IN the 1950s bright students from rural towns had to relocate hundreds of kilometres for a chance to continue their education.
Prof Yeoh Peng Nam was one of them. After completing Form Five in Mentakab, Pahang, she left her hometown to do Form Six at Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur.
“The policy then was to encourage students from the East Coast to study Science in Form Six. To do that we had to move,'' she explains.
Prof Yeoh was offered a federal bursary to do pharmacy at the University of Malaya in Singapore. She chose academia over practice and obtained a scholarship for postgraduate studies at Ohio State University in Columbus, in the United States.
“A pharmacy graduate can choose an academic career and become a lecturer in the university in the pharmaceutical, medical, dental, nursing or biomedical science departments. I realised that this was where my interest lay,'' says the lifelong educator, who is now a lecturer at the International Medical University in Kuala Lumpur.
After a short stint as a trainee pharmacist at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital, she joined Universiti Malaya's Pharmacology Department under the Medical Faculty where she spent most of her academic career.
Asked what her biggest achievement is to date, Prof Yeoh does not hesitate: “Setting up the pharmacy degree programme at UM was very challenging. I was the founding head. We had very little money and practically no staff but managed to take in our first batch of students in 1995. Looking back, I think it was a miracle that we managed to do it so fast and successfully graduated students!”
She gained recognition for her contributions to the development of pharmacy in Malaysia recently, when she became the sixth recipient of the Pharmacist of the Year Award 2002.
She is the second academic to be given the award by the Malaysian Pharmaceutical Society (MPS).
”There are about 3,000 registered pharmacists in Malaysia but only slightly over a thousand of them are members of MPS,'' says Prof Yeoh, who is a council member of MPS.
Upon her retirement from UM, she decided to set up a consultancy business, promoting a drug- free workplace.
“Some friends and I started a company. We went to the United States to obtain further training on how to create and maintain a drug-free workplace,” Prof Yeoh recalls.
Although such programmes are commonplace in the US, she had a tough time convincing Malaysian companies to institute a similar programme here.
“We had to educate them by telling them about the drug problem in Malaysia and how it would impact on the company. Things like how it's cheaper in the long run to rehabilitate a skilled employee than to hire a new one. We wanted to change the way companies deal with drug problems among their workers.”
Although a great idea on paper, the birth of the company coincided with the economic downturn and after barely a year, the firm was dissolved.
Prof Yeoh returned to her first love – teaching, joining IMU last year. She finds many differences between working in a public institution like UM and a private one, like IMU.
Private institution students are very focused and keen to learn, making teaching easier, she says. In the private sector, policies and programmes get implemented faster too.
“Teaching is in my blood. Teaching keeps me on my toes and makes it easier for me to keep up with the latest developments in my field. It is mentally stimulating,'' says the mother of three, one of whom has followed in her footsteps and is training to become a pharmacist in Australia.
Other than lecturing, 60-year-old Prof Yeoh keeps herself busy through MPS's continuing education programme and by doing clinical research.
She adds that there are now many more opportunities for students to do pharmacy these days. However, the number of places for pharmacy in tertiary institutions is limited, so only candidates with very good grades in science subjects get selected.
“A student who is interested to study pharmacy must have a strong background in science subjects, like Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics and Physics. A good command of English is a great asset.”
There are several institutions offering pharmacy degree programmes, including IMU, UM, Universiti Teknologi Mara, International Islamic University Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Sepang Institute of Technology and Sedaya International College.
Says Prof Yeoh: “A person who has graduated with a Bachelor degree in pharmacy is called a pharmacist. A pharmacist is trained in the counselling of patients on the appropriate usage of medicine, food supplements, and herbal preparations for related diseases, disorders or conditions.
“Pharmacists can choose to work in the public or private sector. There is a shortage of pharmacists in Malaysia and it's a good career for anyone interested in the medical field to consider.”
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