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Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan: From Humble Beginnings To Internationally-Acclaimed Science Communicator

In 2015, Dr Mahaletchumy Arujunan was listed on World’s 100 Most Influential People in Biotechnology in a report published by a renowned scientific magazine, Scientific American[1].

Mahaletchumy is the first Malaysian to be academically trained in science communication. Although science communication was carried out by other scientists in an ad hoc manner, Mahaletchumy made it into a profession. Today, there are many young Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) graduates who are exploring science communication as a career and for postgraduate studies.

Science communication is a relatively new field that is about 20 years old globally. Many are still not aware of this field. I believe science and research outcomes must reach the grassroots and decision makers. This makes science communication an integral part of the STEM field – Dr Mahaletchumy.

She has played a key role in reversing a fatwa in the Philippines that made a blanket rule that all genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are haram. She has been to all continents in the world to speak to politicians to adopt science-based biosafety regulations. She founded the 1st science newspaper in Malaysia – The Petri Dish,

She also founded the first short course in Asia on agribiotechnology, biosafety and communication with the hope Asian regulators and scientists will have a cheaper platform to learn about topics instead of the need to travel to the Northern hemisphere.  How she manages her time between all the different roles  she plays are nothing short of inspiring. 

Today, she is the global coordinator of BioTrust, an international organisation anchored by  International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech (ISAAA), Executive Director for the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC), an adjunct professor at Monash University Malaysia, a consultant for the United Nation’s Food And Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Sri Lanka and part of many advisory panels and committees. Being a pioneer in science communication, her work in making science more approachable to the community is an ongoing mission. She is sought after by many organisations to deliver talks and speeches both at home and overseas. 

Over the years, I managed to build a reputation as a science communicator not just in Malaysia but globally. My career not only gave me identity, but also knowledge, exposure and confidence. It has given me a space and recognition in my field. All these make me want to do and learn more. It also gave me the freedom to set my own plans, initiatives and develop new projects. Dr Mahaletchumy 

Source: Ipoh Echo

To Dr Mahaletchumy, the most influential person in her life is her late father, who was also a school teacher in a Tamil school. Her father, Arujanan Periasamy, used to cycle from Banting to Klang to learn English and Malay prior to becoming a teacher[2].

Throughout her life, her late father had instilled moral values including the importance of education by imparting Tamil proverbs, peribahasa and English proverbs. The lessons she has learnt from him had propelled her to achieve great success in her life [2].

My father would always talk about tirukural, aathichudi, and not only Tamil verses but also the peribahasa [Malay proverbs]  and English proverbs. So, he was always telling us things that relate to our lives, to our values. One example of the tirukural that I remembered was, saying about the the duties of children who is supposed to make their parents  proud.
Dr Mahaletchumy[2]

A Late-Bloomer 

Dr Mahaletchumy was born in an estate in Klang during the state of emergency in 1969 [2]. Her family uprooted to a nearby town, Bukit Kuda when she was two years old. Her visionary father saw the power of education in changing lives. He went to the extent of changing their address to ensure she and her siblings were enrolled in a good school and surrounded by good peers[2]

She entered Convent school in Klang, despite the distance of the school to her home. The first few years was tough-going for her as her proficiency in English and Malay was limited. Growing up in a Tamil-speaking household, her ability to grasp the languages was slightly difficult. Her father, however, encouraged her and her siblings to communicate in English at every opportunity.  

My father encouraged us to speak in English at home at all times. It was difficult, but I’m indebted to my father. This proficiency gives me the confidence to speak in any part of the globe. I have even spoken at the European Union (EU) parliament. Without a good English proficiency, I couldn’t have done it.
Dr Mahaletchumy[2]

Source: The Star

Despite the challenges, she was always in the first class at school and scored well in all assessments. She attributes this to her father’s emphasis on having big dreams. 

