Telum Talks To... Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan, Editor-in-Chief, The Petri Dish

Telum Talks To... Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan, Editor-in-Chief, The Petri Dish
Nuraaina Asri

Do tell us more about yourself.
I am a trained scientist by default, but I never practice. I landed a science communication job at The Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC), which was a completely new career to me. I focus mainly on biotechnology, and biotechnology itself is a complicated discipline. It can be controversial to some extent. It needs to be communicated to the public and also the policymaker. We communicate based on science, how things should be done, support commercialization, risk mitigation policy and regulation.

I am also the Executive Director for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). ISAAA is hosted by Cornell University in New York, in which I was promoted to Global Coordinator where I oversee three regional centres and another 15 biotech centres across the globe.

You were named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Biotechnology in the world by the Scientific American Worldview in 2015, amazing! What drove you to specialise in biotechnology and science communication?
Biotech is still a very futuristic field today. Even in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, almost all the answers lie in science. Taking No Poverty, No Hunger, Life on Earth, and Life Below Water for example, biotechnology has the answers. I was aware of the huge potential, so I signed up for it.

I wanted to be a scientist, but my personality did not resonate with the lab vibes. I worked in a few companies and organisations first before joining MABIC. The demand for science communication was present, so I ventured into a doctorate degree.

What are the ideas behind the establishment of The Petri Dish, Malaysia’s first science newspaper?
There is a huge gap between scientists and media, where scientists’ work does not reach the public as they are not able to translate the research in a way that resonate with editors. We needed a science publication that empathises with scientists, hence MABIC established The Petri Dish to meet that purpose. We place it for free of charge in Starbucks outlets and also rely on subscription packages. We now have an online presence as well although a subscription is required for full access. We also provide individual subscriptions to instil science awareness at home. At this moment, we are still seeking funding opportunities to sustain the publication in the long run.

How does The Petri Dish work with PRs?
For now, we get press releases and try to entertain most PRs, such as attending their conferences, client launches etc. This is the only science newspaper and I welcome subscription collaborations to help us grow, or maybe even CSR projects together. I am more than happy to discuss win-win collaborations with interesting parties.

To us, science communication is a very intriguing field. How significant is science communication in developing a nation?
We emphasise the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but it is hard to inspire youth and instil interest without consistent advocacy of science in the media. We are not even aware of the existing local scientists! Science communication can impact the public by creating the appropriate culture and making science part of the conversation.

Science literacy is very important in making informed decisions, especially when it comes to forming policies and regulations. Aside from addressing essential issues such as scientific risk mitigation, for example, science could help us to be a developed country. I think what we need is a national science communication strategy and more scientists to indulge in science communications to bridge science to society.

The media undeniably plays a pivotal role in informing and educating the public. Taking the current COVID-19 wave for example, in your opinion, how can the media step up to deliver high quality, scientifically accurate reporting?
The media can actually benefit as people are constantly looking for scientific information: what is a virus? What is a new virus? How does it replicate? What happens? What are the symptoms? Journalists should consult experts, relevant experts: virologists, epilogists, medical doctors, infectious disease experts, vaccine developers, pharmaceutical companies, or even those who work with biosecurity. This is the time you can get the attention of the public, and at the same time play a supporting role for the government by ensuring that the current guidelines and procedures reach the public.

There are consistent campaigns around the globe to have more women in STEM. What are your thoughts about it, especially in the Malaysian context?
You may walk into any science classes in the university except for the engineering classes, and you will see girls dominating the gender ratio of the classes. It can lead to a false perception that we are doing well at empowering women in STEM. But the leaky pipe still exists when a lot of these female graduates do not continue to walk down their career paths for multiple reasons. We are still lacking female representation at decision-making levels, and a lot more efforts should be made.

What are your hopes for science in Malaysia?
I have huge hopes although I am not sure when we can realise this. For one, science, technology, and research and development are still in the back-seat in Malaysia. I hope for a strong national strategy of science where we identify a few research priorities such as agriculture and environment. A national consortium where multiple institutions come together should be established as well to avoid duplication of research and waste of resources. Above all, science requires huge investment as the results of a discovery may take years to be manifested. Long term funding and priorities need to be sorted out to catapult science into its well-deserved advancement in this country.

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