Young Malaysian researchers solving grand challenges


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  • Friday, 29 Nov 2019

Young Malaysian researchers are eager to use their knowledge to solve society’s problems. Can they get the financial support (and more) needed to realise their potential?

THIS week, I couldn’t help but feel proud of Malaysia’s young researchers. Here are some ideas put forward:

First, how do we improve solar panel energy retention (with the goal of reducing electricity bills and one day, scaling efficiently like Elon Musk’s Solar City)?

According to a team of young researchers from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), UCSI and the University of Sydney, the solution is in integrating energy absorption technology with phase change material (PCM).

Hold that thought.

Second, why should we deploy artificial intelligence (AI) for mangrove forest conservation?

According to a team of young researchers from Universiti Malaya (UM) and Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP), AI can mitigate the impact of pollution and mangrove destruction (which has become critical in Malaysia).

This is important because mangrove forests are akin to mother nature’s kidneys – they can store up to four times more carbon than tropical terrestrial forests.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Last one: How do we produce healthier tilapia (and educate tilapia farmers to prevent antimicrobial resistance)?

According to a team of young researchers from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and UCSI, the solution is in using lactococcal-based vaccination and enzybiotic (LBVE).

Lacto-what?!

While I might not understand PCM or mangroves or LBVE, I do understand that these are problems that need solving.

Recently, 13 teams battled (academically) for an opportunity to win a RM250,000 research grant at the Malaysian Research Universities Network (MRUN) Young Researchers Grant Scheme (MY-RGS).

In total, six grants were up for grab, totaling RM1.5mil!

The grants were awarded by MRUN and are part of research allocations given to the nation’s five research universities (UM, USM, UTM, UKM, and UPM) by the Education Ministry.

This powerful contribution enables enhanced collaboration between young researchers within research universities and the other institutions. Together with MRUN, this initiative was conceptualised and driven by the Young Scientists Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia (YSN-ASM).

The 13 inter-disciplinary (scientists and social scientists) and inter-institutional teams (public-private-industry-government), each consisting of five young researchers below 40 years old, pitched innovative research proposals to address one of six grand challenges, namely water security, food safety and security, renewable energy, health and wellbeing, agriculture and the environment.

All were matched to UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

More than just research proposals

Did you know that a hospital-acquired infection (HAI) happens to one out of 20 patients in Malaysia?

If you answered “No”, then we’re in the same boat (or ward?).

According to the team consisting of young researchers from UM, Monash University, UPM and Sunway University, not only is this true, but the consequences could be exacerbated if the infections were from multidrug-resistant organisms (MDROs), as well as due to a lack of awareness among healthcare staff.

Did you also know we can do more with the rice plant (padi) than just eat it? According to a team from UKM, UTHM and UMP, its husk can be converted into biofuel, then known as biochar (sounds like a Pokemon evolution). Anyway, this can be then used as an absorbent to remove water pollution.

You might be thinking, “These are just proposals, it’s not like anything’s been done”.

You’re not entirely wrong. Most of the young researchers have prior experience, publications and field work in their disciplines, but these proposals are about the future.

MY-RGS itself has a bigger purpose, namely, “To nurture pace setters of tomorrow by enabling them to not just bridge knowledge gaps, but by bringing society, industry, government and academia together, ” says Datuk Dr Asma Ismail, the ever-inspiring president of Academy Sciences Malaysia.

MY-RGS was initially proposed by the Young Scientists Network in 2018, then-led by Prof Dr Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam of Sunway University together with Dr Chai Lay Ching of UM, the current president.

In fact, according to Dr Abhimanyu and Dr Chai, when they had initially pitched MY-RGS, they had only requested for RM250,000, but were surprised when the research universities pledged RM1.5mil for it.

According to Dr Chai, with research funding limited due to reduced university budgets, young researchers tend to miss out on grant opportunities because of competition from more established and senior researchers.

“MY-RGS is a first-of-its-kind commitment by the universities to empower their younger academics, ” he says.

The opportunity afforded by MY-RGS cannot be understated – it harnesses the passion of young researchers who are qualified, but may not otherwise have this research opportunity to deepen the knowledge pool while solving challenges faced by society.

All in all, 238 applications were received for MY-RGS. A team of local and international expert researchers narrowed this to 21 proposals of which only 13 were selected for the final.

All those selected underwent a three-day training programme which encompassed science-communication training, mentor-‘mentee’ guidance, and Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training.

Right to do vs right thing to do

“The RCR component is unique”, says Dr Abhimanyu as it instills a structured approach to research ethics and responsible conduct.

Dr Asma adds: “Should a researcher do something because it is their right to do it, or should it be done because it is the right thing to do?

“In a day and age where technological disruptions have created endless possibilities with research, approaching research ethically and responsibly is vital. Otherwise, it could lead to great harms.”

She adds that research shouldn’t just be about chasing publication numbers or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), rather, “impact and purpose”.

Researchers to lead Malaysia’s intellectual and moral growth

Did you also know that six dairy farms in Sabah closed down in 2018 due cost issues, arising primarily from young stock (calf) mismanagement?

Apparently, the farmers were using old Microsoft Excel forms to track calf – such inefficiency was reflected by the 21% calf mortality rate.

A team consisting of young researchers from UPM, UTM and Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin (UniSZA, Terengganu) proposed using deep learning algorithms to create a calf weight model to help the farmers manage food intake and monitor health – which in turn should help make their operations sustainable.

A similar model has been successfully deployed in India by Chitale Dairy.

The six stories I’ve shared above are those of the RM250,000.00 grant recipients.

There were many other interesting proposals, from snake bite treatment to coral reef ecosystem rehabilitation to duckweed cultivation as coal alternatives.

I sincerely believe some of the ideas are ground-breaking and could impact the world. I look forward to them collaborating and communicating at a higher level.

We were all proud when Dr Sarena Nik-Zainal of Cambridge University received the “Nobel Prize for Cancer Research”, that is, the Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Research Prize.

Similarly too Dr Masliza Mahmod when she was appointed as head of Clinical Trials Group at the Oxford Centre for Clinical Magnetic Resonance Research, Division of Cardiovascular Medicine of the University of Oxford.

They were able to thrive in a supportive and empowered ecosystem.

Thus, as Malaysians, we need to be supportive of our young researchers and have them aspire for better. In the words of Dr Asma, “We need to give young researchers an opportunity to fly”.


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Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.

   

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