New Straits Times - - Front Page - MOHD FIRDAUS RAIH The writer is a bioin­for­mati­cian and molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist with the Fac­ulty of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy and a Se­nior Re­search Fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Sys­tems Bi­ol­ogy, Universiti Ke­bangsaan Malaysia. Email him at firdaus@ mfr­lab.org

KNOWL­EDGE and sci­ence did not orig­i­nally have bound­aries that de­lin­eate our un­der­stand­ing into dis­ci­plines such as math­e­mat­ics, physics, bi­ol­ogy, chem­istry, his­tory, etc. The ear­li­est sci­en­tists were poly­maths who stud­ied and de­scribed the world they lived in with­out lump­ing their de­scrip­tion into some­thing be­ing a part of any par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline.

For ex­am­ple, when we study life, we tend to think of it as the dis­ci­pline of bi­ol­ogy. But, it is not just bi­ol­ogy. Life is about how the com­po­nent mol­e­cules that en­able life in­ter­act with each other and carry out the func­tions — this is chem­istry. Th­ese in­ter­ac­tions and func­tions must con­form to the laws of physics that can in turn be de­scribed or ex­plained us­ing math­e­mat­ics.

We are now ap­proach­ing sci­ence, and to a greater ex­tent, the ex­pe­ri­ence and process of learn­ing it­self, with­out too much em­pha­sis on com­part­men­tal­is­ing them. As we move for­ward into the 21st cen­tury be­yond 2020, this in­te­gra­tion of knowl­edge and the im­ple­men­ta­tion of mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary ap­proaches to­wards solv­ing the prob­lems that plague hu­man­ity will fea­ture even more promi­nently.

I usu­ally de­scribe my­self as a bioin­for­mati­cian and molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist. Not be­ing a very ar­tic­u­late per­son, ex­plain­ing what I do is dif­fi­cult even to those fa­mil­iar with academia. I some­times try to find com­mon ground by ex­plain­ing what I do dif­fer­ently to dif­fer­ent peo­ple, de­pend­ing on what I per­ceive as the best con­text for them to un­der­stand.

For ex­am­ple, if I were to meet some­one from the med­i­cal field, I would say some­thing along the lines of “I study bac­te­rial in­fec­tious dis­ease”, “I work on drug dis­cov­ery”, “I do ge­net­ics work” etc. When I meet some­one who works in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, I might say “I work in in­for­ma­tion sci­ence/data sci­ence/big data”, while if I were to meet some­one with an en­gi­neer­ing back­ground, I might of­fer that “I work in high per­for­mance com­put­ing”. You’re prob­a­bly think­ing that I must be very con­fused with my­self or have mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis­or­der.

Since I don’t have mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis- or­der (at least I hope not), am I per­haps some kind of nar­cis­sist who thinks he can do ev­ery­thing? (“Nar­cis­sist” seems to trump other words recently that I can­not re­sist us­ing it here too.) The an­swer to that is also “no”. I am also not one of those rare gifted in­di­vid­u­als who wake up one morn­ing at the age of 10 and solve ad­vanced cal­cu­lus prob­lems while at the same time find the cure for can­cer and build nu­clear re­ac­tors.

How can I claim to “do” or be in­volved in all those ar­eas of study? My main re­search in­ter­est is the un­der­stand­ing of molec­u­lar level mech­a­nisms that con­trol bi­o­log­i­cal pro­cesses and func­tions. What does that even mean? Take, for ex­am­ple, a dis­ease caused by a bac­te­ria. In such a case, my in­ter­est is to find out how an or­gan­ism, which we can­not even see with the naked eye, can be fa­tal to a healthy hu­man be­ing. What chem­i­cals or tox­ins can the bac­te­ria pro­duce that can cause death? What trig­gers the re­lease of the toxin(s) and what switches it (them) off? Are there weak­nesses in the bi­ol­ogy of the bac­terium that we can ex­ploit to kill it?

