When Dr Ho Weng Kee was a young girl, her biggest ambition was to be a kindergarten teacher. And while she never achieved that dream, Ho grew up to be a scientist instead – a statistician, to be exact.
Currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics at University Of Nottingham Malaysia, Ho is one of the three grant recipients of the 2017 L’Oreal-Unesco Awards: National Fellowship programme. The other recipients are Dr Jasy Liew Suet Yan and Dr Teh Su Yean, both from Universiti Sains Malaysia.
The fellowship programme in Malaysia started in 2006 and has awarded/provided more than RM890,000 research grants to 41 deserving women scientists. This year’s programme saw a 5% increase in applications – as many as 208 applicants from 18 fields of sciences were received.
This is the second time Ho, 35, has applied for the grant. “I was very disappointed that I didn’t get it the first time and I think it was because I didn’t allocate enough time to do my proposal. This year, I prepared eight versions of my two-page proposal!” she said during an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor recently.
Ho wanted her proposal to be easily understood so she kept rephrasing some of the sentences to make the whole thing easier to digest. “I’m not a storyteller so it took me a long time to get my proposal ready; but it was worth all that hard work,” she said.
The scientist has definitely come a long way from her days of being “a typical Malaysian girl” at SMK Taman Connaught in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur.
She revealed that she went to that school because it was convenient – it was close to home. She used that same reason when choosing a place to take her A-Levels. “I just wanted somewhere that was close to home because then I only had to wake up 30 minutes before school started!” she said, laughing.
Her dream of becoming a kindergarten teacher evolved in secondary school when she thought about opening her own tuition centre. That then changed: She wanted to be a university lecturer.
“I have loving and supportive parents. They are not highly educated; mum only went to primary school while dad managed to finish secondary school. We were very poor and I remember moving from one room to another as we didn’t have a house. However, the environment they created for my brother and I was one that was very loving. They told us to explore the world.
“My mum said that knowledge is important, that it is wealth. She couldn’t get it when she was young, so she wanted her kids to have it instead,” said Ho, a little teary-eyed.
Using her knowledge for good
Ho’s winning proposal involves using statistics to develop a breast cancer assessment tool, which may make early detection possible.
“I got involved with a team from Cancer Research Malaysia by chance. We worked together on this and our aim is to develop a breast cancer assessment tool that can help identify women who are at higher risk of getting it,” Ho shared.
The creation of a breast cancer assessment tool that is specific to this region is important, especially in Malaysia where the survival rate is one of the lowest in Asia Pacific.
“In Western countries, researchers are working on similar models but those studies and models are based on their population. The genetic architecture of our population is different, so we need to create something that suits our people here. In Malaysia, in the context of breast cancer screening approach, we use something that’s ‘one-size-fits-all’, that is to encourage women aged 50 and above to go for a mammogram. Unfortunately, that is not the optimal strategy,” Ho explained.
Ho, as a collaborating scientist from Cancer Research Malaysia, would be working on the project with Universiti Malaya (which established the Malaysian Breast Cancer Genetic Study) and the National University of Singapore. Patients from the Subang Jaya Medical Centre and Universiti Malaya Medical Centre in Malaysia, as well as from six hospitals in Singapore, are involved in the genetic study and will be part of Ho’s research.
It is in fact the largest breast cancer study in South-East Asia – 8,000 patients and 8,000 healthy women.
“I’m grateful for the Malaysian Breast Cancer Genetic Study as it makes our work possible. But we’re in the era of Big Data, ‘the bigger, the better’. Even though we’re the largest study in South-East Asia, the numbers are actually small compared to studies being done in Europe, for example,” Ho noted.
Going the distance
There is no saying how long the study and research will go on for but Ho is determined to see it through. Being a mother, she feels it is important for her to stay safe and healthy for her son, and to see him grow into adulthood.
“I don’t have a history of breast cancer in my family but that doesn’t mean I can’t get it. Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in Malaysia and now that I have the chance to tackle this problem, I should do all I can to make sure that the study helps.
“I want to see this research through, before I retire. And being a researcher you have to be optimistic, you need to believe that things will work out. You are allowed to be down once in a while but you need to pick yourself up very quickly,” she added.
L’Oreal-Unesco Awards: National Fellowship
The fellowship is open to all Malaysian women researchers and scientists who are under the age of 40 years old. Applicants must either be PhD holders or are currently pursuing research studies in any scientific field.
Each recipient will receive a RM30,000 grant to help pursue their research.
Two jury panels were set up to comb through all the applications. The preliminary panelists for 2017 comprised eight scientists, all of whom are former grant recipients.
The main jury panel for this year was headed by Malaysian astrophysicist Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman, who is also the director of the International Council Of Science Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. Other panelists are Associate Prof Dr Ramzah Dambul, the deputy secretary general, Ministry Of Science, Technology & Innovation (Science Division); Prof Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman, dean of the faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya; and Prof Dr Norzulaani Khalid, director of UM Cares, Universiti Malaya.