Pushing frontiers at 80
The country’s palm oil research pioneer isn’t about to hang up his boots anytime soon.
ACADEMICIAN Tan Sri Emeritus Professor Dr Augustine Ong Soon Hock is proof that it’s never too late to expand the mind and discover new things. At 80, the country’s palm oil research pioneer continues to challenge himself to improve the chemistry and technology of palm oil and promote the palm oil industry.
Despite his wide job scope and huge responsibilities, he also juggles his time as President of the Malaysian Invention and Design Society (MINDS) and Malaysian Oil Scientists’ and Technologists’ Association (MOSTA), and Chairman of the International Society for Fat Research (ISF).
Judging from his involvement with numerous research projects and affiliation with many organisations, it looks like Ong isn’t quite ready to hang up his boots, especially where research and development of palm oil is concerned. According to him, it is essential to stay mentally alert and active as it keeps health problems at bay.
“It is important to keep busy. Senior citizens should involve themselves in activities such as social work, learning a new language, cooking courses or other interests. I believe that the brain controls our organs. When it retires, other organs will start to slow down, resulting in a series of problems ranging from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to stroke. To keep my mind active, I continue to work as I’m still passionate about my job,” says Ong.
You can see his eyes light up when he talks about all things related to palm oil. During the interview, the friendly father-figure patiently tried to explain to this writer the molecular build-up and natural chemical compounds of palm oil.
“Science is experimental and there are many new things to explore. Research often starts off with a problem and I love the solution process. While some people find it a chore to work on new research, I love to make new discoveries. My investigative mind has always been interested in the laws of nature, natural sciences and chemistry. This passion led me to pursue my degree, masters and PhD in chemistry,” explains Ong, adding that his interest in all things related to science was ignited when he was a young boy growing up in a rubber plantation in Alor Gajah, Malacca.
The eminent scientist still conducts palm oil research for numerous organisations, including the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Universiti Malaya and Malaysia University of Science and Technology.
The hardworking innovator and inventor is also busy with collaborative research with several private companies which specialise in palm oil, rubber and bio-mass products.
“There really is no end to learning and I want to update new findings related to palm oil. Regardless of whether it involves studying chemical compositions, conjuring new formulations or patents, my thirst for knowledge appears like an unfinished melody. I’m still on a quest to further cement the fact that palm oil has many nutritional benefits and its phytonutrients have anti-cancer benefits. Considering its potential, it is important to spread the good news across the world,” says the friendly professor, with a warm smile.
The world-renowned researcher holds a 9-to-6 job. At his office in Petaling Jaya, Ong heads several palm oil research projects, including projects to improve the palm oil industry’s environmental practices and green technology, as well as projects related to MINDS, ISF and MOSTA.
He talks excitedly about another research project – improving his patent on a palm oil milling process that results in zero wastes – which he has put his heart and soul into.
“Research studies are being conducted to derive palm puree from palm fruits. With this new process, new sources of carotenes, tocotrienols and vitamin B complex can be saved and incorporated into the formulation of new food products. We are also trying to incorporate the nutrients into the development of a new palm oil briyani recipe,” reveals the former Director-General of the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia.
He is also conducting research on the positive effects of palm oil carotenes and tocotrienols on breast cancer, prostate cancer and cardiovascular health.
Hailed as the Father of Malaysian Palm Oil, Ong has played a crucial role in the development of palm oil, having 16 patents to his name.
He has cleared myths surounding palm oil, and conducted a wide range of research covering the chemical composition, nutritional value, waste treatment, and conversion of palm oil to bio-diesel.
“When I ventured into palm oil research in the 1970s, I felt that I could contribute to the nation’s economy by promoting the benefits of palm oil. As a scientist, I’m passionate about research. It’s almost like a magnificent obsession for me,” quips Ong, who chalked up a milestone when he received the prestigious Merdeka Award in 2012 for his contribution to the fields of health, science and technology.
Aside from palm oil research, Ong is also a well-known educator, having served as a lecturer in Universiti Malaya in the late 50s and later, as Dean of School of Chemical Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia in the 70s.
The former Fulbright-Hays Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States has authored and co-authored over 400 articles, and co-authored two books, The Chemistry Of Free Radicals (published in 1974) and Nutrition, Lipids, Health And Disease (1995). He added a feather in his cap when the University of Oxford used his first book as resource material.
Ong is a firm believer that a healthy diet and regular exercise are crucial to one’s well-being. The early riser goes on daily walks and enjoys his breathing and stretching exercises.
“I lead a simple life. I turn off the lights at 10pm and rise at 6am. It is important to have sufficient rest to allow the body to heal itself. Research says the body starts to repair itself between 10pm and 2am, so one needs to turn off the lights early. With sufficient sleep, our mind is alert and we can tackle problems better. In terms of diet, eat everything in moderation. Don’t overeat and avoid consuming chemical-laden food items,” explains the father of four.
On weekends, the grandfather of five continues to spend time in the office.
“I am easily distracted at home, especially with the TV on. The office offers solitude so I can think outside the box. I also get to plan my schedule and come up with ideas for MINDS, ISF and MOSTA. Ultimately, these ideas can help to provide solutions to help mankind,” says Ong.
He was conferred the Senior Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia in 1999, Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry London (1968), Fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences (1987), and Fellow of King’s College, London (2011).
With so much on his plate, it is no wonder that Ong continues to put his train of thoughts to good use to benefit humanity.
Growing better: ‘My investigative mind has always been interested in the laws of nature, natural sciences and chemistry,’ says Tan Sri emeritus Professor dr augustine Ong.
Tan Sri dr augustine Ong has been involved in palm oil research for over 40 years. — Merdeka award