Research fellow Dr Suhaila Sepeai’s striving hard to push for solar power as an alternative source for electrical supply.

Instead of pouring over novels and comic books like most children, Dr Suhaila Sepeai and her three siblings grew up reading newspapers and Science magazines. It was her father, health inspector Sepeai Sapuan’s way of nurturing and guiding his children’s curiosity towards Science.

“I grew up during Tun Dr Mahathir’s first tenure as Prime Minister and the focus at the time was Vision 2020 and turning Malaysia into a scientific society. So, instead of novels, my father would have us sift through newspapers and magazines like Dewan Masyarakat, Dewan Siswa and Dewan Kosmik. These helped build my interest in STEM subjects,” says Dr Suhaila, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI).

Dr Suhaila is the growing number of women researchers specialising in solar technology.

Dr Suhaila specialises in producing nano-electronic devices, like organic light emitting diode (OLED) used in flat panel displays. Malaysia, she says, has the potential to develop solar energy because of its tropical climate.

“Our climate is suitable for solar energy application as we receive direct sunlight four to five hours a day. Solar energy is inexhaustible and sustainable. It helps reduce climate change, carbon emission and air pollution. Furthermore, the solar energy system is easy to utilise and requires less maintenance.”

In 2015, Dr Suhaila and a team of researchers patented the Bifacial Solar Cell with Controllable Optical Transmission, a technology that reduces the manufacturing cost of solar panels.

“Bifacial solar cells are specially designed to produce electricity from both sides of solar panels. Conventional solar panels produce electricity from the top side of solar panels. Bifacial solar cells are a cheaper alternative to conventional solar panels.”

Dr Suhaila is also researching perovskite, a new solar cell material which absorbs higher energy of sunlight.

“This research proposes stacking perovskite and silicon solar cells in tandem configuration. Perovskite on top of silicon solar cells can absorb higher solar energy. Energy efficiency can be enhanced up to 25% photovoltaic power. Most solar panels in the market are between 16%-18% photovoltaic power.”

Dr Suhaila hopes her research on solar panels can make a small contribution to the environment.

Out of the 20 research fellows in SERI, only four (including Dr Suhaila) are women. This low representation of women scientists, she reckons, isn’t because of girls’ aptitude of Science but because of assumptions that girls “can’t do” well in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Naturally, Dr Suhaila dismisses the notion that girls “can’t do” Maths or that they should study subjects that are ‘not too complicated’. Instead, she believes that more than just competency in Science alone, girls need confidence and determination in order to succeed in STEM.

“Girls tend to be apprehensive about venturing into STEM fields. We can excel in any field, as long as we have a positive mindset. Female students sometimes just assume that girls lack competence in Science subjects and because of this, they lack confidence and often, leave STEM when they encounter difficulties in research,” says the 36-year-old researcher who was one of five Malaysian young scientists to represent the country at the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany in 2016. She was selected among 400 outstanding young scientists from 77 countries by Review Panel of Lindau Council.

A mother of three children herself, Dr Suhaila feels strongly that parents and teachers play a crucial role in inculcating an interest in science in girls.

“At home, parents can allow their children, both girls and boys, to learn about the science behind cooking, for example. Or teach them the scientific inclusion for natural phenomena like rainbows, hail stones or the water cycle (how water evaporates from the surface of the earth, rises into the atmosphere, cools and condenses into rain or snow in clouds, and falls again to the surface). Parents can always turn to Google, YouTube and Instagram for additional information,” shares Dr Suhaila.

Dr Suhaila is living proof that women can excel in STEM fields.

Teachers, she adds, can use the Inquire-Based Science Education (IBSE) method to get their students curious about science.

“Under the IBSE method, teachers raise one question regarding a science concept. Students are then required to work on experiments to answer the question,” says Dr Suhaila adding that encouraging students to take part in Science competitions and exhibitions will further harness students’ interest in STEM subjects.

The differences between genders in STEM, she shares, isn’t in terms of competency but in the approaches to work.

“I’ve learned that men make decisions quickly and they excel in technical aspect. Women, on the other hand, are rational, dynamic and critical thinkers. Both genders have different work styles but everyone brings something to the table.”

“This is my 14th year as a researcher and no one has doubted my capabilities or my knowledge. I am blessed to be surrounded by positive, supportive and outstanding research-mates,” says Dr
Dr Suhaila.

Although the sky is the limit for girls, the Kajang-born scientist feels that opines girls shouldn’t feel pressured to pursue Science just to fulfill parents’ dreams.

“You have to love what you do, whatever you choose to do. Maintain your femininity and be professional and respect will surely come your way,” says Dr Suhaila, who earned her PhD in renewable energy from UKM in 2014.