Prof Teo Soo-Hwang was told that she could invite between 50 to 60 people to the investiture ceremony to receive her honorary award from Queen Elizabeth II, the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
She asked for a little leeway – there were “just a few” more people whom she had to share the moment with.
In the end, more than 100 of the professor’s family, friends, colleagues and associates turned up at British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell’s residence in Kuala Lumpur last month, clapping wildly as she received the award.
“I get to keep this precious (medal) but I would be a fool to think that this award is just about me. This honour really belongs to a large team of individuals who have supported our efforts in changing the outcome for cancer patients through research.
“Our board members, donors – not just the big donors but those who have run marathons and conducted bake sales to raise funds for us – clinicians, oncologists and surgeons who are our partners and of course our patients.
“I couldn’t possibly invite everyone … but I did invite about 150,” says Prof Teo, with a smile so wide it laid bare her excitement.
More than anything, the award recognises Malaysia as a country capable of ground-breaking research, she says.
“Britain has the top universities in the world and top leaders in medical research, so it is really humbling to win an OBE for services to medical research for work done in Malaysia.
“All too often, we celebrate Malaysian scientists who are doing well abroad. We don’t often talk about or value scientists who are doing something significant in Malaysia. There are countries that are doing good science and we are one of them. And we can continue to make a difference even though we have serious constraints,” she says.
The chief executive officer of Cancer Research Malaysia (CRM) was chosen for the Queen’s honour for pioneering research in the diagnosis and treatment for a variety of cancers prevalent among Malaysians and other Asian communities, as well as developing research collaborations between Malaysia and Britain in Asian genetics.
Among other breakthroughs, CRM has developed a vaccine for oral and nasopharyngeal cancer and is testing whether it can reduce recurrence and prevent these cancers from happening.
Their Patient Navigation Programme has successfully made breast cancer testing more affordable for low-income patients. (from more than RM10,000 to less than RM2,000).
“We have provided genetic testing to 16,000 women in Malaysia and Singapore. For many families, the information about their genetic tests has helped them make decisions about screening and prevention that could save their lives.
“Asian cancers, Asian genetics and local disparities in access to treatment do not attract research dollars from the West. We have started on this journey and shown that we can do this right here in Malaysia for Malaysians,” says Prof Teo with pride.
Putting Malaysia on the map
Prof Teo was a cancer researcher in Cambridge, Britain, when she was approached by Tan Sri Ahmad Yahaya – then chief executive of Sime Darby – to return to Malaysia to establish a non-profit cancer research initiative.
A Sime Darby scholar, she accepted the challenge and came home in 1998.
The Cancer Research Initiatives Foundation (now called Cancer Research Malaysia) was founded in 2001. It focused on conducting research on oral cancer which affects Asians and kills 50% of patients within three years.
“I gave up the Royal Society Fellowship and a career at the University of Cambridge to come back to Malaysia. Compared to the UK, the resource challenges in Malaysia are serious, not just in terms of funding but also in terms of talent and infrastructure. But, more than ever, Malaysia needs research. My goal is still to establish a sustainable research facility for the good of Malaysians,” she says.
What was supposed to be a short-term initiative has grown into a full-fledged research organisation that has produced pioneering research. CRM is the country’s first independent, non-profit cancer research organisation. It is funded and staffed by Malaysians, conducting research on Malaysia and Asian-specific cancers.
“Cancer is getting more common and we can no longer just hold an umbrella over every patient who needs support. It is going to rain harder with more and more cancer patients and we need to find sustainable ways to shift the clouds, to provide more umbrellas for more cancer patients.
“Research can deliver on these and it is critical that we find ways to fund this work here in Malaysia,” explains Prof Teo passionately.
Although their research started on oral cancers, their research initiatives now include work on breast cancer (the most common cancer in Malaysia), ovarian and nasopharyngeal cancer, developing new therapies to cure the dreaded disease.
Despite her accomplishments, Prof Teo gets visibly agitated when she is asked if she is “the best” researcher in Malaysia.
“Sometimes people ask me if I am the best in Malaysia or the first to do something. It’s not about that. To be able to beat cancer, we need a good team. We can never do it alone.
“Scientists have to collaborate with each other and not compete against each other. If we collaborate more, we can do more. That’s what Cancer Research Malaysia is really about. It is the glue that holds all of us together …. researchers, clinicians, patients and the public. And we collaborate with people locally as well as internationally and this is what will get us somewhere,” she emphasises.
What keeps her going is her conviction that their research will one day bear the ultimate result and reverse cancer.
“Where we are with discoveries now, there is hope. It might not happen as fast as we would like it to happen but there is a Malaysian organisation, as tiny as we are, that is trying to do something about it,” she says.
Girls, do science
Prof Teo grew up in Petaling Jaya, and does not recall having grand ambitions as a child. She was a good student but never dreamed of spearheading research.
“I never grew up wanting to be anything big. But I grew up in a family where we were encouraged to do something meaningful with our lives.
“I would have been happy to not have a career and be a wife. But as my work progressed, I had opportunities to train with the top scientists in Cambridge and then to work with donors and partners and set up cancer research in Malaysia,” she says.
Prof Teo did her secondary school and junior college education in Singapore as an Asean scholar. She then received a scholarship from the Sime Darby Foundation to study natural sciences at the University Cambridge, and stayed on to do her doctorate. After completing her PhD in 1996, she worked in Cambridge as a research fellow before returning to serve the country.
Although she never felt discriminated because of her gender, Prof Teo says it is challeging for women in science to stay the course.
“Like any woman, the time that we need to focus on building our career is also the time that we need to focus on building a family.
“I was fortunate because my fellowship enabled me to take time off to be with my children for a longer period when they were born.
“Now, I find a way to work efficiently so that when I’m home, I get to be with my family.
“Also, I have an incredibly supportive husband who has never questioned where I go or what time I come back,” she says.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from her story, Prof Teo says, it is that girls, like boys, can excel in science.
“My message? Girls, do science. Science helps solve the world’s problems and Malaysian girls have what it takes to be great scientists. You have to work ridiculously hard … I work all the time but it is possible for all girls to do science, manage a career and still have an amazingly happy family,” she says.