While other girls her age were preoccupied with the pop culture of the day, Professor Maude Phipps was riveted to the Carl Sagan-hosted American documentary TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. So, it’s no wonder that science was her guiding light from a young age, and she’s now arguably the leading geneticist in the country.
The subject of genomics might be alien to the uninitiated, but Phipps, professor of Human Molecular Genetics at the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Monash University Malaysia, has a simple way of breaking it down for the common man, revealing that genes and genomics give us a glimpse into our blueprint.
“It can also explain to us, perhaps, where we came from, where we are now, what our health risks may be, whether or not we are carriers for mutations that may predispose us or make us more likely to contract a particular disease.”
She added that it is our genomes – our total amount of DNA in every cell – and its interaction with our environment that makes us who we are and also determines how long we might live.
Fate could have taken a tricky turn, one to lead her down a slippery slope, had she not listened to her dad’s sagely advice. When she asked her lawyer father if she should take up law, he walked into his library and then returned armed with the book The Law Is An Ass. “It is a book that articulates the foibles of the law, which technically could be correct, but is ethically wrong, because it could support a murderer. I read it and was pretty horrified,” she revealed, letting out a hearty laugh.
Her secondary school introduction to biology piqued her curiosity. “I was always very curious as a child, so my exposure to biology excited me.”
When she proposed science as a field of study, her mother only cautioned her about avoiding medicine, reasoning that the training process and job would involve lengthy hours and deprive her of sleep.
“I read somewhere about DNA, and thought it was pretty powerful, and since it was about human and life forms, I became interested,” said the 50-year-old professor.
“And being of different parentage made people look at me differently, which further sealed my interest in wanting to study genetics, because I am as human as anyone else.”
Her father is of English Asian descent while her mother is Chinese-Thai, but Phipps is, above all, true-blue Malaysian.
Fortune favoured Phipps as she got the exact course she applied for at Universiti Malaya – genetics.
Although nurturing her interest in the pre-Internet era seems like a daunting task today, she was lucky to have plenty of material to absorb, by way of books at home, journals at the university and other popular documentaries on TV, like Nova and Panorama.
A solid foundation in the study of genetics, starting with a PhD in Cambridge University on an aspect of the Human Genome Project – funded by United States’ Atomic Agency Commission and Energy Research and Development Administration (now collectively recognised as the Department of Energy), which began in 1990 and has since managed to fully sequence the human genome – and several years of research at Universiti Malaya, eventually found her as Institutional Review Board co-chair of the HUGO (Human Genome Organisation) Pan-Asian Single Nucleotide Polymorphism(SNP) Consortium. The consortium was conceived by Asians, for Asians, on Asians and was funded by governments of 10 Asian countries, including Malaysia, to unravel the genetic structure of Asian populations.
“It’s a human population project, which looks at what happened during the ‘Out Of Africa’ migration. Our mission statement was to focus on the science but be grounded on ethics and good scientific methodology. We were not going to spin a story to tell the orang asli or city people that this will cure all diseases.”
What the project did was reveal the startling discovery that the first migration of homo sapiens from Africa, travelling along coastal routes of India, found them clustered in South-East Asia, South Thailand and Peninsula Malaysia. According to Phipps, that explains the facial features and lifestyle of our orang asli.
The initiative wouldn’t have been a success had commercial gain and legal implications reared their heads, which was something the team were mindful of and made sure to avoid. Hence, the coming together of scientists, anthropologists and social scientists from Malaysia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines, was all done for the common good of man.
Phipps’ research – inspired by American scientist Adela Baer, who began studying orang asli tribes in Malaysia in the 1970s, and documented her findings in books such as Health, Disease And Survival: A Biomedical And Genetic Analysis Of The Orang Asli Of Malaysia and The Genetic Perspective – primarily revolved around working with orang asli communities, including the Negrito sub-tribes of Jehai, Bateq and Mendriq, Temuan and Selatar. “I realised there were so many different types of orang asli, so, I decided to look into more niche areas, populations that hadn’t been explored much before.”
She is very grateful to the orang asli community for allowing her to study and interact with them. “I am also grateful to my colleagues who have encouraged and allowed me to conduct my studies.”
The study of tribes with primitive ancestry naturally begged the question, “What is the missing link?” Phipps believes the notion of the missing link is open to debate. “What we know is that we interbred with the Neanderthal. So, each of us has Neanderthal genes in us. And our intellectual capacity is the product of our increased brain size, which came about because we ate meat.”
Theories have always existed about aliens having visited Earth and contributing technologically to certain civilisations, but Phipps has a different take on things. “We grossly underestimate the ingenuity of man. We are products of the cosmos and have evolved over a long period of time. We can’t go back in time and say what actually happened … we can only make inferences,” she reasoned.
So, what is the future of human evolution? “I wish I knew, but there are estimates that in five million years, the Y chromosome will disappear altogether, and with it, the males of our species,” she said with a cheeky smile.
She does have concerns that the human species could develop a flaw in its genetic makeup that could one day eradicate our species. “That could happen when we no longer have access to clean air, water and food.”
But can we play a part in sustaining our kind? Phipps is emphatic with her response, and leaves plenty of food for thought: “Reduce our numbers, and take our environment more seriously. We need to educate ourselves and our young to reduce our carbon footprint, conserve more natural resources, stop deforestation, use less and find cleaner sources of energy such as solar wind. Be more mindful of our destructive and wasteful habits. Our injudicious use of antibiotics has led to the evolution of highly resistant bacteria, which is a huge health problem.”
She divulges this with the kind of conviction that’s hard to be ignored. After all, if there are people out there who know this best, she’s certainly one of them.