If science was a religion, one would be immediately tempted to be converted into it after listening to Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan talk about it.

Such is her interest and passion for the subject, that one wouldn't guess that becoming a scientist wasn't her childhood ambition to begin with.

Astro Ulagam recently caught up with Mahaletchumy (better known as Maha), the executive director of Malaysian Biotechnology Information Center (MABIC).

According to her, her childhood dream was to become a lawyer, but she took up Science stream after her Form 3 examinations (SRP then) upon the persuasion of her father, who was a Tamil school teacher. She eventually "fell in love" with science when she was in Form Five and Six.

"This may sound biased, but I would go as far as to say that Science is what God has created. Science is everywhere, everyday of our lives, from us brushing our teeths in the morning, to us going about household chores, to starting our cars, to us going to sleep at the end of the day.

"As the Tamil saying goes 'Kattradhu Kai Mann Alavu, Kallaadhadhu Ulagalavu' (which roughly translates into what is known is a drop, what is unknown is an ocean), the deeper we go into science, the more one will find that he or she does not know enough," she said.

Maha, 52, did her Bachelor's Degree in Microbiology and Biochemistry at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), and continued her Master's degree in Biotechnology at Universiti Malaya (UM) in the late 1990s.

Following the completion of her Master's Degree, Maha secured a comfortable job at a Swiss company - a job which took her to overseas trips and so on, but something did not strike her right.

As she put it, she needed a sense of belonging, something that was "my kingdom, where I can be the leader in my own field."

For the next seven years, she shuttled between jobs, before she joined MABIC as a project officer and discovered science communication.

She eventually did her doctorate (PhD) in science communication, also at UM.

The Wonders of Science Communication

Simply put, science communication is delivering science, which is often seen as complicated and jargon-ridden, to the laymen, in a form simple enough for them to understand, she said.

"For example, there is a lot of misinformation currently going around the COVID-19 vaccine. A science communicator's job is to explain what the vaccine is, what it does, what it does not do, so that the people can make informed decisions based on the information given," she added.

Unbeknownst to many, there are many regulations involved in science, she noted, such as for a vaccine, and even a genetically modified plant.

"Science communication is also important for the people to influence the government on the latter's priorities. For example, why more funds are needed to combat the dengue menace, rather than putting a man in space."

According to Maha, the government's awareness of the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subject is sufficient but the jobs provided in the respective fields are not in tandem with it.

"If many scientists, and engineers are produced but they can't find jobs when they graduate then there is no use," she said.

As for parents, many are becoming aware of the importance of STEM subjects, but the knowledge is just on the surface, she said.

"They know that these fields are important, but have no clue about the various different branches under each of the subjects."

One has to start early for this, she noted.

"For instance, many parents lie when their younger children ask probing questions, about nature for example. This shouldn't be the case."

Maha's career as the country's first trained science communicator has taken her to various countries and continents. She also lectures at various universities.

She is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Petri Dish, the country's first science newspaper. Although the paper ceased physical publication during the COVID-19 pandemic, its online presence has been boosted with additional subscribers during the period.

In 2015, she was listed as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Biotechnology in the world by the Scientific American Worldview.

Lack of Female Representation

Maha acknowledges that female participation in STEM fields is lacking in the country, let alone among Indian women.

"I would attribute this to the 'leaky pipeline' methapor, which refers to the way women fail to continue progression towars particular careers, in STEM fields for instance, leading to underrepresentation in related industries.

"As a result, many female students discontinue their education and career paths in STEM fields at a much higher rate than man, which results in fewer women being in high-level positions in STEM-related careers," she said.

Besides, gender discrimination also plays a part in having fewer women at the top, she added.

Personally, Maha was lucky to have a family that was very supportive of her career of choice, especially her father.

On top of familial support, one must also know how to do proper networking, she said.

For instance, Maha has had (and still has) good relationships with her former lecturers. When she started to do her PhD, she informed everyone in her network about it, to create a "positive pressure" on herself.

"Everytime I see those I had informed about my doctorate, they will ask me about the progress, and this will create a pressure on me to complete the course, come what may," she recalled.

She has had her fair share of critics, with a high-ranking government officer once telling her that she was not well known enough to be heard, and have her views accepted, during a consulation session.

Today, as she is much sought after for talks and her expertise, she is reminded of those criticisms.

"The key is always trust yourself. Ignore naysayers. Know your strengths and follow your passion and you will make it."

Maha's interview is part of a series of thirteen inspirational tales of women that Astro Ulagam will be highlighting in the coming weeks.

This series is in conjunction of PENGIRL ROCK, a fun talk show which highlights inspiring women, which premiered on March 19 on Vaanavil HD CH201.



Photo source: Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan Facebook