Not many of us can list both the north and south poles as places we have visited before, but Assoc Prof Dr Siti Aisyah Alias can.

The marine polar reseacher and lecturer is one of few women in the field and she is loving every minute of her work.

As deputy director of the National Antarctic Research Centre (NARC) in the Malaysian Antarctic Research Programme (MARP) at Universiti Malaya (UM), which is also her alma mater, her work focuses on the biodiversity, biochemistry and physiology of marine and polar microbes and fungi. After graduating from UM with a BSc in Ecology in 1991, she went on to obtain her PhD in marine mycology from Britain’s Portsmouth University in 1996.

She returned to Malaysia to work as a lecturer at UM’s Institute of Biological Sciences and started a research programme on marine mycology, later pursuing polar research on fungal diversity and enzymology.

Hailing from Rembau, Negri Sembilan, Siti Aisyah, 51, received the National Young Scientist Award from the then Science, Technology and Environment Ministry in 2001.

Currently, she is attached to the Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences (IOES) in UM. Her interest in the field of science started when she was a kid, having always been a nature-lover.

“(Growing up), I was an inquisitive child. I loved watching scientific documentaries on TV, and admired the level of detail in scientific illustrations. I was also obsessed about our earth as a planet. I love the colour blue and I secretly wanted to explore various parts of the globe,” shared Siti Aisyah in an e-mail interview.

“I remember telling people that I wanted to become a scientist when I was ‘big enough’. In retrospect, I didn’t know what sort of a scientist I wanted to be. I had a knack for ecology and biodiversity (even though at that point of time, I don’t think the terms existed yet!) in secondary school, but long story short, I ended up majoring in ecology as an undergrad. It was then that I saw the opportunity for me to pursue a scientific career,” she said.

Currently, her research focuses on the biodiversity of marine fungi associated with invertebrates (such as corals) and its bioactive compound and understanding how fungi from the poles (Antarctic and Arctic) and the tropics respond to the changing climate.

“Global warming, rising sea levels, and acidifying oceans have very real impact on our planet, including these tiny ‘engineers’ of our environment,” explained Siti Aisyah.

“Fungi are wonderfully weird but interesting creatures. Strains of the same species can sometimes grow differently even when they are all given similar treatments such as temperature (changes) and ultraviolet (exposure).”

She has this advice for young people who are thinking of pursuing a career in research.

“In my opinion, the most important trait to possess when embarking on a Master’s or PhD journey is grit. It definitely helps if you do good research on the programmes you are very interested in.

“Having a string of As or a near-perfect CGPA definitely increases your chance of getting into your dream graduate school but what puts you above the rest are your personal skills, the ability to work and think independently, emotional maturity, giving and receiving constructive criticism, and being supportive and personable to people who are working with you.

“You also need to surround yourself with supportive people from the start, and especially when the going gets tough,” she advised.