Merdeka Award Young Researchers’ Circle: A Second Attempt Proves Fruitful

19 APRIL 2021, BY Merdeka Award
The brilliant and immaculately presented Dr Zetty Norhana Balia Yusof effortlessly dispels the common perception of scientists in drab lab coats. As an Associate Professor, PhD supervisor, mentor, and mother of three bright sparks, Dr Zetty wears numerous hats ensigned with perseverance and adaptability that is simply inspiring.


Dr Zetty received the prestigious Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment in 2017. Her project is entitled The Potential of Malaysian Seaweeds as the Source of Antifungal Compounds for Application in the Oil Palm Industry. Her research focused on a critical challenge faced by the Malaysian palm oil industry – on basal stem rot that attacks palm oil trees. Through her work, more is being discovered about seaweed extracts which can provide a natural and cost-effective solution to this problem. 

What is little known is that this was Dr Zetty’s second attempt at securing the Grant. Never one to allow adversity and disappointment to hold her back, Dr Zetty did not let failure stop her from reapplying. “The first time I applied for the Grant in 2016, I was not successful. I realised that this was because my research paper then was a tad too technical, and it was focused on utilising microalgae as a vaccine carrier for fish in general.”

“I realised that the key to apply for the Merdeka Award grant for International Attachment, the project should specifically be for Malaysia. Since one of my major research areas is looking at addressing issues related to the biochemistry of stress in oil palms, I came up with a proposal focusing on using Malaysian seaweeds to address fungal infection in the Malaysian oil palm industry, and reapplied in 2017.”

“Time was also not on my side as I was almost 35, very near the age limit for the Grant application. So, I gave it my full focus and submitted the seaweed project, and it was at the borderline as far as my age was concerned. I was amazed as apparently the Secretariat was really excited about my project, I was shortlisted and won through. And I thought, Oh Thank goodness I tried again. Giving up was never an option.”

Her research paper focuses on curtailing basal stem rot of palm oil trees with antifungal compounds from Malaysian seaweed. “Currently, chemicals are being used, so I looked at a more natural environmentally-friendly alternative. In 2015, I was selected for the Australia - APEC Women in Research Fellowship, where I was introduced to seaweeds and how to extract compounds from it. I thought this is something I can explore in Malaysia too as it is a plentiful, unrealised resource here.”

Dr Zetty explains that the clinical trial phase in a controlled environment was highly successful but needs some work in mass application. “While the solution works, right now we are focusing on a roll-out of it that can be carried out with maximum efficiency in real world application.”

Grant in hand, she headed to her alma mater, Cambridge University, to work under the supervision of Dr Matthew Davey, Senior Research Associate, Department of Plant Sciences (

Five years on, she is today an Associate Professor at the Department of Biochemistry, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), teaching and supervising graduate students. Dr Zetty is a strong proponent of adapting a modern mentality towards study and research. “As a supervisor, I take my job very seriously. I make it a point to push my students to go for international placement or attachment as that’s the best way to learn new things, meet new people and explore new ideas.”

“The picture of scientists in white lab coats, doing research in their labs is very old fashioned, very outdated. In Malaysia, we are just cooped up in the university and everything is provided by the course.”

“When I first went to Cambridge for my doctoral thesis, I realised that the first year was really hard. I had to read more textbooks than I had ever done in my entire 26 years of existence. We were never prepared for this in our school or higher education levels. You need perseverance, so I adapted, and stayed focused on achieving success.”

As a Grant recipient, Dr Zetty is able to personally empathize with the need for international exposure. “Meeting other like-minded researchers and scientists, exploring theories and scientific breakthroughs is a big plus. My students won’t get this by staying here. I have found that it really helped me - which is why I always encourage them to apply for international grants and collaborations. A short research attachment provided by the Grant is great as it helps researchers explore and have the chance to present their work with new ideas.”

Dr Zetty believes in giving back and has shared her experiences at PETRONAS sponsored events at high schools as well as at UPM itself. “I tell them to make sure that every year they have to attend an international conference. Don’t feel intimidated by something that sounds so grand as a research attachment grant. If you don’t try you will never know.”

And try and try again, she did.

The Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment (MAGIA) is a signature initiative of the Merdeka Award Trust. The Grant offers short-term attachment programmes at internationally recognised host institutions. This enables distinguished young Malaysians to engage in collaborative programmes that enhance their work, expertise, and achievements. To learn more about the Merdeka Award and its grants, please visit

Dr Zetty Norhana Balia Yusof ​ 

Dr Zetty’s heart has always been lured by the sciences, especially microbiology. Her father is the prominent Federal Court Judge Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Balia Yusof. She gained a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Microbiology at Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Dr Zetty received the Graduate Student Assistantship Scheme (GSAS) scholarship  from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board to do her Master of Science in Mycology and Plant Pathology. She then headed to Cambridge University, UK, to get her  Doctor of Philosophy Degree in Plant Sciences under the supervision of Professor Alison Smith from the Department of Plant Sciences.



Dr Edison Lee Tian Khoon
Dr Edison headed to Sweden’s Uppsala University, where he joined the Department of Chemistry, Ångström Laboratory, as part of his attachment stint. He is currently carrying out active research in polymer electrolyte and nanomaterials for Lithium-ion batteries. Read more about him here:
Innovating the Energy Ecosystem
Chrishen R. Gomez
Having attended the prestigious Ivy League Brown University as part of his attachment programme, 27-year-old Chrishen is now with the Wildlife Research and Conservation Unit at Oxford University. Chrishen is busy developing a genetic-based research project on the Sunda Clouded Leopard. Read more about him here: Conserving Our Forests & Future
Dr Zetty
Dr Zetty is currently working on anti-cancer compounds found in Malaysian seaweed and has continued to pursue her original project proposal of microalgae vaccine carriers for fish. A working solution has been patented by Dr Zetty and will be deployed within the coming year.
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