Prof Datuk Asma: A Woman of Many Firsts; Slaking The Science Thirst


Prof Datuk Asma: A Woman of Many Firsts; Slaking The Science Thirst

Being a pioneering woman appointed to head many educational institutions, Prof Datuk Dr Asma Ismail is taking her role as President of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia to promote science for humanity.

Think 2050, how do you imagine the world to be? Will we be driving flying cars? Will hyperloop become a reality? Will we be enjoying our entertainment through a hologram?

This is just some of the possibilities encapsulated in Envisioning Malaysia in 2050 Foresight report, a study carried out by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) together with nine national Think Tanks to share insights and knowledge towards building a strategic vision for Malaysia towards 2050.

President of ASM, Professor Datuk Dr Asma Ismail observes that while science, technology and innovation are the common themes shared by nations in mapping out their 2050 visions, is it imperative to usher in a new landscape with a balance between humanity and technology. 

“If you read about Industry 4.0 revolution, the end game is about people and value. Even with all the advancements, with all the disruptive technology brought by automation, internet of things (IoT) or robotics, we’re still talking about people and value.

“This is an agenda that we need so we are able to move together, and we can begin by encouraging the young to love and enjoy science! We also need to make sure the science will touch base with humanity, to ensure the sustainability of the environment,” says Asma.

ASM In Championing Science, Technology and Innovation

"If you read about Industry 4.0 revolution, the end game is about people and value."

In an era of radical change, Asma emphasises that innovation will be the fuel to the economy, and jobs in the future will be require a strong knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

However, a worrying scenario has taken shape globally – Malaysia not excluded, where students taking up STEM have fallen over the past decade.

According to ASM’s Science Outlook 2017, the number of students pursuing STEM courses at the tertiary level is only around 40 percent.

“There are many reasons why our students are less interested in STEM. Among the obvious reason is, they have no interest due to how sciences are being taught,” says Asma.

“Teachers need to be innovative and creative. Bring them (the students) out to nature and find new ways to perform scientific experiments.”

Parents too, says Asma, has a big role to play in firing up children’s curiosity toward STEM.

“The young ones are full of curiosity and they ask a lot of questions. We must encourage them, not hush them up. If we stop them from asking questions, their curiosity will fade and they will not develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” Asma emphasises.

The former Director-General of Higher Education is a strong believer in experiential learning.

“It’s not about what the students learn in the classroom, it is learning through reflection and doing. This will allow students to understand things better. The education model needs to inculcate a balance between knowledge and value, and the students need to internalise these humanity values.”

Making Science Interesting to the young

The formidable Asma is a woman of many firsts. She is the first woman to helm ASM, since 2016. The 61-year-old is also the first woman Vice-Chancellor at both Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM). In 2012, she became the first woman to be appointed as DG of Higher Education in 2014.

In January this year, she was appointed as Chairperson of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).

“In the ASEAN countries, there is an agenda of having more women in science and Malaysia is leading in this area. We have been noted by the United Nations as having the highest number of women researchers in Asia.”

“There are so many women achievers, for example Professor Datuk Mazlan Othman, Professor Datin Paduka Dr Khatijah Yusoff and Professor Datuk Dr Halimaton Hamdan, and many of them now doing good science for the betterment of society.

“Malaysia is already at par with other international countries as far as advancement in scientific achievements are concern,” says Asma.

Asma herself is among the country’s top researchers. She initiated scientific discoveries in typhoid research that led to the attainment of 13 patents. She also successfully commercialised a rapid diagnostic test for typhoid fever called TYPHIDOT.

Asma has published 131 scientific papers and received 213 awards and recognitions at the national and international levels for the contribution to science, including the Top Research Scientist Malaysia award in 2012.

“I hope by 2050, with the science we are doing, we are able to energise our industry and make Malaysia more competitive.

“Let’s do it with value, let’s move science for humanity,” says Asma.