L’Oréal-UNESCO honours three outstanding Malaysian women scientists in annual award

(From L-R) Dr Jasy Liew Suet Yan from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Dr Ho Weang Kee from the University of Nottingham Malaysia and Dr Teh Su Yean from Universiti Sains Malaysia

Three women scientists in Malaysia has won the coveted L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship recently for research that tackles global challenges while potentially saving the lives of millions.

One of them is Dr Ho Weang Kee from the University of Nottingham Malaysia. The 35-year-old has clinched the award for her development of a risk prediction model for breast cancer, which uses DNA and lifestyle information to identify those at risk of the cancer for early detection.

Another winner, Dr Jasy Liew Suet Yan from Universiti Sains Malaysia, is recognised for building a system that detects signs of depression by analysing emotional patterns on social media. The 32-year-old hopes that the emotion-sensitive technology will encourage early diagnosis and treatment.

Working on sustainable resource management, Dr Teh Su Yean netted the award with her unification of science, engineering, technology and mathematics to protect coastal resources in Malaysia. The 36-year-old associate professor of the School of Mathematical Science at Universiti Sains Malaysia is building a model that will conserve groundwater, which may become crucial when other water source are depleted due to global climate change.

In its 12th year, the annual L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship was created to recognise and promote the contribution of women scientists. The partnership was logical. L’Oréal, founded by scientist Eugene Schueller, has been celebrating women’s confidence for over a century. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has also advocated for gender equality in the cultivation of scientific knowledge since 1945.

Other than honouring scientific excellence, L’Oréal Foundation and its partners aim to boost awareness and interest in science among Malaysians. This is in line with the nation’s vision of becoming a knowledge economy by 2020.

“A k-economy relies on human resources with strong foundation in sciences. As Year 2020 closes in, it is more urgent than ever for us to cultivate a rich pool of knowledge talents in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM, to take our country to the next level.

“The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship supports this vision. It not only inspires more Malaysian women to pursue science as a career, but also fuel interest in science, which is waning among secondary school and higher tertiary students,” says YB Dato Sri Hajah Nancy Shukri, the minister in the Prime Minister Department overseeing the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT).

In her speech during the award ceremony, she cites numbers from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia – only 21% of those in upper secondary chose to study science subjects in 2014.

The Ministry of Higher Education has also warned of a shortage in STEM graduates due to the declining interest in science subjects among upper secondary school students, coupled with the upswing of students taking arts-related courses in higher tertiary institutions.

As such, Malaysia lack STEM students to power its k-economy drive. The National Council for Scientific Research and Development estimated that the country will need 493,830 scientists and engineers by 2020. But the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation is looking at a shortfall of 236,000 technical personnel.

The dwindling interest in STEM, according to Nancy, underscores the importance of awards like the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science to foster scientific enthusiasm.

She congratulated the award winners for their exemplary achievements in the male-dominated field, which “shows that science can be a thriving ground for all genders to pursue excellence.”

“I also hope that such awards will inspire our next generation to see STEM in a new light – it is not all complex calculations and daunting facts, but a key to unlock a better future for our nation, and our world,” says the minister.

Mr. Malek Bekdache, Managing Director of L’Oréal  Malaysia, offers a silver lining.

“This year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship saw the highest ever number of submissions, with an increase of 66% from last year. The heightened excitement for this scientific award gives hope that interest in STEM among the next generation will climb along,” Bekdache points out.

He also congratulated the University of Nottingham Malaysia for emerging as the first private university to have won the award.

This year, on top of receiving a RM30,000 grant to help pursue their research, each winner also developed capacity in idea presentation. All three received training to present a summary of their research on stage during the award ceremony, in a manner similar to the world-renowned TED Talks.

The sought-after award was opened to all Malaysian women researchers or scientists under the age of 40 years, who are PhD holders or currently pursuing research studies in any scientific field.

Submissions from various scientific disciplines totaled up to 208 this year. The panel of jury this year was led by one of Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman, Program Director, Academy of Science Malaysia. Each entry was deliberated based on a comprehensive set of criteria, including project significance in terms of its merit and value contribution, originality and purpose, contribution to science, methodology, academic achievements and overall project quality.

Over RM900,000 in research grants have been presented to 38 outstanding women scientists since the inception of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowship in 2006.

“At L’Oréal, we hope that this award will help pivot the crucial work of women researchers in progressing our societies, as well as fan the passion in science among our next generation of nation builders to carry Malaysia towards its goal of becoming a high income developed economy,” says Bekdache.

Press release provided by L’Oréal Malaysia.