Investing in science

THIS year, only 518 places to study medicine were offered by local public universities although over 1,163 STPM/ Matriculation/ foundation students with a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of 4.0 had applied.

Deputy Education Minister P Kamalanathan announced that the reduced number of seats was based on the Malaysian Medical Council’s recommendations, based on the fact that there are too many doctors in Malaysia.

With some 5,000 doctors graduating annually, students with medical degrees are in danger of being jobless as there are not enough spots in government hospitals for them to do their housemanship and compulsory training.

A link between the theoretical and practical aspects of medicine is “incredibly important to produce qualified doctors”, according to University of Exeter’s Molecular Biology programme director Dr Mark Ramsdale.

“While I can’t comment on the quality of medical students in Malaysia, I am certain that the real training in medicine comes when these students take on their housemanship and deal with patients directly.

“If there isn’t a link between the number of students and practical training opportunities, then there could possibly be doctors out there who are under-trained,” he said.

As such, Dr Ramsdale, who is also a research scientist and Biosciences lecturer, hopes that Malaysian students will venture into sciences instead.

“There is clearly a large number of students who aspire to do medicine, but don’t necessarily get into courses in medicine at local universities, just like in the UK.

“I hope that more students understand that ,without being a doctor, they can still make a big impact in the medical world,” he said.

He went on to say that compared to being a doctor, being a research scientist is not necessarily the most preferred profession.

“More often than not, you will hear about people who want to be doctors who are capable of touching the lives of people whom they meet on a daily basis.

“However, if someone - in this case, a research scientist - were to discover a new disease-fighting drug and introduce it to the market, they could possibly help millions of people,” he said.

The University of Exeter recently announced its plans to build the Living Systems Institute, an interdisciplinary sciences research centre.

Costing £50mil (RM264mil), it is the university’s largest, single investment in the sciences.

World class research is, after all, a focal point for the university, which is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive universities.

Through the institute, the university hopes to bring together 20 different academic groups comprising over 200 researchers, including leading mathematicians, physicists, biomedical scientists, biologists and engineers.

The Living Systems Institute will focus on combating serious disease in humans, animals and plants.

The research centre will also expand on the university’s previous efforts which include developing a new vaccine against a devastating avian disease, tackling the world’s biggest killer of rice crops and developing new treatments for diabetes in humans.

Despite the fact that most research institutions focus on providing large amounts of laboratory space, the University of Exeter is focused on providing more working, office-like spaces in the building instead.

“We found that most researchers only spend about 10 to 20% of their time in the laboratory. The rest of the time, they’re analsying data, writing reports and more.

“So, we plan to reduce the number of laboratories and instead, create a flexible work programme that efficiently utilises all available spaces,” he said.

Besides that, Dr Ramsdale dubs the building as a “natural home of the Natural Sciences degree”.

“Our university currently offers a Natural Sciences programme which allows students to study biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, and incorporate that into research.

The building, when completed in the spring of 2016, will be a hub where everything comes together to produce scientists who can use their skills to solve the world’s problems, whatever they may be,” he said.

He added, “It’s our hope to produce students who are equipped to communicate in these different scientific languages and step up to be the next generation of scientists and researchers.”

At the same time, Dr Ramsdale stressed that the University of Exeter is very aware that not everyone who does a science degree ends up in the research field.

“Science degrees do provide a good foundation for students, even if they don’t end up conducting research in their careers.

“Thus, we are invested in training our students to communicate and think critically. Both skills are vital, even outside the sciences,” he said.

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