Sci­ence wins over pas­sion for the arts

The Star Malaysia - - Nation - By FATIMAH ZAINAL fatimah@thes­tar.com.my

PETALING JAYA: As a child, award-win­ning sci­en­tist Dr Chai Lay Ching (pic) thought that she would be an artist.

An in­tro­vert who pre­ferred to lose her­self in draw­ing and mu­sic, her life took a new di­rec­tion af­ter her fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with kid­ney fail­ure when she was seven.

“That was the first turn­ing point in my life. I started to ques­tion my fa­ther’s dis­ease and de­cided that I should study hard and be a nurse.

“I wanted to be a nurse be­cause at the time, nurses were all women and the doc­tors were mainly men.

“So, I stopped draw­ing and started study­ing,” the Taip­ing girl said in an in­ter­view yes­ter­day.

How­ever, Dr Chai did not be­come a nurse.

Af­ter she re­ceived her

PhD in biotech­nol­ogy from the Univer­siti Pu­tra Malaysia, the se­nior lec­turer at Univer­siti Malaya’s Sci­ence Fac­ulty made it her mis­sion to de­velop a de­vice that iden­ti­fies harm­ful bac­te­ria in food via spe­cific scents.

She is one of three re­cip­i­ents of the pres­ti­gious L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Sci­ence award this year, walk­ing away with a RM30,000 grant to help pur­sue her re­search.

In her teens, Dr Chai be­came more in­ter­ested in biotech­nol­ogy and in find­ing cures, rather than work­ing on the front­line as a doc­tor.

“Com­ing from a small town, a lot of peo­ple thought that work­ing as a doc­tor was more pres­ti­gious than be­ing a sci­en­tist,” she said.

When she was in Form Five, her fa­ther passed away and Dr Chai, 37, de­cided to pur­sue her am­bi­tion of be­com­ing a sci­en­tist, re­ceiv­ing her PhD when she was 27.

“It was my proud­est mo­ment. My fa­ther’s dream was to see his kids grad­u­ate from univer­sity but I ac­com­plished beyond just grad­u­at­ing. I got a PhD,” she said.

Dr Chai said while she had seen many pos­i­tive changes at the or­gan­i­sa­tional cul­ture for women in sci­ence, there should be a pol­icy to sup­port young fe­male sci­en­tists to help them achieve a bet­ter work­life bal­ance as the bur­den of nur­tur­ing chil­dren still fell on them.

“Many women sci­en­tists start to progress later on in their ca­reer and they are ini­tially a lit­tle more pas­sive be­cause they need to de­vote their at­ten­tion to their young fam­ily.

“There needs to be a pol­icy that is both flex­i­ble and sup­port­ive to en­cour­age more women to work in the sci­ence field,” she said, urg­ing youths to go whole­heart­edly af­ter their dreams.

L’Oréal Malaysia cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Zaireen Ibrahim said it was im­por­tant to give women sci­en­tists vis­i­bil­ity through the award, which had been pre­sented in Malaysia since 2006.

“It shows con­sumers the sig­nif­i­cance of their work and how it ben­e­fits the so­ci­ety.

“Re­search and in­no­va­tion is the DNA of our group and pro­mot­ing this has al­ways been the heart of what we do.”

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