Blazing the way for women in science

  • People
  • Wednesday, 08 Mar 2017

International Women's Day is a global day to celebrate women’s achievements and it takes place on March 8 each year.

This year, Star Media Group is marking the whole month of March as "International Women's Month". will be paying tribute to women through our WOW-Women Do Wonders campaign and we want you to join us by sending in stories and pictures of the women in your lives. 

They have blazed a fiery trail for all women to aspire to. They have more than demonstrated that they can hold their own among the best in their chosen fields, and they have done it their way.

Here are four women who have been giants in the field of health and science in Malaysia, role models for not just women, but men as well.

Prof Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman

Universiti Malaya Faculty Of Medicine dean and Centre Of Excellence For Research In AIDS (CERiA) director

The dean has carved a niche in the field of infectious diseases research, particularly HIV and AIDS, throughout her three-decade career, not only as one of Malaysia’s foremost medical specialists but also as the leading voice for communities and civil society in the fight for equal access to health for all.

Among Prof Dr Adeeba’s honours include being named one of the 20 most influential Muslim female scientists in the world.


Having spent many years in Australia, she uprooted herself and her family to return home.

She set up the Infectious Disease Unit at University Hospital, Kuala Lumpur (now University Malaya Medical Centre) in 1997, making it one of the country’s leading infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS tertiary referral centres. As the former Malaysian Aids Council (MAC) president, Prof Dr Adeeba, 53, was instrumental in the introduction and implementation of the needle and syringe exchange programme and methadone maintenance therapy in 2006, which has since halved new HIV infections among drug users.

She is currently the president of the Board of Trustees of the Malaysian Aids Foundation, where her main role is to raise funds for the MAC to carry out its work on HIV prevention, treatment and care programmes.

Difficult as it may be to go around asking for donations for a cause like HIV/AIDS, Prof Dr Adeeba says it’s not the monetary constraints, but rather the mindset and archaic system which is the biggest challenge facing the HIV/AIDS issue today.

Her work has helped transform the lives of many in Malaysia who have been afflicted by the disease.

The simple motto behind the doctor’s success – teamwork and hard work.

“I live each day as it comes. I don’t remember having a burning ambition to be anything when I was young. I just remember wanting to excel in whatever I chose to do,” she says in an interview with Life Inspired last year.

Like most women, Prof Dr Adeeba’s challenges lie in juggling family life and work.

She has gained international recognition for her outstanding contribution to the field, but asked about her proudest achievement, the dean candidly says: “My two boys!”

Tan Sri Dr Robaayah Zambahari

Institut Jantung Negara director and senior consultant cardiologist

The former chief executive officer of Institut Jantung Negara (IJN) was among the pioneering group involved in setting up a cardiac institute in the country.

IJN remains the leading heart-related medical institution in the region, and owes its success to the numerous multi-centre international clinical trials that are conducted there, many of which positively impact the clinical practice of medical professionals.


Dr Robaayah, 65, continues to be part of a team bringing new advances in technologies and procedures to the people.

She has achieved plenty in raising the standard of healthcare locally but says her proudest moments were when she graduated as a doctor and started working as a “healer”.

“My pride was in sharing the moment (graduating) with both of my parents in the attending crowd. I come from a kampung in the small town of Batu Gajah, Perak, and in those days, not many women had that sort of opportunity to tertiary education; I even went on to acquire more post-graduate qualifications,” she remembers.

The highly-decorated cardiologist attributes her success to hard work, teamwork, support from family and friends, and opportunities (being in the right place at the right time).

During the early years, Dr Robaayah was not aware of any gender bias in the field.

“Once on the job, one interacts with the rest of the team to ensure safe and evidence-based technologies are used appropriately in the diagnostic and therapeutic management of patients. It is also important to participate in research and on the field – gender is a non-issue.

“There is an increasing number of women taking up cardiology. I would tell them to work hard. One needs to have passion and dedication for what one wants to specialise in. With the rapid development in the field, one also needs to keep pace with these current developments.

“One needs to interact with the patients and their families. A good doctor makes the patient understand about his/her condition and participate in his/her care,” she says.

Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood

Under-secretary-general for Partnerships at the International Federation Of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

Best known as founder of the Malaysian Medical Relief Society (Mercy Malaysia), Dr Jemilah, 57, has held numerous positions and garnered umpteen awards, including the prestigious “Gandhi, King, Ikeda Award” by Morehouse College USA (Martin Luther King Chapel) for her contribution to community development and peace advocacy.

This obstetrician and gynaecologist turned humanitarian crusader has braved trials that would strike fear into the steeliest of hearts.

For the sake of helping her fellow man, she has marched through disaster areas and war zones, even enduring a bullet in her hip for days because she felt there were other more serious medical cases that needed attention.

Her profile as recipient of the 2015 Merdeka Award reads: “Her deep understanding of the complexities of cross-cultural issues in the humanitarian and geopolitical arena, and particularly with those surrounding the Muslim world, has made her a strong voice of tolerance as well as advocacy on a wide range of issues.”

Dr Jemilah’s mother sent her, at the tender age of 13, on solo trips by train to Singapore during the school holidays to hand-deliver money to underprivileged relatives.

“I was entrusted with money to ensure that the children had schoolbooks, shoes, etc. Being the youngest child and a rebel, I thought that my mother was just trying to get rid of me,” she recalls in an interview with Leaderonomics Show in 2014.

That, along with growing up in her parents’ home that was always open to people from all walks of life, helped develop Dr Jemilah’s philanthropic spirit.

After years of being on the job, and becoming an academic, Dr Jemilah grew listless and became disillusioned. There was something missing. She wanted to serve others in times of crisis.

She slowly transitioned from being a full-time doctor and part-time humanitarian to her present role.

“Nothing is a challenge if we look at everything as ‘half empty and half full’. Some people will continuously try to block you. With my strong conviction in doing something I sincerely believe in, even if I fail, I fail beautifully,” she was quoted as saying in the same interview.


Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman

Senior fellow, The Academy of Sciences Malaysia

This petite woman is a first of many things – she’s our first astrophysicist, the first woman to earn a doctorate in physics from the University of Otago, New Zealand, the first director of the country’s National Space Agency, Angkasa, and the first head of Malaysia’s Angkasawan Project that successfully launched Malaysia’s first astronaut, Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, into space.

“I have always been inspired by different things at different points in life; I was inspired by the universe, then space, and it all led me to astrophysics,” she says.

Though she had no “obstruction” from males, of her many challenges, Prof Dr Mazlan, 65, says the Angkasawan Project was the hardest as it took a toll on her health and family life.

“It was tough because I had no precedent. There was not much interest or knowledge of space in the country then and I had to blaze new trails. Whatever issues I faced, it was a first. Everything was new and had not been done before, so there was nothing in place that I could refer to!”

Female scientists used to be a rare breed but Prof Dr Mazlan says the landscape has changed and there are more women now in science and astrophysics.

She says: “Women often tell me I’ve set a pace for others (men and women) to follow and hearing that is one of the most rewarding things in my life.”

Occasionally, young people seek her advice on career prospects on studying physics.

“They come in with their parents and if they are really interested in the field, I tell them go for it! However, it is not a nine-to-five job, especially in observational astronomy. Be aware that you’ll have to party less because of assignments which are not easy as there are no answers in textbooks. It involves a lot of dedication and grit more than sacrifice.”

No matter how busy Prof Dr Mazlan is, she always makes time to draw her eyebrows and put on an eye-liner.

“It takes me about 30 seconds, then I’m out the door!” she says, laughing.


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