The work of three Malaysians, in advancing ideas and innovations in their respective fields of science, has been highly cited globally and earned them honour.
THREE weeks ago, Thomson Reuters released a list of the world’s best and brightest scientific minds.
The report, entitled The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds: 2014, analysed data from the last 11 years using the Web of Science and InCites platforms to determine which researchers around the globe have produced work that is most frequently cited by peers.
Among the 3,200 notable individuals were three Malaysian researchers: Prof Dr Saidur Rahman Abdul Hakim from Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Department of Mechanical Engineering, Prof Dr Ishak Hashim from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) School of Mathematical Sciences and Prof Dr Abdul Latif Ahmad from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) Department of Chemical Engineering.
While this may not have come as a complete surprise for Prof Saidur Rahman, who has won UM’s Academic Staff with Highest Accumulated Citations Award twice, it’s a slightly different story for his fellow academics.
“It was a big surprise for me. I found out because I had colleagues sending me congratulatory messages,” says Prof Abdul Latif.
Similarly, it was Prof Ishak’s neighbour who told him that he was in the newspapers.
“I didn’t plan to be on the list. I didn’t even know that such a list existed.”
But the scholar says he is happy to be included with some very big names in Mathematics.
“It feels good to know that your work can benefit other researchers.”
“It’s given me the motivation to do a better job. I will do everything I can to honour the title,” says Prof Abdul Latif.
Though the two researchers have probably never met, they share some common ground: hailing from rubber tapping families, they are the only ones among their siblings to have gone to university.
“Not because they were less smart than me — they just didn’t have the opportunity,” explains Prof Abdul Latif, who completed his bachelor’s, masters and doctorate at the University of Wales.
When his father passed away at the age of three, it fell on his mother to raise and provide for her children single-handedly.
He recalls his mother’s words to him: only education can help change the life of the family.
“I held on to those words and I studied very hard. Forty years later, I guess it shows,” he says with a chuckle.
Prof Abdul Latif joined USM in 1995 after returning home from the United Kingdom and received his professorship in 2006, describing the appointment as the fulfilment of his ultimate dream.
He made his mark in wastewater treatment technology, focusing on membrane technology application.
He successfully developed different polymeric and ceramic membranes to be applied mainly in wastewater treatment but also for air pollution control.
“We filter raw waste water until it becomes crystal clear and is the same quality as drinking water.”
Being able to recycle the water reduces the load on the environment, he explains, adding that looking after the environment is everyone’s responsibility.
The environment is also a concern for Prof Saidur Rahman, who is currently researching industrial energy management, specifically the application of nanofluids in enhancing the performance of heat exchanging devices.
“My main focus is how to improve or how to manage the energy consumption of industrial machinery and equipment using three approaches: by policy, by management and the current focus, by nanotechnology.”
Nanoparticles are dispersed into the base liquid and this nanofluid increases thermal conductivity and consequently improves the energy performance of the equipment, he explains, particularly with heat exchangers.
“A more efficient performance will reduce the cost, because you are using less energy, and also the level of emissions.”
After graduating in mechanical engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Prof Saidur Rahman moved to Malaysia in 1997.
He completed his masters and doctorate at UM, thereafter joining as a lecturer in 2002 and was then appointed professor in 2012. After 17 years, the university has come to mean a lot to him.
“UM is in my heart. Everyone here has helped me to grow to this level. I couldn’t have done it without the support I have received from the university.”
In particular, the scholar is grateful for the RM4mil research grant his department received from the (Higher) Education Ministry, without which his research would have had limited progress and impact, he says.
“A grant is a very important tool to publish more high-impact papers in top quality journals and having access to databases is instrumental in the research process.”
Which is why on his part, Prof Ishak would like to see research in the country receiving more financial support.
He specialises in fluid dynamics and numerical methods, both branches in Applied Mathematics.
He says that for as long as he remembers, he has always been interested in maths.
“I remember in primary school, I had one particular teacher. I liked the way the numbers he wrote looked on the chalkboard.”
Mathematics is not just about numbers, he says.
“That’s a common misconception. It might be the case at primary and secondary school, but not so at university level.”
He describes the benefits of having a mathematical head.
“Mathematics has a flow to it, where one step feeds into the next. You’re more organised and more meticulous when you think in a mathematical way.”
After completing his doctorate in fluid dynamics at the University of Strathclyde, he returned to UKM in 1998 and was made professor in 2008.
Due to a lack of facilities at the time, he ventured into the area of numerical methods, which he says is common for researchers.
“You have to adapt or be stagnant. To progress as a researcher you can’t just rely on one thing.”
And as a researcher, you want to be relevant, he continues.
“You have to do work that is interesting to many researchers.”
Prof Saidur Rahman agrees, “It’s important to produce useful research that other people use. Whatever research we do, the intention is to desseminate it to society so that communities may benefit.”
He explains how his own research shifted following the completion of his PhD thesis.
“I asked myself, was my research really impactful or meaningful and the answer was no.”
So he analysed top cited articles and found that there were ingredients, or what he calls “spices,” to impactful research.
“I started to strategise my research towards hot topics and topics that would reach a wider audience. If your research covers a large industrial scale, it will have a bigger impact. In 2009, I had 68 citations. Today in Google Scholar, I have 4,567. And this is purely because I started to write strategic papers.”
As researchers, their biggest challenge is with the industry.
“I would like to see the industry being more open to degree holders in mathematics. They don’t believe that mathematicians can take up jobs in engineering or business, for example, but just because you study mathematics, does not mean that you can only be a maths teacher,” says Prof Ishak, who hopes to establish a National Institute of Fluid Dynamics before he retires.
“A lot of findings are being made but there are still no takers from the industry. So as researchers, we become slightly frustrated at this mismatch. In my time left as a researcher, I want to work hard to collaborate with the industry to see my technology being used,” says Prof Abdul Latif.
Prof Saidur Rahman says that the ultimate goal is to conduct research that links to the end commercialised product.
“For as long as I am blessed with good health, I will continue with my research to achieve that goal.”