Sunday July 22, 2007
Why they came back
By SIMRIT KAUR
Several scientists talk about how and why they returned to Malaysia.
PROF Dr Sharifah Bee Abdul Hamid left Malaysia in 1989 to pursue her PhD in the Universiti of Namur, Belgium. In 1994, she married a Belgian professor.
“We tried living in Malaysia but at that time the visa, working permit and language made it impossible for him to obtain a position commensurate with his standing as a leading scientist.”
Prof Sharifah then went to the United Kingdom in 1995 and joined the Leverhulme Centre for Innovative Catalysis at the University of Liverpool. She worked as a principal scientist, course coordinator for the master’s programme and research coordinator.
“The Malaysian High Commission helped look for a suitable position for me. They sent my CV to a few industries and universities.”
Prof Sharifah is now a professor in chemistry at Universiti Malaya (UM) and teaches industrial chemistry, petrochemistry, catalysis and process engineering
She is head of the Nanotechnology and Catalysis Centre, based in UM, and leads a group of 40 scientists. The centre was established in 2002 with a RM52mil funding allocated through the National Biotechnology Directorate.
It has created five patents from discoveries and trained 11 researchers at masters and doctorate levels.
She says that many Malaysian women find it difficult to return because they are married to foreign men.
Prof Sharifah, an expert panel coordinator in the National Brain Gain Programme, Academy of Sciences Malaysia, admits to feeling isolated working in Malaysia, away from the international scientific community.
“Getting appropriate equipment is expensive. Funding is slow and difficult to obtain, even under the Ninth Malaysia Plan.
“My overseas experience has allowed me to jumpstart the research process here and manage a research centre which is the first of its kind in Southeast Asia.
“I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to Malaysia but I have to acknowledge there is limited funding to carry out research.
“The scientific infrastructure is also poor and there are limited scientists of calibre here.”
Passion for research
PROF Dr Pua Eng Chong left Malaysia in 1969 to further his studies in Taiwan and later Canada. The son of a farmer from Sekinchan is a molecular biologist and has done research at the famed Rockefeller University in the United States.
“I always thought about coming back to Malaysia but there was no appropriate position for me here.”
Prof Pua finally had the opportunity to return to the region when the Singapore government set up the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, a research institute affiliated with the National University of Singapore (NUS).
At the Institute, Prof Pua was a research associate before moving on to the Department of Botany and Department of Biological Sciences, where he was appointed associate professor.
In 2004, Prof Pua learnt of the opportunity available in Monash University Malaysia.
Prof Pua is currently head of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of biotechnology.
Of course, the remuneration here is less than what he was getting in Singapore but like others, Prof Pua felt it was time to do some “national service.”
Biotechnology is the current buzzword and with the country’s rich natural and human resources, Prof Pua felt that Monash and Malaysia was the place to be.
“I believe that with my knowledge and experience gained overseas, I can contribute to Malaysia using Monash as the platform. Private universities have a complementary role to play in developing the country and the government has recognised this by opening up research funding to private organisations too.”
As a foreign university branch campus, Monash can attract international researchers. Prof Pua feels that part of his role is to target Malaysian researchers overseas who want to come back but cannot find the right linkage.
“The Bio-Valley failed because we didn’t have the right people. To compete, Malaysia must attract top brains. Human resources are more important than the hardware.
“Singapore realised this a long time ago and have managed to attract expatriates from all around the world.
"To do so, the environment must be conducive and the remuneration attractive."
After having been in Singapore for almost 20 years and paid frequent visits to family and friends in Malaysia, the “culture shock” of returning home has not been so great.
Hooked on hookworm
ASSOC Prof Dr Chow Sek Chuen of Monash University Malaysia left the country as a teenager and came back “a middle-aged man.” Dr Chow went to Britain in 1969 to do his A-levels, and thereafter his degree at the University of Coventry. He then pursued his Masters in Science at the University of Leeds.
Because of the lack of funding in Britain, Dr Chow did his PhD at the famed Karolinska Institute, one of Europe's largest medical universities. A committee at the institute appoints the laureates for the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.
He also had a stint at the Mayo Clinic in the United States before returning to Karolinska to start a research group.
Dr Chow, an immunotoxicologist, also worked as a researcher and lecturer at the Medical Research Council, a government agency responsible for awarding funding for all medical research carried out in the United Kingdom, as well as the University of Nottingham.
He also set up a biotechnology company and registered a patent on his joint research in human hookworms.
“At around 2003, I seriously thought about relocating here. My biotech company was not doing well and I needed a break from academic life in Britain.”
Biotechnology was big in Malaysia and he wanted to explore options.
“However, I couldn’t just pack up and leave. It took me almost two years to settle everything in Britain.
Dr Chow then sent out feelers to a public university here but they took so long to get back to him that he abandoned the idea.
“I got fed up. They never replied or acknowledged that they had received my letter.”
He returned without having an organisation to join.
The public university finally got back to him but got his name wrong. That was the last straw for Dr Chow.
“Although they were very apologetic about it, it’s the little things that upset you. It gave the impression that things are not done in a professional manner.”
Dr Chow then contacted two private universities including Monash University Malaysia, and the one that responded the fastest got him!
He is now busy building up a research programme and laboratory.
“It’s challenging but doable. The important thing is, my hands are not tied.”
Dr Chow is also collaborating with academics from UM on research about how the immune system reacts to the presence of hookworms.
Answering the nation’s call
AFTER over 20 years overseas, it was not easy for International Medical University (IMU) dean of the School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Prof Peter Pook to come back. He had to sell off his property, give up his permanent residence status and bring back his four cats!
Prof Pook left for Britain in 1972 to do his O-Levels and A-Levels in Science.
“I was denied a place in the Science stream in my school, so my only option was to go overseas.”
He went on to do his Bachelors and PhD in the University of Bristol and worked as a research fellow there. In 1999, he was appointed a lecturer at the University of Bristol but left for Sunderland after becoming the first non-British person to be awarded the Wellcome Trust Newblood Lecturer.
He won a research grant worth £65,000 (RM350,000) and went to Sunderland as a senior lecturer. After six months, he was promoted to Reader, a tenured position at the university.
In 1998, Prof Peter Pook answered the call to contribute to his country when he returned to Malaysia to join the fledgling Medical Faculty at Universiti Putra Malaysia. He was made the Foundation Professor of Pharmacology.
In 2000, he was appointed deputy dean of the faculty but left a year later to help IMU develop its pharmacy programme.
“I stayed back in Britain after completing my studies as I realised that would give me the opportunity to gain exposure in the academic field and research,” he says.
“My interest was in the development of novel compounds which can be used as research tools to study the involvement of glutamate receptors in brain processes.”
How was Prof Pook persuaded back to Malaysia? Then UPM vice-chancellor Prof Tan Sri Dr Syed Jalaludin Syed Salim played a key role.
“I used to come back to Malaysia twice a year to recruit students for my university. On one of my trips, I gave a lecture to UPM students and Prof Syed Jalaludin persuaded me to share my expertise with Malaysians who could not afford to study medicine overseas.”
Although he had been in Britain for almost 25 years, Prof Pook never gave up his Malaysian citizenship. At UPM, he had to take a pay cut and was put on the same salary scheme as other Malaysian academics.
Although more of an administrator now, Prof Pook still collaborates on research projects with others. His present interest is in bioactive molecules in natural products of plant origin.