Malaysian conservationist wins Women In Science award for work with mangroves


Dr Alison Wee is one of the recipients of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards 2022 for her conservation work with mangrove swamps. Photo: L'Oreal Foundation

Growing up at the foothills of Penang Hill and playing by the beaches of Batu Ferringhi as a child instilled in Dr Alison Wee a love for nature and the environment.

That’s why the assistant professor at the School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences in the University of Nottingham Malaysia has been working to conserve the country’s natural coastal habitats.

“Conserving our natural habitats is so close to my heart. I hope that our future generations can enjoy the close contact with nature that I was blessed with as a child,” says the 39-year-old mother of a six-year-old daughter.

Dr Alison Wee is one of the recipients of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards 2022 for her conservation work with mangrove swamps. Photo: L'Oreal FoundationDr Alison Wee is one of the recipients of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards 2022 for her conservation work with mangrove swamps. Photo: L'Oreal FoundationWee was awarded the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Awards 2022 for her environmental work with mangrove swamps. She focuses on using environmental DNA or eDNA, which is the metabarcoding of fish, to detect overfishing and pollution in mangrove swamps. This helps ensure the survival and continued growth of the mangrove swamps which are vital to the marine ecosystem.

“I collect data of coastal animals and determine the balance of species. It’s important to understand the presence and movement of the fish species that live in our seas, so we can conserve their habitats.

“These species are threatened by extinction because of climate change, pollution, over harvesting and rising sea-levels due to global warming. Having this data will help us achieve the sustainable development of coastal biological systems,” says Wee.

The annual award recognises women scientists and helps them advance their research in their chosen field with a RM30,000 seed fund.

Even though environmental science was not a popular career choice when Wee was growing up, she was inspired to pursue it by British ethologist and conservationist Jane Goodall.

“While awaiting my STPM results, I worked at a bookstore in Penang and read Jane Goodall’s book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey,” she recounts.

Wee was so moved by it that she sent a handwritten letter to Goodall, telling her about her aspiration to follow Goodall’s footsteps to become a conservationist.

She was greatly surprised when Goodall replied, in handwriting, urging Wee to pursue her dreams, and to be bold and never give up.

“So here I am today, fulfilling my youthful dream and doing my humble part for Mother Nature. It’s truly all that I’ve dreamed of: the sunset boat ride after a long field day in the mangroves, the endless hours in the lab, perfecting a molecular technique, the friendship with local communities and brilliant scientists worldwide,” she says.

Protect coastal ecosystems

Growing up at the foothills of Penang Hill and playing by the beaches of Batu Ferringhi as a child instilled in Dr Alison Wee a love for nature and the environment. Photo: L’Oreal FoundationGrowing up at the foothills of Penang Hill and playing by the beaches of Batu Ferringhi as a child instilled in Dr Alison Wee a love for nature and the environment. Photo: L’Oreal FoundationWee highlights the great need for coastal ecosystems to be protected.

“Tropical coastal ecosystems, especially in South-East Asia, are severely threatened by climate change, pollution, over-harvesting, sea-level rise and natural disasters,” she says.

“The mangroves are where most fish species and other sea creatures such as crustaceans live, breed, and nurse their young. I wanted to understand the impact of environmental change on them and help conserve their habitat,” she explains.

“Mangroves excite me in many ways as they are full of life,” she says, adding that she stumbled upon this amazing habitat when she was offered funding to conduct a PhD project on mangroves from the Malay Peninsula (Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore).

She took up the opportunity without much thought, fell in love with mangroves and her interest has never wavered.

“What I love most about working with mangroves is also the experience of riding the boat back, backdropped by a beautiful sunset and the delicious seafood I get to enjoy on certain days,” she says.

Wee feels that her work will help Malaysians.

“South-East Asia is a global biodiversity hotspot. Unfortunately, one third of global wild fish stocks are overexploited, with tropical Asia being one of the most threatened regions in the world. Malaysia has one of the highest rates of mangrove loss – next to only Indonesia – in South-East Asia,” she notes. “Have you ever wondered whether our grandchildren will get to enjoy the seafood Malaysia is blessed with such as ikan pari bakar (grilled stingray), cincalok (fermented shrimp paste) and keropok lekor (fish crackers)? The answer is, highly unlikely,” she says.

“In future decades, 1.3 billion people living within 100km of the tropical coast will be eating seafood of smaller size, lower quality, laced with microplastics and heavy metals, and all at a higher price! Furthermore, if we don’t take care of our coastal resources now, some fish species might be totally extinct in the next generation,” she cautions.

Challenges in conservation work

Wee was awarded the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Awards 2022 for her environmental work with mangrove swamps. Photo: L'Oreal FoundationWee was awarded the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Awards 2022 for her environmental work with mangrove swamps. Photo: L'Oreal FoundationWee admits there are challenges involved in her conservation work. A scientific career is fulfilling and rewarding, but can be demanding at times, she says.

“Malaysian women pursuing a scientific career have to juggle between work and family.

“I am a keen supporter of women in science, especially mothers in science. I pride myself in successfully mentoring Ni Kadek Erosi Undaharta, a young mother of two from Indonesia who came to my lab as a PhD student in 2017.

“In 2020, she became the first female staff in Bali Botanical Garden to hold a PhD degree. Currently, I am supervising Wenji Luo, a PhD student from Wuzhou China. When Wenji joined my lab, she told me that she decided to conceive during her PhD studies due to family pressures. I supported her throughout her pregnancy and helped her plan her work to accommodate her maternity leave. Today, Wenji is a proud mother of a bubbly two-year-old, and undergoing a year-long, country-level research exchange to the National University of Singapore,” she cites as examples.

I firmly believe that given a conducive environment, women – and mothers – in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, can thrive in their career and at home, she says.

Wee is a solo-parent to her six-year-old daughter in Semenyih, Selangor – close to her university campus – while her husband, also a researcher, works in Brunei.

“Being a mother and a solo parent, I understand the everyday struggles of women pursuing a scientific career, especially when we need to juggle both work and family,” she says.

Wee focuses on using environmental DNA or eDNA - which is the metabarcoding of fish - to detect overfishing and pollution in mangrove swamps. Photo: L'Oreal FoundationWee focuses on using environmental DNA or eDNA - which is the metabarcoding of fish - to detect overfishing and pollution in mangrove swamps. Photo: L'Oreal Foundation

Wee plans to use the grant money to expand her work to more mangrove habitats and involve more students, especially girls. She is also organising an international symposium on eDNA in March in Kuala Lumpur and will be hosting researchers from South-East Asia, Japan, Sri Lanka, South Africa.

Wee strongly encourages more girls to study science.

“I hope to spread the message of girl power, female courage, passion and tenacity, to a wider audience. I hope to be the Jane Goodall of Malaysia one day, to inspire not only my own daughter, but the daughters of our nation and to tell them the words that were once told to me: ‘no dream is too big for you’,” she concludes.

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