Unesco award a landmark in recognising women's contribution in science
There is much at stake and all resources must be available to the advancement of science. Women represent an important asset to the growing talent pool. Traditionally women, if they were encouraged to pursue an education, were rarely oriented towards science. Today, while it is still very much a male-dominated field, more women are stepping up to the challenge and righting the imbalance. Great strides have been made in recent decades, but it remains that fewer women than men go on to obtain doctorates in science and take up leading positions in laboratories, universities and research institutions. “It’s not easy but it isn’t impossible either. First and foremost, you have to have a very understanding family that will be your strongest pillar of support,” says Dr Chuah Lee Siang, senior lecturer, Physics Section at the School of Distance Education, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), who is one of the 2013 National Fellows of the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science.
The L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science partnership was formed some 15 years ago to recognise and promote the role of women in science. Its programme reward helped to establish women scientists whose outstanding achievements have contributed to scientific knowledge benefiting society, and provided support to promising young women scientists with worthy and viable projects.
The partnership between the giant beauty company and Unesco was formed to focus attention on the male and female imbalance in science, apart from providing recognition and support to women researchers. It strives to ensure that these same women are visible as role models to girls in their formative years as gender stereotypes are usually formed early in life. By giving science a female face, the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science programmes attempt to inspire the younger generation of women to become tomorrow’s researchers.
Closer to home, the programme kicked off in the country when L’Oreal Malaysia issued a call for applications. “We had an astounding 68 participants this year, compared to fewer than 10 the year before and we are glad that the number of nominations this year surpassed our expectations,” says Loh when asked about the response to such a programme in Malaysia. “It is something that L’Oreal has been doing for eight years now and is set to get bigger from now on,” she adds.
Chuah, who was one of the recipients, was picked for her research in nanotechnology to further increase the efficiency of LED lighting by increasing the life span of the lighting device without compromising its brightness. “This will contribute to solving global energy and environmental issues,” says Chuah, adding that the monies received will go towards paying for research items that she will need soon. She also hopes that once her research is complete, the project can be turned into a business idea but warns that the cost of entry might be a little higher than usual as there are patent issues to deal with the university as well as materials that might not be easily accessible locally at the moment.
As technology advances, so does the increase in energy consumption, which puts the earth at risk of global warming and climate changes. “For decades, scientists have been seeking to develop new and improved energy technology that will contribute to solving global environmental issues,” says Chuah. She has discovered that nanofabrication, a process of designing and creating devices smaller than 100 nanometres, opens doors to the development of new ways to capture, store and transfer energy. “Her findings will help to reduce the energy consumption in lighting devices and thus result in greater energy savings for a greener environment,” says Loh.
From self-cleaning windows to super-energy-efficient lighting, nanotechnology is revolutionising the way we live. Due to the awareness that the world is fast running out of fossil fuels and other natural sources of energy, the need for finding green and efficient lighting sources has become more important. “With this discovery, people will be able to use lighting devices with lower energy consumption and a longer lifespan without compromising on the brightness of the light,” explains Chuah.
Dr Ruslinda A Rahim, Deputy Dean at the Research Management and Innovation Centre and Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Nano Electronic Engineering, University Malaysia Perlis, also won the National Fellowship for her research in developing a hand-held electronic device for early detection of HIV-1. This will contribute to saving lives through early treatment of the disease. “HIV is the virus that causes AIDS and has become one of the world’s serious health and development challenges,” explains Ruslinda. “Millions of people have died of AIDS-related causes and cases have been reported in all regions of the world. Most people living with HIV have no or limited access to prevention, care and treatment,” says Ruslinda. “There is still no cure for AIDS but with this invention, I hope to at least be able to save lives by detecting it in its early stages so that appropriate treatment could be prescribed to the patient,” she adds. “It will be especially useful for women who are ‘working girls’,” she adds.
Ruslinda echoes the sentiment that there is a misconception that science is meant for men. “It is a major problem in the scientific community when it comes to diversity, and as women in science it is our responsibility to change that. The L’Oreal For Women in Science programme is a stepping stone to achieving gender equality in science,” says Ruslinda. “Women scientists are now acknowledged for their scientific endeavours and will inspire more women to do science,” she adds.
The third recipient of the 2013 National Fellow of the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science is Dr Suriani Abu Bakar. The quiet mother of three who hails from Melaka is also the head and senior lecturer at the Department of Physics, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris. She won the grant for her research to synthesise and characterise graphene through an electrochemical exfoliation method that can be used to form carbon coating for many future applications. Green nanotechnology can proactively influence the design of nanomaterials. “This will help mitigate environmental impacts where it might occur in the product chain, designing and using nanomaterials to treat or remediate existing environmental problems,” says Suriani.
Her research in producing different forms of carbon such as graphene, carbon nanotubes, carbon nano or microscpheres will benefit mankind in many ways. The study is aimed at using common waste materials such as waste from cooking palm oil, engine oil and chicken fat to produce carbon nanotubes. “When successful, it will help reduce environmental impact through recycling and reduce production cost,” says Suriani. Carbon nanotubes are miniscule pipes of rolled-up carbon atoms that have amazing properties and can be potentially integrated into hundreds of different applications in the field of electronics, optics, material sciences, aeronautical engineering and architecture. “This expensive research will be a lot easier financially thanks to the grant that has been awarded by L’Oreal Malaysia,” she says.
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