Since its inception in Malaysia in 2006, the L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science award has been presented to women scientists for their tireless efforts in critical issues. Their research is serious business, encompassing treatments for life-threatening diseases, increasing food supplies and sustainable development.

This year, three awards have been presented to women who turn to science as a tool to improve lives and the environment. The recipients are Dr Chai Lay Ching, Dr Lam Sze Mun and Dr Norhayati Abdullah, who have each walked away with a grant of RM30,000 to help pursue their research.

Two of the researchers are looking at improved methods for wastewater treatment and sustainable energy production. The other winning research focus is on a cost-effective, time-sensitive food-testing method to detect dangerous bacteria causing food-borne diseases.

Call for entries began in April: 157 Malaysian women scientists (aged below 40) applied for the fellowship. To date, the fellowship in Malaysia has awarded and provided over RM1mil in research grants to over 40 outstanding female scientists.

Globally, 2,700 women scientists from across the world have been recognised for their work. Some recipients have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

Women scientists account for only 30% of the world’s researchers and only 11% of academic leadership positions in Europe.

This year, L’Oréal-Unesco also launched the Male Champions for Women in Science initiative where male scientists are encouraged to contribute to better gender balance in science.

Twenty-five eminent male scientists have committed to the movement, including French scientist/geneticist Axel Kahn and French math whiz Cédric Villani.

Star2 speaks to Malaysia’s winning scientists to find out what makes them tick.

Dr Norhayati says water sanitation is crucial to ensure the future generation have access to clean and safe water.

Quest for cleaner wastewater

Associate Professor Dr Norhayati Abdullah has fond memories of her childhood in Kampung Tenang in Labis, Johor. Like most small-town children, her home was surrounded by greenery, including fruit, rubber and oil palm trees.

“Growing up in the village was fun. But the smell of palm oil mill effluent (POME) was unpleasant. It releases compounds like ammonia and sulphides into waterways.

“As I progressed in my career, I became more concerned about the environmental impact of POME wastewater in receiving water bodies,” says Dr Norhayati, who is with Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Biosciences and Medical Engineering Faculty.

Dr Norhayati’s work is on an alternative treatment method for POME. Her research focuses on using aerobic granular sludge, which is seeds made of microorganisms.

These microorganisms break down organic compounds in wastewater into much simpler composites. This helps treated wastewater to be released safely into water bodies.

“This technology is fairly new in palm oil treatment. Through more research, we hope to translate the granulation method to other industries like textile, pulp paper and dairy waste water.”

Dr Norhayati, 38, has been researching aerobic granular sludge technology since 2009. She says water sanitation is crucial to ensure the future generation has access to clean water.

“The Unesco World Water Development Report warns that about five billion people could be denied regular supply of water by 2050. Therefore, more emphasis should be placed in water waste management.

“We need to find better irrigation methods and ways to use treated recycled water in plantations,” says the mother-of-three, who hopes to put her research into practice by 2030.

Dr Norhayati, a fellow and board member of the International Water Association, dedicates the award to her mother, housewife Siti Hajal Haron, 58.

“My mother never had the opportunity to pursue her studies due to financial difficulties.

“She ensured I worked hard to obtain my degree, masters and PhD. She is my pillar of strength.”

“As a young scientist, I am happy that women’s accomplishments in science and engineering are recognised,” says Dr Lam.

Renewable energy

Dr Lam Sze Mun’s research is on photocatalytic fuel cell (PFC) in treating wastewater and energy recovery.

Working on the fact that wastewater treatment only decomposes organic matter, she is studying a new method that eliminates organic matter and recovers energy stored in it.

Her research is focused on creating clean and sustainable energy from the treatment of greywater, which is wastewater generated from households without faecal contamination.

“PFCs have attracted interest worldwide due to their ability to treat organic wastewater and generate electricity simultaneously. This is a promising way to address environmental pollution and help generate electricity,” says the assistant professor at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Engineering and Green Technology Faculty.

If Dr Lam succeeds in her research, the technology can be used to spearhead Malaysia’s movement towards using green technology in fields like energy and the environment.

“My vision for the research is to lessen carbon footprints and fuel consumption. I also hope to focus on recycling and reusing greywater,” says Dr Lam, who has spent 11 years researching PFC.

At 34, she is the youngest recipient of the fellowship. She believes women can soar in any field with support, grit and determination.

“As a young scientist, I am happy that women’s accomplishments in science and engineering are recognised. I encourage girls to pursue their interests in science.”

Winning the award corrects the perception that women have no place in science, says Dr Chai.

Sniffing out food bacteria

Dr Chai Lay Ching’s research is focused on developing a real-time method to detect dangerous bacteria that cause food-borne diseases in raw chicken.

Several studies in Malaysia show a significant percentage of raw chicken meat in markets test positive for salmonella, a bacterial disease that affects the intestinal tract.

Dr Chai’s research is based on the detection of specific volatile organic compounds (VOC) produced by bacteria.

“The conventional laboratory-based testing for raw chicken is slow. It can no longer meet the demands of today’s large-scale food production. Given the growing demand for food production, it is vital to have VOC-based biosensors to sniff out pathogenic bacteria in food,” says the 37-year-old scientist from Taiping, Perak.

Dr Chai, a senior lecturer from Universiti Malaya’s Science Faculty, is busy creating a real-time automated biosensor.

“We are designing an easy-to-perform tool that can detect highly pathogenic bacteria in food. This can help save lives and reduce death from food-borne illnesses,” says Dr Chai, who aims to release a VOC-based biosensor prototype by 2023.

She is humbled by the award, saying it serves as a platform to highlight women scientists’ achievement.

“It corrects the general public’s misperception that women have no place in science. The award promotes women in science and showcases that gender isn’t a determination of the quality of a science.”