Medical researcher Dr Vanitha dispels the "girls can't do science" myth

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  • Friday, 28 Jun 2019

The breakthrough is medicine research is crucial to tackle serious infections and spread of diseases. Photos: The Star/Yap Chee Hong

Dr Vanitha Mariappan never dreamed of pursuing her PhD in medical microbiology. Although she had learned the subject while studying her bachelor and master degrees in biochemistry, she wasn't drawn to it.

“But after completing my masters degree, I was looking forward to learning something new and that was when I saw an opportunity to venture into medical microbiology. I grabbed it to challenge myself. After some time, I was much convinced that microbiology isn’t that bad,” says Dr Vanitha who went to become an award-winning researcher seeking solutions in the field of infectious disease.

Dr Vanitha, who is with Universiti's Malaya’s medical faculty, is part of the growing number of women who are in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field.

“Undoubtedly, women are still underrepresented in the scientific research field and gender exists in certain countries. Parents should be more open-minded and encourage their daughters to learn science. Teachers also can play a part to introduce and motivate girls to develop an interest in STEM subjects,” says Dr Vanitha, who together with a team of researchers, recently clinched the 2019 Small Grant Award in Humanities and Social Sciences from Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity based in London.

Dr Vanitha works tireless to tackle infectious diseases.

She dispels the notion that girls are not inclined towards science subjects.

Dr Vanitha, from Desa Pandan, KL, is the only child among five siblings who chose a science-related career.

“My father died when I was 10 years old. My mother was the sole breadwinner who worked long hours to make ends meet. Amma was my source of inspiration to study hard and succeed in life. I am thankful my siblings have been supportive of my career choice too,” says the 30-something-year old researcher who clinched a doctoral thesis distinction award on medical microbiology from Universiti Malaya in 2012.

Most of Dr Vanitha’s fundamental research is on understanding pathogens, and how they can trigger diseases in host organisms. As a medical researcher, she needs a strong foundation in immunology, microbial infection and biochemistry.

“The pressing issue in Malaysia is curbing antimicrobial resistance and finding a substitute for antibiotics or potential therapy against bacterial infections. My job involves studying bacterial factors and researching on the host and environmental factors that could worsen infections,” says Dr Vanitha, who works closely with Universiti Malaya Medical Centre to examine various types of bacteria that cause infectious diseases.

Each day poses different challenges for the researcher. It includes dealing with people from all walks of life, learning different research methods and encountering new findings. Her work hours are unpredictable and long. It can range anything between eight hours and 45 hours.

“Working in the lab isn’t a 9am–5pm job. Our working hours differ depending on a day-to-day job scope. Often, medical researchers are pressed for time to identify the cause of illness and find solutions to save patients’ lives,” says Dr Vanitha, whose job scope includes training, supervising and mentoring research-based postgraduate students.

Dr Vanitha’s fundamental research includes understanding pathogens, and how it can trigger diseases to the host.

Indeed, a career in medical research is challenging and time-consuming, with many trial and errors, and optimisation steps. It can get frustrating when she doesn’t get the expected results after super long hours (or days) on a particular experiment.

“As a go-getter, I would take some time to shake it off, and figure out ways to make things better and strive till I get it right. Collectively, I believe that our research would significantly contribute towards the advancement of our nation.”

She is also working on understanding biofilm-associated anti-microbial resistance of intracellular Gram-negative bacteria. In addition, Dr Vanitha and her research team have also worked on antimicrobial peptides and bacterial-eating bacteriophage therapy, as alternative antimicrobial strategies.

Besides research, Dr Vanitha manages one of UM’s biosafety laboratories, conducts scientific data collection and drafts research articles. She writes grant proposals (institutional, national and international), gives seminar/ talks and is as a peer reviewer for scientific journals and drafting theses.

"Learning through mistakes has helped me a lot in becoming a better person," says Dr Vanitha.

Her job scope and research studies are undoubtedly impressive, and she has been selected for numerous international fellowships including the 2016 Australia–APEC Woman in Research Fellowship in Darwin, Australia, 2014 Asean-Korea Exchange Fellowship Programme in Daejeon, South Korea, and 2013 Hong Kong University Pasteur Cell Biology Course in Hong Kong.

Over the years, she has accumulated a number of prestigious awards too. In 2015, she won the Young Investigators Presenter Award, European Melioidosis Congress, University of Cambridge, Britain. Two years ago, she clinched the Travel Award during the 6th Japan Medical Innovation Programme, organised by Kyushu University and Japan-Asia Youth Exchange Program in Science.

Last year, she added another feather to her cap by winning the Young Woman in Health and Medical Sciences Award (Medical Microbiology category), Venus International Women Awards Foundation, India.

“While it is a challenging profession, I enjoy my job. With determination and positivity, and a series of research missions in life, I aim to tackle one thing at a time. Learning through mistakes has helped me a lot in becoming a better person and I still keep learning and getting inspired every day,” says the winner of the Merck’s 2010 Young Scientist Award (Bioscience category).

Despite her busy schedule, Dr Vanitha sets aside time for fun and play. The taekwondo black belt exponent thinks it is important to maintain a balance between work life, family and friends.

"Work smart, play hard and live life to the fullest. Life is more than what we think it is. I enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and traveling. To unwind, I love to read a good book and watch a movie. Additionally, I’m learning structured dance professionally and through that, I’ve learned to socialise too.

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