My father never saw coming out the top in class as the only achievement.  He gave us a bigger dream to be someone in life. We should choose a field, contribute to it and become someone in the field. Dr Mahaletchumy[2]

The values gleaned from her father kept her going. Even as a young girl, Mahaletchumy dreamed of becoming an icon like Kamal Hassan (a South Indian artist she admires) in the field she chose to be a part of.

Kamal Hassan was also a big role model to me. To me, he is one of the best actors, an artist in fact. I told myself, I’m going to choose a field and be him in my field. All these dreams subconsciously went into me and they manifested somehow.  Dr Mahaletchumy[2]

Even though she was doing well in school, she had self-doubts about her ability. This was apparent on one occasion when she landed 23rd placing in her class. She remembers feeling disheartened and discouraged. 

I wasn’t doing so well in Maths and Science in primary school. Maybe it was the language barrier and it could have been that the teachers weren’t encouraging enough. Dr Mahaletchumy[2]

However, in secondary school, she found an affinity to the fields of Mathematics and Science. But, being a scientist wasn’t her first choice. Initially, she wanted to become a lawyer and enrol into the Arts stream after Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (SRP). However, her father managed to persuade her otherwise. 

I wanted to be the best lawyer in the country. So what happened was, after Form 3, I got into the Science stream… my father said you know Science stream is the elite stream so why don’t you do it?  And that it has a better future. I told myself that I’ll switch back to the Arts stream after Form 5 to do law. But then what happened after Form 5 was I fell in love with science. Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics were all my favourites, with Physics being my weakest subject. Dr Mahaletchumy[3]

Challenges Ahead

She completed her Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia at ACS Klang,  enrolled at University Putra Malaysia (UPM) and graduated with a second upper class in Bachelor of Microbiology and Biochemistry. An achievement that she had in mind. Her goal in university was to network and build connections. Her choice was proven to be useful in the latter part of her career. 

She didn’t stop dreaming and proclaimed she would find the cure to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). With this intention, she continued her studies in Masters in Biotechnology at the University of Malaya. But, her heart wasn’t fully set on sitting in the laboratory and focusing solely on bettering research methodology. She halted from pursuing her doctorate and ventured into different jobs.

A job is done to earn money and it is just about carrying out given tasks, it doesn’t provide any special skill sets. A career is how others identify us in the workforce, it is based on the skills, training, values that we developed, and the niche that we create for ourselves. We are recognised for our expertise. Dr Mahaletchumy

After being retrenched, fired, being in between jobs and a series of disappointments, she landed as a project officer at Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) in 2003. MABIC is a not-for-profit organisation to promote stakeholder engagement in all areas of biotechnology, advocating for a science-literate society.

The Turning Point 

Two years later, she was offered to become the executive director, a position that she called a “hot seat.”

Over the two years I was in MABIC, I witnessed three executive directors leaving the position. Because they couldn’t revamp MABIC as a prominent local not-for-profit organisation that could support the Malaysian government. Dr Mahaletchumy [2]

She made use of the connection she had during her university days and her lecturers who have risen in their rank.

She knocked on the doors of different Ministries and collaborated with each, soon she was invited to talks and panel discussions.  But, something was missing. This led to her overnight decision of enrolling to a doctorate programme in science communication at the University of Malaya. The first person who knew was her Appa over a phone call.

The journey to achieve a PhD was a thorny one, science communication was a field that is in its infancy. Balancing work and personal life was no easy feat, but the support she had received from both her husband and family helped her tremendously. Faced with harsh treatment from her supervisor, Dr Mahaletchumy found relief through Dr Craig Cormick who she met in 2005 in Perth, Australia. Under his guidance, she managed to complete her thesis within 4 years and received excellent remarks from Australia National University.  

However, when she graduated, her father wasn’t there to witness this achievement as he had passed away in October 2011.

“Whenever you write any papers.  Please include my name.” Dr Mahaletchumy’s late father’s request [2]

Let Your Achievements Speak For You 

Dr Mahaletchumy also works to advance and support women pursuing degrees and careers in STEM through speaking engagements at schools and community events. The STEM field has been notoriously lacking when it comes to female participation in Malaysia with only 26% female graduates in 2020[4].

