KUALA LUMPUR: From Marie Curie’s research in radioactivity and Rosalind Franklin’s work in discovering DNA, to Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, Emerita Professor Tan Sri Dr Mazlan Othman who pioneered the country’s participation in space exploration; history is full of women who made enormous contributions to the field of science. However, according to data from the UN Scientific Education and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), fewer than 30% of researchers worldwide are women and only 30% of female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.

To increase the involvement of young girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics also known as STEM, Associate Professor Institute for Research in Molecular Medicine, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Dr Oon Chern Ein conveyed the importance of having female role models to look up to. “When women in the field face challenges, we tend to look for role models who have gone through similar situations and get their advice so that we get inspired to move forward in our careers”, said Oon who has received numerous awards for her work on molecular targeted therapy in cancer, including the prestigious L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Fellowship in 2015.

Dr Sam Gooneratne, Principal Lecturer School of Computing, Engineering & Digital Technologies, Teesside University, UK adds that it is imperative that women who are already in the field promote themselves to the public so that they are visible especially to future generations, making it easier to know whom to contact when in need of mentorship or advise. “We need to show how many of us are in the field so that it becomes normalised - that there are women in STEM and a lot of us are doing the work, so now it's about getting our faces out there,” she said.

Both Oon and Gooneratne were part of the seven-panel speakers made up of distinguished women STEM role models from both Malaysia and the United Kingdom who shared about their journey and experiences in STEM in an online webinar titled ‘Celebrate the Difference: Women in STEM webinar 2022’, in conjunction with International Women’s Day on March 8.

Jointly organised by the British Council, Science Media Centre (SMC) Malaysia and The Petri Dish, the webinar featured women role models in STEM to highlight career opportunities from STEM education. The one-hour live session was moderated by Tan Su Lin, co-founder of SMC Malaysia.

Panelists also stressed the need for more women in STEM. “We need more women in STEM to debunk the myth that ‘women in science are genetically indisposed in terms of contributing to STEM’,” said Dr Dalia Chakrabarty, a senior lecturer in statistics from Brunel University London who developed a new statistical method to learn the gravitational mass of the central black hole in our Galaxy.

The webinar was also held to launch the British Council Scholarships for Women in STEM to study a master's degree, or an early academic fellowship, in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics programme at a leading UK university. Debbie Ann Loh, the current STEM scholar, states that when young women enter STEM, they become symbols of empowerment to the upcoming generation.

Meanwhile, for Prof Datuk Raha Abdul Rahim, CEO of the National Institute of Biotechnology, her time studying abroad had contributed to her personal and professional development where she had gained an ability to quickly link academic knowledge and apply the essential practical skills required in real life. “My experience in the UK paved the way to think outside the box, when I came back I became a better person than before I left for studies,” she said.

Joining the panel of esteemed speakers were also representatives from participating universities of the scholarships, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Faculty of Science, Liverpool John Moores University, Prof Laura Bishop, and Associate Professor in Microbiology, Edinburgh Napier University, Dr Sophie Foley who added that a postgraduate degree in the UK adds value in terms of employability and global exposure. Other hosting UK universities include Brunel University, Teesside University, University of Glasgow and University of York.

Last year, 15 scholars including four from Malaysia travelled to the UK to pursue their master’s degrees in STEM subjects as part of the first Scholarships for Women in STEM cohort. This year, for the second year running, there will be double the number of scholarships on offer in South East Asia. A total of 29 scholarships from six UK universities are available for aspiring scholars from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Awardees will have access to economic support, including tuition fees, stipends, travel costs, visas, health coverage fees and special support for mothers. To learn more information on the Women in STEM scholarships programme, please visit: https://www.britishcouncil.org/study-work-abroad/in-uk/scholarship-women-stem