Malaysia Young Researchers Circle: 12 Brilliant Minds Under 40


Imagine owning a wrist-worn device, not unlike a fitness tracker, that can detect the early development of certain diseases in our body. Or the study of black holes, that could improve our military security by leaps and bounds.

This may seem like science fiction to some of us, but the curiosity, passion and determination to transform an imagined idea into reality is what drives the ambitious researcher. And there are indeed many ambitious researchers here in Malaysia.
Undeterred by the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, more than a 140 of them from higher learning institutions and organizations nationwide submitted applications for the 2021 Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment. All of them are below the age of 35, and already hard at work on their ideas.
The Grant enables deserving young Malaysians to build on their area of expertise or current research work, by undergoing an internship at an international institution of their choice.
The Merdeka Award Trust believes this creed of brilliant young minds will gain invaluable benefit from their attachment abroad, elevating the standards of their research and enabling them to transfer the know-how to lead Malaysia to become pioneers for sustainable solutions of the future.
In this article, we unveil the beguiling work of 12 applicants, and what they hope to achieve with their attachment abroad.

Early Detection of Diseases

Mohd Muzamir Mahat, a 35-year-old senior lecturer from Universiti Teknologi MARA, lost his mother to a disease that had advanced too far to treat. This experience drove his research into biosensors and their possible usage for the early detection of certain diseases in our body.

A bioelectronic material is a component of a compact device that measures specific molecules in our body to inform us about health and disease. It operates on a sample taken from the body or can be worn on the body for continuous measurement. The most well-known example is the glucose monitor.

As a material scientist and lecturer in the field of applied sciences, Mohd Muzamir is cognizant that the bio-electronic era is just around the corner. Thus his desire to build a wearable bioelectronics device to inform about the beginnings of a disease is timely.

However, the currently developed materials available for wearable bioelectronic technologies lack the stability required for his imagined purposes. His research has enabled him to formulate more stable Smart Functional Plastic Materials, but further investigation must be performed to extend its usability for humans. Through international collaboration with world-leading biomaterial scientists, he believes he will be able to fine-tune the properties of materials he invented. Moreover, he envisioned that technology could save more lives.

Jessica Ooi Sui Ying, 31 is another researcher working on early detection, but her research involves a more specific disease – ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer cells are problematic to detect at an early stage and present very mild or no symptoms at all. This is compounded by diagnostic methods that either require expensive instruments or are not specific enough, leading to misdiagnosis. Currently more than 50 percent of ovarian cancers are detected too late to respond well to treatment.

Jessica, a pharmacist and PhD candidate from University of Nottingham, Malaysia, wants to develop a device that will be portable, inexpensive and simple to use even in small clinics in rural settings; and can provide results rapidly, without the use of instruments or a laboratory. The paper-based results will be visible to the naked eye. The miRNA she proposes to detect, which causes proliferation of ovarian cancer cells, is part of a diagnostic model validated to have a 99 percent sensitivity and 100 percent specificity in detecting early-stage ovarian cancer.

The next step in her research involves successfully fabricating this nanosensor – which is what an international attachment would help her do. The nanosensor would be key for the successful rollout of population-based cancer screening programmes. The device can possibly be modified for the early detection of other cancers too.

Another researcher working on cancer is Hii Ling Wei.The 33-year-old is a cancer biologist, pharmacist and lecturer in the School of Pharmacy’s Department of Life Sciences, at the International Medical University.
During her attachment, Hii hopes to learn how to use single cell sequencing technology to explore how every cell in a breast cancer tumour will react to the drug treatment. The current treatment strategy for breast cancer is to focus on treating the size of the tumour, which often leaves behind a small amount of cancer cells which can become more aggressive and contribute to a lost battle against the disease.

Breast cancer currently is the most common cancer in Malaysian women, affecting one in every 30 individuals. While the incidence of cancer in Malaysia is not as high as countries like Australia (1 in 8), our survival rate is much lower (49% compared to 89% in Australia).
By breaking down the tumour to the single cell level, and testing how every cell in the tumour responds to different drugs, more accurate and targeted treatment can be administered. If successful, her study will have direct implications for more successful breast cancer treatment.  
Poverty Alleviation
Researcher Punitha Sivanantham, 35, a lecturer at INTI International College, Subang has been helping families from the Program Perumahan Rakyat (PPR) flats find ways to uplift their livelihoods, since June 2018. Her visits to the PPR flats exposed her to what life is like for them – for an average family member of 5 persons per unit, the area per person is 130 square feet per person, some earning less than RM50 per day and malnourished mothers feeding babies with condensed milk. Often, the head of the household has to borrow money just to feed the family.

