In the recently released Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings by Subject 2017, Universiti Malaya's engineering faculty was ranked 35th in the "engineering and technology" category.
This result means UM has outperformed top ranked engineering schools in the world, including Princeton (37th), the University of Sydney (41st) and Cornell (47th).
Looking at specific subjects offered by the faculty, UM's electrical engineering ranked 23rd, mechanical engineering 33rd and chemical engineering garnered the 38th spot - all these in the arena of the world's top universities.
UM was also placed at 6th in the world with a score of 94.6 in the Hirsh Index indicator, ahead of the National University of Singapore (93) and Imperial College London (91.6).
Also known as the "H-Index", it is a way of measuring both the productivity and impact of the published work of a scientist or scholar.
The news of UM's achievement received positive coverage in social media.
Curious to find out more, I emailed Prof Ir Dr Noor Azuan Abu Osman, Dean of UM's Engineering faculty for his thoughts on this. He responded. It was a nine-page dossier (clearly this man is passionate).
A JOURNEY MANY YEARS IN THE MAKING
My first question: How did the Engineering Faculty get to where it is today?
Professor Azuan responded: "The Ministry of Higher Education played a pivotal role. It all started in 2007 when UM was granted Research University status.
The message from the government was that research was important for this nation to develop. This gave birth to a culture of research.
"Things really took off in 2011 when the Ministry provided special funds through the High Impact Research (HIR) project. Between 2011 and 2016, UM Engineering received about RM80mil in funding from the Government under HIR.
We used the funds to intensify our publications and citations, which have now increased almost 5-fold."
(At this point in Prof Azuan's dossier, there was a chart indicating that UM out-publishes Tokyo Tech, Caltech, and Carnegie Mellon).
IMPACTING THE RAKYAT AND INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITIES
I did point out to Prof Azuan that high publication numbers were rendered meaningless if there wasn't any positive impact on society. A single Caltech publication could possibly change the world, right?
"UM Engineering always takes into consideration the rakyat as its foremost priority," he stated.
"We are constantly innovating and undertaking research that will impact the lives of our community."
He cited four positive innovations – a green home, a water treatment system, a new way to combat the spread of dengue, and bionic prosthetics.
"Firstly, in order to make housing more affordable especially for the lower income group, UM Engineering has developed a 'green house' that utilises green technology. We have developed state of the art building material using oil palm waste to replace the bricks.
And, the green house can be equipped with a solar system for electricity which, by the way, we also developed.
"Secondly, clean water for the green home can be sourced from nearby lakes using our very own ultrafiltration (UF) system.
The UF system, which uses solar energy, could treat and render water from hills, rivers, wells and rain to make it safe for consumption.
We installed this UF system to assist during the Kelantan floods in 2015. Recently, we installed it at Rumah Senabong Mawa in Sungai Kua, Selangau, Sibu, Sarawak to great effect. I must thank Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) for working with us to make this possible."
On the fight against dengue, Prof Azuan shared: "We have found a way to stop the spread of dengue plaguing our community and regionally in South-East Asia. We invented the 'Eco-Greenery outdoor lighting system'. It works by producing low levels of carbon dioxide by combining ultraviolet light with titanium dioxide to emulate the smell of a human being. The carrier mosquitoes are attracted to the smell and are captured upon entering the contraption.
"To make it green and energy-efficient, the Eco-Greenery outdoor lighting system is designed to harness electricity from wind and solar energy and to off-set the tiny amounts of carbon emissions needed to trap the mosquitoes. The lamp is also designed to continue working in flood situations, while alerting search and rescue centres to dangerous water levels."
THE ROAD AHEAD
Prof Azuan is a man with a plan who isn't resting on his laurels.
"We have various targets and strategies in place to continuously improve. Internally, we already have a 2014-2018 blueprint. We encourage our faculty members to attend training courses and to have sabbaticals at the world’s best universities; we want out professors to collaborate with industry and overseas partners; we want to attract more international students; and we obtain the latest technologies and more.
"We want to produce holistic engineering graduates. We believe we can provide them a unique experience.
"In order to realise our visions, we'll need about RM20mil a year in HIR funds.
"Of course, we can't just rely on the Government. Recently, we set up the 'eUM-Industrial Innovation Centre', where we have raised RM230mil cash-in-kind for the next five years (2017 to 2020) from well known industry partners such as Daikin, Ossur, Rhode & Schwarz, Proton and Motorola.
"We have recently established our very own Engineering Business Unit (EBU) and have a three-pronged strategy to focus on business development opportunities for the faculty. This includes greater marketing and visibility, strong alumni relations, and greater industry collaboration," he said.
Prof Azuan says that he's excited by the prospects of the future.
"Let us stand tall and continue to strive together for the betterment of our future generations, and make our engineering faculty the premier choice of students and staff," he said.
My last question: What's UM’s target?
"To be a top 20 engineering faculty in the world by 2020," he said.
I sincerely believe UM can do it.
I would like to thank Prof Azuan and Prof Ir Dr Ramesh Singh, Deputy Dean, of the Faculty of Engineering, UM for contributing to this piece.
> The view expressed are entirely the writer's own.