I would attribute this to the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor, which refers to the way women fail to continue progression towards particular careers, in STEM fields, leading to underrepresentation in related industries. As a result, many female students discontinue their education and career paths in STEM fields at a much higher rate than men, which results in fewer women being in high-level positions in STEM-related careers. Dr Mahaletchumy[5]

Even to an established science communicator with her calibre, discrimination persists in the field. And the best way to shut the naysayers is to let your achievements speak for you. 

They see you as a woman first, then only they see you as a professional. There always is the pre-judgement. We need to be really good at what you do so people won’t judge us based on our gender or race. – Dr Mahaletchumy[3]

To aspiring female STEM practitioners out there, her message is resonating loud and clear. 

Be prepared to face the glass ceiling and learn the skills on how to break it. The world has not evolved enough to accept women in all STEM areas, especially the male-dominant fields. There are many women who have struggled before us and have paved the way for us and made it a little easier for us. 

Do not put their efforts and sacrifices to waste. Brave your career and never give up. The more women give up their careers, the more it will be male-dominated and the vicious cycle will continue. Find ways to get support to play a holistic role at home, work and the community.  Dr Mahaletchumy

Her resoluteness and commitment proved fruitful as she was listed in World’s 100 Most Influential People in Biotechnology in 2015 with the likes of Gates. In the same year, she was the only Asian woman who made the list of Women in Biotechnology Law and Regulation. Dr Mahaletchumy plays a key role in biotechnology education in Malaysia as she was in the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA) biotechnology standard committee, and serves as an industry advisor for about six universities. She was also an advisor to Selangor State to develop its biotech industry.

But, there’s no stopping Dr Mahaletchumy from ensuring science permeates every household and discussion about science is a norm. 

She is an active presence on social media. Her goal is to inspire the general public to acquire fundamental science knowledge. 

I spend at least an hour on social media to inspire everyone to acquire fundamental science knowledge. To me science literacy is important not just for those in STEM fields. It takes a lot of my time but the reward is when the public makes science a topic of discussion – Dr Mahaletchumy

She emphasised the necessity of cultivating an interest in the STEM field that can be done from home and how educators can enhance the field in school.

There is science everywhere and in all the things we do. Talk about science in food and cooking, gardening, transport, buildings, nature, games.  Not all parents have a science background. Read and learn together with the children. – Dr Mahaletchumy

For teachers, science and maths should not be taught only for passing exams. Relate all concepts and theories to real-life so students see the relevance and can connect to the abstract concepts. Many children question the need to study irrelevant theories without knowing that every theory has its applications in real life. – Dr Mahaletchumy

  • Organisations out there cultivating interest in STEM amongst the youth of today:
    Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) have conducted multitude of workshops to expose various demographics to the STEM field, in hope to encourage more younger generation to pursue STEM education.
    Creative Minds’ STEM Volunteer Society (CMVS), an NGO that set to transform the STEM education in Malaysia especially amongst the underserved communities.
    The British Council scholarships for women in STEM was inaugurated for the first time in 2021 supporting passionate women pursuing STEM to further their studies in the UK. Currently, there are no news of the scholarship being continued in 2022, however, keeps your eyes peeled for any updates on their website.

Explore our sources

  1. W.Muthiah. (2015). Scientist from Klang does country proud. The Star. Link 
  2. Vanakkam Malaysia. (2021). What’s Your Story: World’s 100 most influential person – Dr.Mahaletchumy Arujanan.  Link 
  3. K.Kumar. (2015).10 things about Mahaletchumy Arujanan, biotechnologist putting Malaysia on the world map. Malay Mail. Link 
  4. UN WOMEN. (2020). The State of Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Indian Ocean Rim. Link
  5. Astro Ulagam. (2021). Meet The Dr Who’s Passionate About Science & Delivering It To the Masses. Link 

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