Push­ing fron­tiers at 80

The coun­try’s palm oil re­search pi­o­neer isn’t about to hang up his boots any­time soon.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SENIOR - By SHEELA CHAN­DRAN star@thes­tar.com.my

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.

Patent

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

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