Datuk Dr Choo Yuen May, was born in December 1955 in Penang. She completed her secondary school education in Ipoh and later obtained her BSc and MSc from the University of Waikato, New Zealand in 1978 and 1979 respectively. After spending two years as a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Dr Choo joined the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (which at the time was known as PORIM) in July 1982 as a Research Officer. She says, “When the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia was established, I saw it as an opportunity to further hone my research skills while working on a largely unexplored crop in terms of science.” In 1987 she obtained her PhD in Chemistry from the University of Malaya and went on to successfully pursue an Executive MBA (Master of Business Administration) from the Asian Institute of Management.
Since joining MPOB, Dr Choo has focused her efforts on developing various novel manufacturing technologies/products for the palm based industry. The principal focus of her research is the development of novel, efficient and green processes for the palm-based industry. These include the production and evaluation of first and second generation palm biofuels and palm aviation fuel and, also, the production of palm phytonutrients (carotenoids concentrate and vitamin E (tocotrienols) concentrate).
Dr Choo is one of the pioneers in the production of normal grade palm biodiesel (palm oil methyl ester). “In the development of the novel and green processes, it came to my attention that due to the inherent properties of palm biodiesel (pour point of +15°C), it cannot be used in temperate countries as it solidifies at low temperature. This inspired me to develop a novel and efficient process for the production of winter grade palm biodiesel.” Dr Choo’s work with low pour point palm biodiesel (winter grade palm biodiesel) (pour point of –21°C) has since been commercialised with three commercial plants currently in operation in Malaysia.
In addition, Dr Choo had also been instrumental in the commercialisation of seven normal grade palm biodiesel plants – five in Malaysia, one in South Korea and one in Thailand. More recently, two additional commercial palm biodiesel plants are being constructed, one plant each in Colombia and Thailand. The patented process for producing palm biodiesel is mild and retains valuable phytonutrients. Datuk Choo leveraged this to simultaneously produce palm phytonutrients (carotenoids concentrate and vitamin E (tocotrienols) concentrate). The technologies for extraction of palm phytonutrients have been successfully commercialised by three local companies.
Additionally, she played an important role in the development and successful commercialisation of carotene enriched Red Palm Oil. A commercial plant has been built in Pasir Gudang, Johor, and the product CAROTINO is sold in local and international markets in more than 30 countries. In addition, Dr Choo had also developed and commercialised an environmental friendly palm based degreaser with the tradename INXBIO, an Eco-Label certified product.
The commercialisation of carotene riched red palm oil, palm biodiesel technologies, palm phytonutrients concentrates and palm based degreaser have had significant impact on the growth and future of Malaysia’s oil palm industry. Her other inventions include production of monoglycerides from oils and fats for applications as food emulsifiers, surface active agents in non-food applications; lubricity additives / improver for ultra low sulphur diesel and production of palm bio briquettes / pellets as household and boiler fuels.
The implementation of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) gave the palm oil industry a new focus after it was identified as one of the 12 National Key Economic Areas (NKEA) to drive the nation’s economy. The palm oil sector NKEA is aimed at improving upstream productivity and sustainability and enhance downstream expansion and sustainability, while focusing on the sustainable development of the palm oil industry. Datuk Dr Choo has leveraged on her renowned research and leadership position to take stewardship of 7 of the 8 eight point projects (EPPs) for oil palm under the ETP.
Her vision and passion for science is reflected by the fact that she is an inventor of 60 patents of which 29 have been granted and has authored and co-authored 823 scholarly articles. “As a scientist, it gives me a great thrill to see research move from the bench to the market place. I am happy that many of my innovations and inventions are enjoying commercial success. The main challenge is to come up with a good innovation that would attract potential licensees and technology takers. A critical requirement for successful commercialisation is engagement with industry through the process of technology transfer. Good commercial partners who are really committed are important to ensure the success of the commercialisation.”
Dr Choo also works closely on sustainability and climate change. She played a pivotal role in formulating and implementing a sustainability strategy for the oil palm industry which includes among others, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and life cycle assessment study for various palm products. She was also involved in strategising and drafting the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Standard, which was announced in 2013.
Although her career makes heavy demands on her personal time and energy, Dr Choo values time with family. She considers her mother as her greatest role model and source of inspiration. “She almost single-handedly raised me and my siblings as we lost our father at a young age. Her determination and sacrifices, belief in what was right, and endurance have had a life long impression on us” says Dr Choo.
Dr Choo is currently the Director-General of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB). She oversees and directs programmes that keep the palm oil industry at the forefront of science and, also, that foster economic growth and innovation. She says “I have tried to create a conducive ecosystem to nurture innovation, as innovation is pivotal to the success of the oil palm industry. On taking over as the DG, I formulated 10 research and 12 non-research strategic thrusts in efforts to elevate MPOB to a world-class organisation. I am also very active in the Malaysian Invention and Design Society (MINDS) and this involvement keeps my curiosity and creative streak alive”.
Her scientific and innovative contributions have garnered national and international recognition winning her various accolades including the Knight of the International Order of Merit of Inventors awarded by International Federation of Inventors’ Association (IFIA) and, also, the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) Gold Medal for Best Women Inventions 1994 and 2003. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Fellow of the Malaysian Oil Scientists and Technologies Association, Fellow of the Malaysian Institute of Chemistry and Fellow of the Malaysian Scientific Association.
Dr Choo has spent 32 years researching the chemistry and technology of palm oil and, in the process, has made significant contribution to the advancement of the palm oil industry in Malaysia. When asked what is her advice to young people today she says: “The sky is the limit if you put your heart and soul in your endeavors. My advice is to never give up but believe in yourself. It is important to keep in mind that failure is the stepping stone for success. Fear of failure is the major impediment to success. Successful people fail and make mistakes but they do not give up. You should analyse your failure and move on to success eventually by persevering. More importantly, we learn from our failures.”
Dr Choo is a firm believer that knowledge is a journey and not a destination. She believes in the power of continuous education. According to her, “The impact of education lies in its power to open new vistas for us. It expands our outlook and teaches us to be tolerant towards other views. Education widens our intellectual landscape and is the way forward to greatness”. She has mentored and nurtured a number of scientists and successfully supervised 10 PhD and 5 M.Sc candidates. In July this year the University of South Wales recognised her outstanding contribution to science by awarding her an Honorary Doctorate of Science, gaining international recognition not only for herself but also for MPOB and the oil palm industry.
Dr Choo’s high expectations for excellence have earned her an impressive resume of accomplishments and awards. She has gone beyond the call of duty in her pursuit of excellence. Her wide-ranging work and research in elevating the palm oil industry has had significant impact on Malaysia and truly embodies the Spirit of Merdeka.