To be the first in anything is usually an achievement, but when it comes with a title like the inaugural University of Melbourne Prime Minister of Malaysia Scholar, it can be quite daunting.
The weight of expectation has already settled on the shoulders of the first recipient of this scholarship Wong Sook San.
The 27-year-old Masters in Medical Science student at Universiti Malaya (UM) has received a lot of attention since she was awarded the scholarship which covers tuition fees and a living allowance for a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme at the University of Melbourne.
“There has been a lot of recognition but I haven’t done anything yet,” said Wong.
“I’m just a regular postgraduate student,” she added.
But she is certainly not averse to using the publicity if it means being heard on issues that need more awareness – for example, dengue and the need for more research.
“People have a nonchalant attitude towards dengue but there’s always the chance of developing complications and dying from it,” Wong explained.
“I feel it is not necessary to live with this problem, and not enough is being done about it,” she added.
Her Masters project, which she is in the midst of writing up, attempts to pinpoint how genetic differences in four different strains of local dengue viruses affect patients’ immune systems.
For her PhD, she intends to expand upon this research and explore the differences between local dengue viruses and those endemic to neighbouring countries like Thailand and Cambodia.
“No one knows how different the viruses are. I want to find out if there is a difference in immune response to them,” she said.
Wong hopes that her research will pave the way to discovering an effective vaccine or drug for dengue.
“I’m very excited because the University of Melbourne has one of the best immunology schools in the world,” she said.
“They are at the forefront of research and I intend to take full advantage of their resources, facilities and expertise,” she added.
Wong’s interest in research was sparked by Dolly the cloned sheep.
“When I was applying for university, it was the era of Dolly. Genetics was big news then. I thought ‘wow, you can do all these things with science’,” she said.
Wong, who also did her undergraduate degree at UM, chose biomedical science because that is a research-based field.
“I was already interested in biology when I was in Form Six and I wanted to do something different, so I decided to go into research,” she explained.
She credits her supervisor Prof Dr Sazaly Abdul Bakar with teaching her the dos and don’ts of research, from thinking systematically to solving problems creatively. Prof Sazaly also helped her formulate her research proposal when she applied for the scholarship.
However, she said that all her lecturers have, in one way or another, contributed to her knowledge and skills.
The Prime Minister of Malaysia scholarship is jointly established by the University of Melbourne and its Malaysian alumni association.
It aims to support a promising early-career Malaysian academic in fields of national importance like engineering, science or the health sciences.