Fulfilling a ‘Yen’ for Antarctic research

Wong: Educating Malaysians on Antarctic science is of vital importance.

IMU lecturer wins medal for outstanding contributions to polar education and communication

FOR two decades, Dr Wong Chiew Yen, one of the pioneers in the Malaysian Antarctic Research Programme – a task force set up by the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry (Mosti) – has lived and breathed Antarctic research.

It all started in 2002 when she embarked on a field trip to the south polar region, while looking for a research project for her postgraduate studies at Universiti Malaya (UM).

Since then, Wong, who is now a senior lecturer at the School of Health Sciences in International Medical University (IMU), has never looked back.

Her contributions to the field of Antarctic research have led her to being awarded the Sultan Mizan Antarctic Research Foundation (YPASM) Medal for Polar Education and Communication on Oct 18.

This was in recognition of her excellence or innovation in, and sustained commitment to, communicating Antarctic research; educating the next generation of Antarctic researchers, or building new capacity in Malaysia’s Polar initiatives; and establishing a significant record of achievement in terms of the quality, effectiveness and creativity of her engagement in one or more of these three key areas of education and communication.

According to Wong, getting funding has been the biggest challenge in her research journey.

“The public always questions why we do Antarctic research while there are so many areas and resources that we can explore in a tropical country,” she told StarEdu, adding that she constantly has to improve her proposals to increase her chances of obtaining funding from various agencies.

Over the years, she has managed to secure Antarctic research grants from Mosti, YPASM and UM for the continuous establishment of Antarctic algae culture collection, publications and training of students, as well as research collaborations with national and international researchers.

Educating Malaysians on Antarctic science is of vital importance, Wong emphasised.

“Antarctica is important to every life form on Earth as its ice, ocean and ecosystems play a profound role in regulating the world’s climate. The four-kilometre thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet enables scientists to understand global climate change, and it is also a unique record of what the Earth’s climate has been like over the past million years,” she explained.

Pointing out that the Antarctic ice sheet determines the sea level around the world, she warned that the melting of sea ice due to global warming could raise global sea levels and cause global flooding.

She also noted that Antarctica serves as a natural laboratory for studying human-caused impacts (pollutants) on simple life forms (microorganisms) that exist in the south polar region.

“Microorganisms form the basis of ecosystems that support all living things. Any impact on these microorganisms will eventually affect organisms at the higher trophic levels of the food chain, including humans,” she said.

Wong added that as Antarctica is not owned by any country, it is governed by a global agreement, transforming it into an international science laboratory for scientists to study its climate, meteorology, atmospheric ozone layer, geology, oceanology, marine life and ecosystem.

“Microorganisms found in Antarctica can be a promising source of new bioproducts, such as enzymes, proteins, and bioactive compounds. They may produce biologically and pharmaceutically important secondary metabolites which possess antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and anticancer properties. Hence, they are valued for biotechnological applications,” she offered.

On a personal level, Wong said what really drives her research pursuits is her “great interest”, adding that she reaps happiness from continuously making new findings in Antarctic science.

Her research – which has contributed to the global understanding of how climate change impacts microalgae, a primary producer in ecosystems – has been classified into three major categories, namely, climate change, environmental pollutants, and phytoremediation.

To date, she has been to Casey Station in Antarctica twice – in 2002 and 2005 – as part of a collaborative project between UM and the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), with support from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM). She has also gone on an expedition to Ny-Alesund in the Arctic to carry out her solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) research funded by UM, in a collaborative project between the varsity and the Alfred Wegener Institute of Germany. Aside from having to “work spontaneously and independently with no mistake” due to the short stay durations, Wong recalled having to be emotionally and physically strong, as Antarctica and the Arctic are pristine areas with very little human activity and nothing much except the research lab and a few simple buildings for accommodation.

“Due to the poor Internet connectivity at that time, I had to make my own judgements and decisions while carrying out my research. Furthermore, I needed to communicate and work closely with people I didn’t know,” she shared.

At IMU, Wong took the lead in continuing to establish Antarctic science research in the varsity, as well as its algae culture collection – following the passing of Prof Chu Wan Loy, one of the national Antarctic researchers leading Antarctic science research in the varsity, in 2020.

She has since played a role in obtaining funding for postgraduates for Antarctic expeditions, and supporting both postgraduates and undergraduates in presenting research findings at various conferences.

Expressing joy that Antarctic science research is becoming one of the main research areas at IMU, she said the Malaysian Antarctic science research field covers three main areas, namely, biological sciences, physical sciences and Antarctic policy.

“As of today, there are more than 50 researchers and students in Malaysia who have participated in Antarctic expeditions for research purposes,” she said.

On how students can be encouraged to develop an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Wong – who was appointed vice president of the Malaysian Polar Alumni Association in July – recommended incorporating hands-on activities.

“Practical sessions in schools involving demonstrations by teachers and experiments in labs help younger students, who are full of curiosity and are eager to explore everything.

“Competitions related to scientific innovations and inventions can instill creativity in secondary school students, as well.”

Wong also advised students to “get out of your comfort zone and grab every single opportunity to improve yourself whenever possible”.

Urging students to never stop reading books other than school textbooks, she said this is one of the best learning methods to enhance knowledge and increase personal value.

“Always remember that lifelong learning allows you to compete easily in this world. Do not be afraid of failure as it is the key to success. Never give up because of disappointments, and keep moving forward.”

Li Lian, 17, a student in Kuala Lumpur, is a participant of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. For more information, go to facebook.com/niebrats.

Now that you have read the article, test your understanding by carrying out the following English language activities.

1 How will Malaysians be able to benefit from Antarctic research? Discuss with your activity partner, based on the points put forward by Dr Wong.

2 Do you enjoy STEM subjects? Why or why not?

3 Wong advised students to “get out of your comfort zone and grab every single opportunity to improve yourself whenever possible”. In what way can you heed this advice? Share your response with your partner.

The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) programme promotes the use of English language in primary and secondary schools nationwide. For Star-NiE enquiries, email starnie@thestar.com.my.

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