Merdeka Award Grant Recipient Dr Natrah Sets Off for Attachments at Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) & Scripps Institution of Oceanography

15 APRIL 2014
Dr Natrah Fatin Mohd Ikhsan, one of the two recipients of the 2012-2013 Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment, has completed a short programme at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) in Australia and is currently attached to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California, United States.
In this article, Dr Natrah shares about her experiences in Sydney and what she hopes to achieve at Scripps.
17 - 28 February 2014
Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation Summer Course in Marine Microbial Ecology
Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS), Sydney, Australia
My first attachment was at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) attending the workshop of Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation (CMB) Summer Course in Marine Microbial Ecology. The international workshop was held at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) located on the beautiful shores of Sydney Harbour, Chowder Bay. The teaching staff and guest lecturers are an internationally recognised microbial and marine ecologist from SIMS, CMB University New South Wales and other well-known institutions.
In total, there were 15 participants, selected based on merit with strong interest in microbial ecology. The participants consisted of researchers around the world from Malaysia, Germany, Italy, China, Iran, Philippines and Australia. Although most of the participants were of different backgrounds, the aim of the participants were similar, which was to understand the interaction of microbial communities in the environment involving different aquatic animal or plant host. Examples of the hosts are seagrass, mangrove, sea urchin, coral, protozoa, macroalgae and microalgae. Through the workshop, an integrative view on the evolution, diversity, relationship and functional roles of microbial communities on the host were obtained.

In the workshop, the participants were exposed to different researches in microbial ecology through various talks by prominent microbial ecologists, among them, Prof. Staffan Kjelleberg and Prof. Peter Steinberg. The workshop also provided hands-on training on the use of software for phylogenetic analyses (classification of organisms based on genetic relatedness and evolutionary relationship) and metagenomic studies (study of the entire genetic material from a particular environment). All the participants were also involved in the practicals of fluorescence in situ hybridisation (FISH). The practical was a step-by-step practical where specific bacteria were stained with different colours (fluorophore dyes) to have an idea on its localisation in a host.


The participants also had the chance to attend the Joint Academic Microbiology Seminar (JAMS) annual symposium. The event took place at the Australian Museum. This provided a platform to have face-to-face discussion with a number of leading Australian environmental microbiologists. Later in the evening, we had the chance to dine with the pre-historic animal (the dinosaurs!) in the Jurassic lounge. An evening that will always be remembered.
After 10 days of intense seminars, practicals and engaging discussions, it was indeed a fun and enriching experience. The workshop provided opportunities to network and bridge future collaborations with various international scientists with whom I am still in touch.
Week 1: 7 – 11 April 2014
Attachment in the lab of Marine Microbial Ecology under Prof. Dr Farooq Azam
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, United States Of America
My second attachment was carried out at the Marine Microbial Ecology lab under the Marine Biology Research Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego (UCSD).
A little bit of background on Scripps. The institution is one of the oldest and most important centers for oceanographic studies. Founded in 1903, the institute serves as one of the largest centers of marine sciences worldwide for undergraduate, graduate trainings and public service. The institute also houses the Birch Aquarium for public outreach, promoting the conservation of ocean and showcases the research in Scripps. It is an interactive award winning aquarium with visitors of more than 400,000 people (including 40,000 school children) each year.
The current research attachment is under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Farooq Azam, Distinguished Professor, in the field of Marine Microbial Ecology. Prof. Azam is an ISI cited researcher in the field of marine microbiology. His findings are published in world notable journals such as Nature, Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He has received numerous honours and awards for his contributions in marine microbiology including Tiedje Award, International Society for Microbial Ecology (ISME), the G. Evelyn Hucthinson Award, American Society of Limnology and Oceanography and Rosenstiel Award in Oceanographic Science, the Rosenstiel Foundation.
The first week of attachment was basically an orientation to the lab, the institute and UCSD. I have also had several discussions with Prof. Azam on the types of research done in his lab and how it can be connected with the research in aquaculture. His lab currently focuses on the ecology of marine cyanobacteria, bacteria and viruses, their diversity, population dynamics and their role in the oceanic carbon cycle. Prof. Azam and colleagues are the first ones to coin the term ‘microbial loop’ defined as a process in which organic matter produced by the photosynthetic organisms are remineralised by other microorganisms, for themselves and for the use of higher trophic level organisms. The minerals and inorganic carbon are then recycled for the use of the primary producers. Among the strength of Prof. Azam‘s lab is the various high-technology microscopical techniques used to study the interactions between microbes and host at microscale level.

My next report will be on the current researches conducted in Prof. Azam’s lab.
For my Attachments, I would like to thank PETRONAS, ExxonMobil and Shell under the Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment, for providing me with the platform to be engaged with the international microbial ecologist community and experience advanced techniques in microbial ecology that would be beneficial for future research in Malaysia.
Dr Natrah obtained her BSc (Hons) in Biology and MSc in Aquatic Biotechnology from University Putra Malaysia. In 2011, she received her PhD in Applied Biological Sciences from the Laboratory of Aquaculture and Artemia Reference Center, University of Ghent, Belgium.

She specialises in microbial ecology, particularly in understanding the interaction between bacteria and algae for aquaculture use. She is the author of various research articles in international peer-reviewed journals as well as several international and national conference proceedings.
She is also the project leader of several research grants from private and governmental bodies including the Yayasan Pak Rashid Grant, the MOSTI ScienceFund and the Knowledge Transfer Programme with the Aquaculture Industry. In addition, she is involved in international projects with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), collaborating with different scientists from different research institutions.
Currently, Dr Natrah is attached to the Department of Aquaculture, Faculty of Agriculture and Laboratory of Marine Biotechnology, Institute of Bioscience, University Putra Malaysia.  She is also the treasurer of the Malaysian Fisheries Society.
For her Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment, Dr Natrah is researching on interaction between micro-organisms.
The attachment will allow her to build a sound fundamental research foundation that she believes is essential to producing strong applied research. Increased understanding of the latest modern molecular techniques and better data interpretation in microbial ecology gained from the institution will contribute to resolving current problems related to microbial ecology. The attachment will also allow her to exchange expertise and experiences with prominent microbial ecologists, and potentially bridge connections for future Asia Pacific collaborations.
Upon completion of the attachment, Dr Natrah plans to share the knowledge, expertise, ideas and experiences gained with fellow academicians, government bodies as well as the industrial sector, so that they too can move towards better microbial resource management for sustainable agriculture.
The knowledge could also benefit large-scale industries and small-scale farmers, inspiring a shift towards eco-friendly farms with enhanced production.
Dr Natrah also hopes the knowledge shared will inspire and ignite a passion for science, especially amongst young Malaysians, and attract more Malaysians to be involved in agriculture.
Watch this page for further update from Dr Natrah


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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