PETALING JAYA: As a child, award-winning scientist Dr Chai Lay Ching (pic) thought that she would be an artist.
An introvert who preferred to lose herself in drawing and music, her life took a new direction after her father was diagnosed with kidney failure when she was seven.
“That was the first turning point in my life. I started to question my father’s disease and decided that I should study hard and be a nurse.
“I wanted to be a nurse because at the time, nurses were all women and the doctors were mainly men.
“So, I stopped drawing and started studying,” the Taiping girl said in an interview yesterday.
However, Dr Chai did not become a nurse.
After she received her PhD in biotechnology from the Universiti Putra Malaysia, the senior lecturer at Universiti Malaya’s Science Faculty made it her mission to develop a device that identifies harmful bacteria in food via specific scents.
She is one of three recipients of the prestigious L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science award this year, walking away with a RM30,000 grant to help pursue her research.
In her teens, Dr Chai became more interested in biotechnology and in finding cures, rather than working on the frontline as a doctor.
“Coming from a small town, a lot of people thought that working as a doctor was more prestigious than being a scientist,” she said.
When she was in Form Five, her father passed away and Dr Chai, 37, decided to pursue her ambition of becoming a scientist, receiving her PhD when she was 27.
“It was my proudest moment. My father’s dream was to see his kids graduate from university but I accomplished beyond just graduating. I got a PhD,” she said.
Dr Chai said while she had seen many positive changes at the organisational culture for women in science, there should be a policy to support young female scientists to help them achieve a better work-life balance as the burden of nurturing children still fell on them.
“Many women scientists start to progress later on in their career and they are initially a little more passive because they need to devote their attention to their young family.
“There needs to be a policy that is both flexible and supportive to encourage more women to work in the science field,” she said, urging youths to go wholeheartedly after their dreams.
L’Oréal Malaysia corporate communications director Zaireen Ibrahim said it was important to give women scientists visibility through the award, which had been presented in Malaysia since 2006.
“It shows consumers the significance of their work and how it benefits the society.
“Research and innovation is the DNA of our group and promoting this has always been the heart of what we do.”