Changing the World and Mindsets Through Science – Part One

Women scientists aim to pave the future for the younger generation through hard work and dedication, and to receive the acknowledgement they deserve from the community

Prof Winnie, Dean of Health Sciences at IMU, a professor at the Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, and practicing dietitian in IMU Healthcare

If there is a time where science is most important, the time is now with the COVID-19 pandemic. And if there is an era where gender should not come into question anymore, it is also now where women scientists are making major strides in the field.

Dr Nur Alia Binti Johari is a prime example for this. At just 29, she’s a faculty member at the International Medical University (IMU)’s Institute for Research, Development and Innovation (IRDI), a career researcher, and has a master degree in public health specialising in infectious disease transmission. One of the latest projects she was involved in revolved around the coronavirus. In 2020, the IMU IRDI team had volunteered to perform SARS-CoV-2 testing to help ease the congestion of testing done at the National Public Health Laboratory (NPHL). Dr Nur Alia (who was one of the co-investigators for the project) and the IRDI team also devised and published a novel sample pooling strategy to expedite the testing turnaround time. Not only did this method increase testing capacity, it also proved to be cost effective without compromising testing accuracy.

On her own accord, Dr Nur Alia was one of the women scientists (and the only Malaysian scientist) that went on a field expedition to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in 2019, as part of a research project funded by the Sultan Mizan Antarctic Research Foundation (YPASM) in collaboration with renowned researchers from all over the world to study the functional diversity of Antarctic soil bacteria. The list of achievements goes on, including winning a RM1.15 million international grant with the IRDI research team (led by Prof Datuk Dr Lokman, director of IRDI) in 2021 to study the burden of pneumonia in children, and publishing her PhD research on dengue transmission in Malaysia.

Ending up in public health was a matter of fate, says Dr Nur Alia. “In the final year of my Biomedical Sciences degree, I came across the field of public health, which I found very interesting as it is an interdisciplinary field that connects science with the people. I decided to pursue my Masters in this field (both degrees were from Imperial College London) and discovered a special interest in infectious diseases. So really, instead of choosing the specialisation, it chose me instead,” she shares. 

She credits women scientists as her inspiration. “I was exposed to a lot of leadership from women in science when I was a student. When I returned to Malaysia for my PhD in the IMU, my supervisor was Professor Dr Patricia Lim, Head, Research Lab and Support Services at IRDI, who provided really good guidance and exposure to me as well as the idea of women scientists in leadership roles,” she says.

It’s interesting to note that less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women, and of that small percentage, only 3% of Nobel Prize in science has been awarded to women thus far. According to UNESCO data (2014-2016), only around 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. 

“We cannot deny that gender bias still occurs in the scientific world and numerous well-designed studies show this,” says Prof Winnie, Dean of Health Sciences at IMU, a professor at the Department of Nutrition & Dietetics, and practicing dietitian in IMU Healthcare. The issue with that, she adds, is that it affects grading, professional hiring, mentoring, promotion, respect, grant proposal success and pay. “But these challenges should not hinder women from entering the scientific world. Awareness is increasing and policies on gender equality and fairness have been implemented so women should not be deterred. There are also many role models of successful women in academia and research in almost every field of science that young aspiring woman scientists can follow and seek advice from,” says Prof Winnie.

Dr Nur Alia Binti Johari as one of the co-investigators published a novel sample pooling strategy to expedite the testing turnaround time for coronavirus