professional development activities. 

She was the deputy president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) from 2015-16, where she also served as vice-president from 2000-2001 and was a council member of the Heritage Trust of Malaysia (Badan Warisan). She took on the role of president for PAM until 2020 and was the editor-in- chief of Architecture Malaysia, the official journal of PAM. 

Architecture is a powerful manifestation of your history, legacy.

Lillian Tay

Being part of Veritas, she says, allows for the pursuit of projects not on the basis of profit but based on the fact that they are interesting. 

“Within the practice we do projects that are considered national service,” she says. “Having a wide portfolio of projects allows us to do that.” 

Case in point, is the refurbishment of the Maju Jaya flats in Kampung Medan. Veritas worked with artist and activist Wong Hoy Cheong and PKR’s Latheefa Koya to give a new lease of life to a block of affordable housing. 

“They wanted us to engage with the community,” explains Lillian. “Initially they just wanted a paint job but we believed that doesn’t really address the real problems so we proceeded to do a study about what needs to be done so that people can start using the space the way that it was designed.” 

The idea behind the project was to enable the residents to have a sense of identity or ownership. Once that happens, she says, they will start to take care of the space. 

“We are able to have the resources to do these sorts of things because we do other large commercial projects,” she explains. 

As a senior architect, Lillian says she has learnt to see links between buildings and community, resulting in the view that architecture isn’t just about physical planning and design. 

“The great thing about the profession is that everyone can talk about it,” she says. 

“People can give you input and that is good because you can easily engage with everyone. It is not good because then people start telling you what to do and your job then becomes how to achieve a balance between having control over a project while also allowing for the participation from the stakeholders.” 

Throughout her career Lillian has been involved in various aspects of enhancing the city. 

“KL upsets me because I see so many missed opportunities,” she laments. 

Hence, heritage and conservation are two areas that Lillian is a strong advocate of. 

“It is important to maintain the character, soul and personality of a city,” she says.