She hopes that through her attachment, she can bring back knowledge of best practices in social entrepreneurship from around the world and customize them for the Malaysian urban poor context. Ultimately, she hopes to generate a toolkit named as MyKomuniti for the Urban Poor and PPR communities to empower themselves through social innovation and social entrepreneurship, using their existing skills and talents, to break out of the cycle of poverty. She will then replicate this at other PPR flats.

Her work will be impactful to the bottom 20 urban poor - the poorest in urban society - from which there are currently no social entrepreneursHer vision is to rebrand the image of the PPR community in Malaysia by generating more social entrepreneurs among them by finding sustainable solutions for the societal issues around them.

Three other researchers, Aini Hasanah Abdul Mutalib, Wan Nor Fitri Wan Jaafar and Annas Salleh. have dedicated their research work towards the well-being of animals.
Animals in The Wild
Aini Hasanah, 33, is a primatologist and research officer at the Institute of Tropical Biodiversity and Sustainable Development, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. She is also the co-founder of the Malaysian Primatological Society and coordinator of the IUCN Action Plan for the Conservation of Small Apes in Malaysia.

Aini, who was born visually impaired, intends to apply her listening skills for the conservation of small apes such as the gibbon, in their natural habitat. She proposes the placement of Passive Acoustic Monitoring recorders and arboreal camera traps in the Kenyir Rainforest to track the occurrence and distribution of these small apes. She is proposing collaborative networking with local communities, local government agencies, non-governmental organisations and teams of students and co-researchers to ensure the sustainability of her project.

An attachment with the Cornell Centre for Conservation Bioacoustics will help her sharpen her listening skills, to understand the language of small apes, and to find answers to her research questions: are there small apes in the forest? How many groups of them? Is there a viable population? How can small, safe spaces be created for them to move from one fragmented stretch of forest to another? The non-invasive and semi-autonomous research of Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) that will also potentially cover other arboreal animals, and how the study is encompassing Equity, Inclusion and Diversity in the research ecosystem intrigue her. The answers will hopefully lead to the planning and implementation of small ape and habitat conservation management of the Kenyir Rainforest, and contribute to carbon sequestration in the process.
Animal On The Brink of Extinction
Wan Nor Fitri Wan Jaafar, 31, is a veterinarian cum animal reproductive biologist and has been studying the reproductive performance of the Malayan tiger in captivity for the last two years. The senior lecturer from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Universiti Putra Malaysia regrets to be the bearer of bad news for us: the Malayan tiger will soon be extinct if we do not take any drastic course of action.As such, he is a man on a mission – he wants to urgently help them reproduce more successfully, whether in the wild or in captivity.

Fitri’s proposal is a triangle affair - first he wants to document how India managed to double their population of wild tigers in reserves. Secondly, he is looking to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute to help him delve deeper into biobank technology and finally to work with IPB University for the best assisted reproductive technology (ART) to help tigers reproduce efficiently.

Fitri’s research revealed that tigers are breeding too slowly, and that many of the tigers in captivity are not fit to reproduce. The Malayan Tiger truly stands at the precipice of extinction and Fitri hopes his body of work will trigger all stakeholders and policy makers to a coordinated, urgent action to save our tigers.
Animals in Agriculture
Annas Salleh, 34, is an Associate Professor in Veterinary Pathology at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and an interim associate researcher at the Laboratory of Sustainable Animal Production and Biodiversity from the Institute of Tropical Agriculture and Food Security (ITAFoS) in Universiti Putra Malaysia. He has been studying respiratory diseases in animals for the past 10 years while comparing them to the same disease in humans.

According to Annas, 10 percent of dairy cows in Selangor's agriculture industry have been infected with tuberculosis. This is worrying, he says, as cross infection to humans is possible and his ongoing research shows that this is already happening here. According to a Bernama report, tuberculosis kills an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people every year. That amounts to six deaths every day. His project aims to explore the potential of probiotics as an immunomodulator against tuberculosis in humans and animals.

