Dr Mariatulqabtiah Abdul Razak, 38, was awarded the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Award 2022 for her work with monkeypox and aims to develop a fast and cost-effective method for monkeypox virus detection.
“African nations have been dealing with monkeypox viral disease outbreaks ever since its first discovery in 1970. However, in 2022, monkeypox cases have ‘exploded’ and spread to 117 countries worldwide, triggering international alarm.
“The grant money from the award enables my team to develop a fast and cost-effective method for monkeypox virus detection as an early warning to facilitate the actions of public-health officials should the disease emerge in our country,” she explains.
Mariatulqabtiah chose to focus on monkeypox because of her keen interest in poxviruses.
“I’ve worked with the fowlpox virus which infects chickens and turkeys since my PhD years at Imperial College in London from 2007-2011. In general, the genetic material of a poxvirus is stable, which means, unlike influenza or Covid-19, it has less chances of a major mutation.
“But, according to Aris Katzourakis, a professor of evolution and genomics at Oxford University in England, recent data from the 2022 monkeypox DNA showed signs of ‘hypermutation’ caused by the host’s antiviral defences,” she explains.
Mariatulqabtiah adds that when the monkeypox global outbreaks hit the surface post-Covid-19 a year ago, she felt that it was her responsibility to offer her assistance.
“I’ve developed and patented a similar detection method against other viruses before, so I’m confident to take up the challenge against monkeypox,” she adds.
“Monkeypox-infected people show similar clinical symptoms as the common flu and chickenpox. Therefore, speeding up screening methods against monkeypox is vital, because the faster a case is confirmed, the sooner public-health officials can begin containment countermeasures. Establishing such methods will also contribute to Malaysia’s capacity to respond to potential viral outbreaks,” she explains.
Mariatulqabtiah did her Bachelor Degree in biotechnology at Universiti Putra Malaysia, and graduated with a first class honours. She then obtained her PhD in clinical medicine research from the Imperial College London, and was appointed as an academician at the Faculty of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, UPM when she was 27.
“During my PhD years, I had the privilege of being co-supervised by two prominent virologists, Emeritus Professor Dr Mike Skinner of Imperial College London, and Professor Dr Abdul Rahman Omar of UPM. The cross-cultural approach has influenced my research and general way of thinking, and my investigation on viruses,” she says.
Outside the lab, Mariatulqabtiah says she is a “science-art convergence” enthusiast.
“I’ve been coordinating the science-art exhibitions ‘Nature’s Yield and Wonders of Art’ (NYAWA) for several years. We turn scientific research findings obtained from methodical processes into creative artworks, which are easier for the public to engage with.”
Her leisure time revolves around her family which comprises her husband and their four young children.
“Watching my kids grow is the greatest pleasure,” she says. “My husband and I will usually go swimming, skating, or visit the park, with them, during leisure time,” she says.
Inspiration from mum
Mariatulqabtiah’s interest in science was influenced by her mother who was a laboratory assistant at a secondary school and also her retired government servant father.
“It was my parents who inspired me to pursue science as a career, she says.
“My mother would bring my elder sister and me to her lab during school holidays. She also introduced me to the basic science tools. My father, although not in the science field, also instilled in us his vision of his children changing the world through science,” she recounts.
“He often quoted the contribution of Marie Curie, who pioneered radioactivity, and Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin which has saved millions of lives and is still relevant today,”
Mariatulqabtiah admits she has encountered challenges in her research and also as a female scientist.
“Accuracy and precision of diagnostic technologies have a critical role in detecting and managing viral outbreaks, whilst speed is a bonus. One of the challenges we face is ensuring adequate validation has been performed prior to demonstration in the actual operational environment. This involves time and cost, thus progressive support from governmental, industrial and societal funding agencies is essential,” she says.
“I believe Malaysian women scientists do face a subtle hurdle juggling between family and career. But the system has been encouraging and I’m surrounded by passionate women scientists who are also successful wives, mothers, and daughters, so it’s clear that women are able to earn higher degrees and pursue professions in science.
“However, the goal of perfect balance is difficult to achieve. And sometimes, there are dilemmas and sacrifices have to be made. But the best way forward to resolve the situation is through effective communication,” she adds.
Pursuing a career in science
According to Mariatulqabtiah, “making a difference to the world and humanity is the reason many of us researchers pursue a career in science, and it is what motivates us to thrive”.
She also feels it’s important for there to be more women scientists.
“Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine (1937) Albert Szent-Gyorgyi says ‘research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought’. This is one of the reasons why we need more women in science as women bring unique viewpoints to research and scientific conversation.
“Women may ask different questions than men because of our diversified social and emotional upbringing. With a little support, women scientists can contribute to the pool of creativity and promote the holistic representation of innovations,” she says.
“In addition, awards like the ‘L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Award’ motivates young women scientists to continue their research. This grant gives women researchers a chance to share our research and helps fund our projects. So I strongly encourage young women to pursue science as the more multifaceted ideas generated by both women and men, the brighter the future will be for scientific advancement,” she concludes.