Home-grown authority on the world’s biotechnology

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Dr Maha (right) with Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation Datuk Seri Panglima Madius Tangau.Dr Maha (right) with Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation Datuk Seri Panglima Madius Tangau.

Scientific American – now in its 170th year of publication – is the oldest continuously-published magazine in the United States. And when it names you as one of its 100 Most Influential People in Biotechnology in the World, you know that you have arrived.

That honour belongs to Malaysian Dr Mahaletchumy Arujunan, who was recognised as being one of the Worldview 100: The Visionaries who continue to reshape Biotechnology – and the World. “When I was informed by the magazine that I was one of the 100, I was delighted – but I thought it would only be known among the scientific community,” said Dr Mahaletchumy – or Maha, as she prefers to be called. “I did not realise they were going to publish it!”

The surprise is understandable, as Scientific American also happens to be one of the most popular scientific magazines that are read the general public. Many famous scientists contribute to the magazine over the decades – including the legendary Albert Einstein – and Maha now shares company with illustrious figures such as Michael J. Fox, and Bill and Melinda Gates, all of whom were also named in the list.

To make the list is a fantastic achievement for someone who initially wanted to become a lawyer – that is, until she fell in love with Science when she was in Form 4 and Form 5. Maha proudly points out that she is 100% a made-in-Malaysia product, as all her three degrees – Bachelors, Masters and PhD – are from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). She attributes her success to the very high standards that she has set for herself. “I don’t believe in mediocrity; I believe in excellence,” said Maha, who looks 10 years younger than her actual age. “If you are really good at what you do, people will come looking for you.”

Dr Maha with her asistant Samira looking at The Petri Dish

The first international recognition to come Maha’s way was the Third World Academy of Science Regional Prize for Public Understanding and Popularisation of Science in 2010. It was the first of many acknowledgments, which includes being nominated for The Malaysian Women’s Weekly‘s current Great Women of Our Time Award, where the magazine’s readers vote in their choice. She is also listed this year in the Women in Biotech Law and Regulations honours list for the Biotech Law Report, a leading journal published in the United States. Out of the 23 women in the list, 21 are from the United States – and she is the only woman from Asia.

Currently the executive director of the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Corporation (MABIC) – which is part of the Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation (Biotech Corp) – Maha is also a trainer in its Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Special Training Programme (BEST), which is a career coaching module for university undergraduates. BEST aims to make Malaysia a biotechnology powerhouse.

She credits MABIC with bringing out the best in her, and with pushing her to do things in areas she would not have considered had she stayed on in the private sector.”They set out goals for me, and expect me to deliver – all without hovering and breathing down my back. They give me the freedom to do my work because they trust me,” she said.

On top of all her work for MABIC, Maha is also proud of her role as the founder and editor of Petri Dish, the nation’s first limited-circulation science newspaper. “I am really passionate about Petri Dish, although it is a challenge to publish it with the limited resources that we have. One of the reasons why my team and I work so hard to bring out the paper is because we want to bring biotech to the public domain, as the mainstream media’s priority towards science is very low. We must create a science-literate society and culture,” she said, adding that the Government needs to take the lead in this.

Maha feels that more science centres and natural museums have to be built and made free to students and the public, so that they will be attracted to go and find out more about science. “Scientists should also not be cloistered in their ivory towers. We need to bring our scientists out so that they are in the public. We also need to create a few celebrity scientists; people like the late Carl Sagan – who did much to popularise science among the American public, especially via television programmes and books – and Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” she said.

While Maha was inspired by her Science teachers to become interested in Science, she is in despair about the present state of Science education. “As a mother of two teenage girls, I am not happy with the way Science is being taught in school. I don’t think the teachers are passionate about the subjects they are teaching. How are you going to inspire the students? The Government has to seriously look into changing how Science is taught in our schools.”

Maha also believes it is vital for scientists to be able to communicate their ideas to the public, not to just talk among themselves via scientific journals. In fact, she did her PhD in Science Communications, a relatively new field in Malaysia.

“Constant communication from the scientific community to the public is important in the creation of a science literate society. Scientists and researchers must know how to disseminate the findings of their research to the relevant parties – like policy makers, politicians and the public – to avoid confusion, fear and misunderstandings. The right knowledge and understanding will help policy-makers come up with good regulations; farmers will understand and accept new technologies; industrialists will invest in new technologies; and the general public can make informed decisions,” she affirmed.

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