Who doesn’t want to know how things work?
That’s the reply chemical engineer Dr Luqman Chuah Abdullah offers when asked why he chose science.
The professor at Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering says it’s the thrill of discovery – the feeling of being a pioneer.
Perhaps that’s why he has such a wide range of interests, from waste water separation technologies to vegetable oil-based roof insulators.
“Being a scientist doesn’t mean you are working in a lab for the rest of your life,” he says.
He enjoys looking at problems in the real world and coming up with innovative solutions – for example, developing bio-based materials as an alternative to chemical-based coagulants or adsorbents, to treat industrial waste water. And vegetable based fillers as an alternative to heavy-metal fillers for added strength in packaging – one of those areas not many people have looked at (work on biodegradable plastics is much more in vogue).
He’s even been developing biodegradable coating materials as environmentally friendly alternatives to VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and looking at the use of palm oil fatty acids in insulation materials, potentially marketable to countries that experience a wide variation of temperatures.
One of the greatest things about being a scientist, however, is getting to network with and be inspired by the great minds around you.
He had never been involved in phytochemistry (the chemistry of plants) until he met some big names in the field while co-supervising a PhD student.
Talking to them sparked Luqman’s interest in the subject, and before he knew it he was studying herbal bio-active compounds for use as potential anti-cancer agents.
The plant of interest for him is Mahkota Dewa or God’s Crown (Phaleria macrocarpa), an evergreen indigenous to Indonesia and Malaysia.
Luqman’s team already has a patent on the discovery, and has applied for a research grant.
The long-term goal is of course to work with industry to develop and take a product to market.
The right ingredients
Luqman thinks biotechnology is starting to offer technical solutions for many of the world’s health and resource-based problems.
Malaysia would do well to develop its local “bioeconomy” with aims for biotechnology to contribute to an increasing share of the country’s economic output.
A recent national focus on creating the incentives and support structure to encourage bio-based medical, industrial and agricultural companies to set up shop in Malaysia is a start.
It should create a greater pool of industry takers to buy up local innovations, and fund them through to commercialisation.
At present, there seems to be a lack of private investor readiness to place its bets on local science, possibly related to the general public perception of “local” versus “foreign” products.
That perception is not helped by the lack of recognition for local scientific achievements, and outlets to make them known.
“It’s essential to develop the media and communication skills of researchers, enabling them to more effectively share their achievements,” Luqman notes.
Nurturing talent is also important.
“The methods used in teaching science and math in school and college are often boring and ineffective.
“Too much of our science education is based on imparting a body of knowledge, and then having students apply it to pre-defined problems, complete with standard answers given by teachers!” he observes.
“It does nothing to develop capacity for scientific reasoning.”
The most effective way to create a scientist, he feels, is to cultivate that spark of curiosity.
There’s a quote from Socrates that Luqman identifies with: “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”
Science is all about figuring out how things work.
And when you are driven by curiosity, well, that’s all the motivation you really need.
Professor Dr Luqman Chuah Abdullah
Current job title: Professor, Deputy Dean (Industrial Relationship and International), School of Graduate Studies, UPM
Likes: Reading, stamp collecting, classical music, musicals, opera, art, cycling, jungle trekking
Dislikes: Gossiping, feeling lazy
Favourite song/music: Classical music (Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1), pop
Childhood ambition: Scientist
Grew up in: Taiping, Perak
Favourite food: Nasi lemak, dim sum, Nyonya food
If you could be a herb/ plant, what would you be and why? Bamboo. In Chinese culture, it is frequently associated with pine and plum as the “Three Winter Friends”. The bamboo is considered a gentleman with perfect virtues. It combines upright integrity with accommodating flexibility; it has the perfect balance of grace and strength, or the Yin and the Yang. Besides, bamboo also personifies the life of simplicity. It produces neither flowers nor fruit. The hollow trunk reminds the Chinese of humility. One artist said: “Bamboo, who understands humility by emptying his heart, (without stuffing it with arrogance).”
You are transported to a desert island and only get to take three items with you, what are they? Magnifying glass (to start fires or send signals to passing vessels), survival knife, waterproof blanket (doubles as a carrier).