Malaysian scientist gives his views on the nation's scientific field

  • People
  • Wednesday, 16 Jul 2014

Indran now works on uncovering the structure of membrane proteins, contributing to important discoveries in the field of medical science.

We revisit the progress made by a Malaysian scientist who overcame the odds to become part of some groundbreaking research.

It was 2010 when I first met Indran Mathavan for an interview, back when I worked for a different paper. He’d approached us, wanting to tell his story. And in restrospect it was a brave move – not someone seeking recognition or fame for his achievements, but someone genuinely interested in raising awareness for a cause that hadn’t received due attention. That much was clear upon meeting him.

The Klang-born 34 year-old Indran seemed inward, shy even, but carried with him an earnest and quiet confidence. He brought a notepad and pen – a mode of communication for when words failed him, which they did, regularly.

A car accident at age five had severely damaged the left side of his brain and left Indran with a motor speech impediment called disarthria, which causes one to stutter. It also left the door open for a world of insight into how social stigma impacts lives, exposing how a lack of awareness and acceptance among average Malaysians can makes life unnecessarily difficult for anyone who happens to have a speech disorder.

The peg for my story would be how perseverance in the face of adversity can help you overcome the greatest odds. And the odds for Indran – until he was awarded a National Science Foundation scholarship to pursue his doctorate at one of the world’s leading membrane protein laboratories at Diamond Light Source, England – were stacked high indeed.

This was the story he wanted to tell. He spoke slowly, and at times, resorted to writing down his thoughts. I imagined him doing this with prospective Malaysian employers and interview panels, and how they might react. Indran’s experiences said it all: in 100 applications over three years, he made the shortlist for every single one – and was rejected at all of them at the final interview stage.

He didn’t give up, and eventually won the prestigious scholarship opportunity from the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry to join Nobel laureate Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan at Diamond Light Source to study the structure of oil palm proteins.

That project was eventually shelved owing to unavoidable circumstances, and he then found his way to the laboratory of Dr Konstantinos Beis, working on membrane protein crystallography related to drug research.

That was how, four years later, I chanced upon his name as lead author of a study after clicking on the link for a Diamond Light Source press release which had showed up on my Facebook news feed.

Star2 picked it up, resulting in our most recent Science feature on how scientists are looking at how germs wage war on one another for inspiration on how to combat the serious and global threat of spreading antimicrobial resistance.

Having learned about all this great research, and knowing how Indran is among the talented researchers at the forefront of it, it would be remiss of me not to catch up with the Klang-born trooper for a more personal interview. 

Here are some highlights from our e-mail Q&A, including his thoughts on how working abroad at a renowned scientific institution has changed him personally, and his views on the scientific field in Malaysia, his home.

You have been based at the Diamond Light Source Centre for three and a half years now. How have you grown as a scientist since you first arrived, and how have your research interests evolved?

It has definitely been an eye-opener for me in terms of technology, work culture, critical thinking, adaptability and having (a) creative approach towards solving scientific questions.

Diamond and its Membrane Protein Laboratory has further enhanced my understanding and appreciation of how science works globally.

Do you still keep track of developments related to the world of science in Malaysia?

Yes, I do keep track on the latest development and I have also seen some good publications from Malaysia in recent years.

What is it like working in this collaborative hub where international scientists from multiple disciplines work alongside each other, is there a strange sense of camaraderie from knowing you are all “feeding off” the same light beam?

It has been truly competitive and intellectually stimulating to work with my fellow researchers in Diamond who come from various parts of the world. We have worked as part of a big scientific family for a common interest to contribute towards the advancement of human race.

4 Has the experience of working at Diamond Light Source changed / influenced how you view science – and how the discipline should be approached?

My experience working in Diamond has broadened my horizons both personally and professionally on what science means to me. The confidence resulting from working independently in a foreign environment inspires me to face any challenges in future. Accepting science as a way of life is the way forward in this era.

6. What are your plans for the near future – what is your next step? Do you have any plans to return to Malaysia, and why?

I’m currently back in Malaysia to fulfill my bond with (the ministry) whilst exploring the opportunities available to further contribute to the field of research.

7. What sort of lessons might be useful for Malaysia, in how to create the right conditions for good research to flourish?

We strongly need to cultivate a science culture in our society, to inspire more motivated researchers and the future generation. Malaysia has immense potential and keen interest for developing science strategies, however (it) falls short in the context of human resource development, brain drain, bureaucracy, funding and prioritisation. 

Focus on good scientific environment; international collaborations; knowledge and technological transfer; progressive science, technology and innovation policies – (these) are some of the key lessons that will go a long way towards helping research in Malaysia to flourish.

Related stories:

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