Such re­search will re­quire un­der­stand­ing the ge­net­ics of the bac­te­ria and the hu­man host. One way of do­ing that is by de­cod­ing the in­for­ma­tion con­tained in the genome or the to­tal ge­netic con­tent of an or­gan­ism. The genome is the blue­print that makes a liv­ing thing what it is. De­cod­ing the genome uses in­for­ma­tion sci­ence for sift­ing through a lot of data to hope­fully get a bi­o­log­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of the or­gan­ism. Ex­tract­ing use­ful in­for­ma­tion from large amounts of data (or big data an­a­lyt­ics, as it is more sex­ily called nowa­days) in­volves math­e­mat­ics and the skills to write com­puter pro­grams to ex­tract in­sights from the data. Such data pro­cess­ing also re­quires sub­stan­tial com­put­ing power — thus the need to use high per­for­mance com­put­ing such as su­per­com­put­ers.

I have also used in­tense X-ray beams to de­ter­mine the molec­u­lar struc­tures of pro­teins, such as a toxin. This method uses a par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor called a syn­chro­tron and can pro­vide a picture of what the molecule looks like up to the lo­ca­tion of each atom. By know­ing the toxin in such de­tail, we can then per­haps find or even de­sign a drug that can stop the toxic ac­tion of the molecule.

So, al­though I do work on in­fec­tious diseases, ge­net­ics, chem­istry, in­for­ma­tion sci­ence etc — I am sim­ply try­ing to un­der­stand and solve a prob­lem. Ob­vi­ously, I do not have a univer­sity de­gree in all those fields. The ad­di­tional knowl­edge and skills were ac­quired via self-learn­ing ne­ces­si­tated by the need to solve a prob­lem. The di­verse knowl­edge and skill sets are di­rected to­wards a par­tic­u­lar ob­jec­tive, be it to an­swer a ques­tion or find a so­lu­tion.

We live in an era of rapid knowl­edge ac­qui­si­tion and tech­nol­ogy evo­lu­tion, thus it be­comes nec­es­sary for not only sci­en­tists but also the gen­eral work­force to con­stantly adapt and evolve. This can be achieved by en­sur­ing that learn­ing does not stop when one leaves for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. We should not clois­ter knowl­edge into boxes with no in­ter­ac­tions be­tween them. We should not limit our knowl­edge and skill sets to what de­gree we read in univer­sity.

Al­though my ex­am­ple may be a bit on the ex­treme side, many oc­cu­pa­tions now re­quire di­verse knowl­edge base and skill sets. Em­ploy­ees must take the ini­tia­tive to learn, adapt and de­liver. Not hav­ing the train­ing or knowl­edge to do some­thing is no longer an ex­cuse. The aim is not to re­place ex­perts in a par­tic­u­lar area but merely to fa­cil­i­tate your needs to achieve spe­cific work ob­jec­tives.

To this end, many uni­ver­si­ties now of­fer pro­grammes for con­tin­u­ous ed­u­ca­tion, which in­clude sin­gle cour­ses avail­able on­line via the mas­sive open on­line cour­ses plat­form, short cour­ses and post­grad­u­ate pro­grammes. There is no stop­ping an en­gi­neer­ing grad­u­ate to un­der­take post­grad­u­ate qual­i­fi­ca­tion in writ­ing and jour­nal­ism or psy­chol­ogy. Con­tin­u­ous and self-learn­ing is now a re­al­ity ac­ces­si­ble at the click of a but­ton. Evolv­ing our­selves to rapidly chang­ing work en­vi­ron­ments is a ne­ces­sity, but it is also fa­cil­i­tated by the easy ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tional re­sources from all over the world.

We should not clois­ter knowl­edge into boxes with no in­ter­ac­tions be­tween them. We should not limit our knowl­edge and skill sets to what de­gree we read in univer­sity.”

We live in an era of rapid knowl­edge ac­qui­si­tion and tech­nol­ogy evo­lu­tion, thus it be­comes nec­es­sary for not only sci­en­tists but also the gen­eral work­force to con­stantly adapt.

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