His theory is based on the fact that regardless of the species of Mycobacterium, and regardless of the host, be it animal or human, the way the disease progresses is similar. The bacteria is inhaled, and reaches the lungs. In the lungs, the bacteria manipulates and renders the macrophages less competent. Macrophages are important sentinel cells of the immune system that guard the body from infection or accumulating damaged or dead cells. They are large, specialized cells that detect, engulf and destroy invading pathogens.

Annas believes in the potential of probiotics to enhance the body’s immune response against the disease. Probiotics could be an easy, cheap and safe method to boost the immunity of the lungs' immune cells, to cut the progression of infection. Despite the growing evidence of the potential of probiotics as immune system modulators, this approach has not been well-explored in respiratory diseases. Annas feels it is worthy of exploration since it is an economical and natural approach, with potential of an intranasal delivery to elicit a local respiratory tract immune system response.

His project will be the first of many steps to reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in humans and animals. His success will be important as the BCG vaccination against tuberculosis given to us at age 12 is only effective for about ten years. In terms of treatment, long term administration of antibiotics has been the only strategy to treat human patients, while livestock that is tuberculosis positive is culled as a practice in Malaysia. Both of these strategies are very costly. Annas hopes to learn more advanced ways of researching probiotics, during his attachment.  

From more efficient batteries for electric vehicles to cutting-edge approaches to reduce emissions that cause global warming; to guidelines that will help firms adapt to global economic trends, ongoing work by young researchers in Malaysia could be instrumental to help our nation gear up for the coming era. 
Space Research

Researcher Nur Adlyka Ainul Annuar, 31 has certainly been thinking out of illusory confinement, with her proposal to study the supermassive black holes in our nearby galaxies. Adlyka hopes to find out how they are behaving as this could shed some light on the future of the supermassive black hole lying dormant in our galaxy. In particular, Adlyka is concerned that it will one day wake up, as it certainly can, and then what would become of our galaxy and planet?
In case you thought black holes have no impact whatsoever on our lives, our GPS system uses black holes as reference points to help us find our location and navigate to our destination. Wi-Fi too, would apparently not be possible without early research into the signals emitted from black holes.

As an astrophysicist and lecturer at the Department of Applied Physics in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Adlyka wants to increase Malaysia’s capacity in space science research which is currently limited.

The technique or technology used for this research can then be transferred for other uses in our country, for instance, for national security. She would also have opened doors to network with the prestigious institution she interns at and be able to train others with her knowledge gained. 
Sustainable Energy Planning

Purusothmn Nair, 27 is a PhD student from the University of Nottingham, Malaysia who is very passionate about sustainable energy planning via negative emissions technologies (NETs).

NETs focus on removing greenhouse gases (GHG) from the air. They are helpful to offset historical emissions and to offset emissions from sectors that are hard to decarbonise, such as the transportation and agricultural sector. NETs is also an important technology to use alongside renewable energy resources, as some GHG emissions occur during renewable energy production.

As signatories to the Paris agreement to reduce our impact on climate change, Malaysia has committed to reduce its GHG emissions intensity by 45% by 2030, relative to emissions in 2005. Purusothmn would like to learn the best carbon emission reduction strategies and sustainable energy planning that can be adopted by various industries to help Malaysia fulfil its pledge to the Paris agreement.
Freddy Tan Kheng Suan, 35, is a senior lecturer at the Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation. He too wants to help Malaysia reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, but more importantly, to become the first in the world to overcome the design challenges of current on-board chargers in electric vehicles.

Freddy wants to design a next-generation on-board charger using Wide Bandgap Technology, which will halve its current size, can avoid overheating issues, has a higher charging speed and is able to increase the overall reliability and efficiency of the system. This could be significant as the Bloomberg New Energy Finances reports that we would see global sales of zero-emission cars rising from 4% of the market in 2020 to 70% by 2040.

Already, 20 countries worldwide have begun to phase out vehicles powered by fossil fuels. Freddy is currently leading a team that has conducted part of the research work. The attachment will help him learn the design principles that could make Malaysia a pioneer in this technology.