Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Naveed Ahmed Khan

Professor Khan speaks about his work in anti-microbials, the value of broadening your horizons and the importance of a culture of innovation.

Professor Naveed Khan
Head of the Department of Biological Sciences
Sunway University, Kuala Lumpur

AsianScientist (Mar. 11, 2016) – For two decades, Professor Naveed Ahmed Khan has been studying the parasitic protozoan, Acanthamoeba, to develop better treatments against the widely distributed pathogen. Recently, he’s extracted novel anti-microbials from animals that live in polluted environments. And in 2010, his discovery of potent anti-microbials in cockroaches and locusts captured global media attention.

Khan’s career spans from his native Pakistan to the UK, US and Malaysia. After stints at several overseas universities, Naveed returned to Pakistan to teach at Aga Khan University in 2010. There, he started the research modules for medical students, and was awarded the nation’s “Best Young Research Scholar Award” in 2013. Currently, he is heading the Department of Biological Sciences at Sunway University, Kuala Lumpur.

  1. How do you feel about moving between institutes and its influence on a science career?
  2. I believe that you must explore to broaden your horizons and find new challenges. For example, UK doesn’t have a problem with lethal brain-infecting amoebae; we only discovered it when we returned to Pakistan, because it’s a huge problem there.

    Furthermore, some countries like Pakistan are experiencing a terrible time, geopolitically. You may be working in the best university in Pakistan, but sometimes you feel as if you are on an island. Science works in collaboration, not isolation; if I move elsewhere where I can better research antibiotics, I can still contribute to my country very effectively.

  3. How do curriculum design practices differ between the West and Asia?
  4. The higher education authority in the UK gives you freedom to develop new programs or courses. They give you just a benchmark—you do what you need to achieve that. But here [in Malaysia and Pakistan] the authorities impose policies that are too strict; too many guidelines on the number of lecture and practical hours, for example.

    We should emphasize the quality attributes we wish to get from our graduate students instead of dictating how much time the students must learn. We should educate our students by asking them to solve problems. Even if it takes them ten hours to solve it, that’s fine—they need to learn it in their own ways.

    When I developed a BSc. Biomedicines program in University of London, I needed to submit a proposal form six pages long. But here [in Malaysia], the proposal that I just submitted for a similar program was 460 pages! Who reads 460 pages?

    I’m sure the authorities have their reasons for the strict guidelines, but they need to think about making it easier for people to understand and change the curriculum. Such bureaucratic processes hinder curriculum evolution. People would rather research than spend time on paperwork to develop a course.

  5. In 2011, you published your discovery of promising anti-microbial components from locusts and cockroaches. You found that crude extracts from the insects’ nervous systems killed nearly all Escherichia coli K1 and the antibiotic resistant bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in lab cultures. What is the status these anti-microbial compounds now?
  6. We have already identified seven of these bactericidal molecules in locusts and 20 in cockroaches. The next step is to synthesize these molecules.

    We have [also] expanded our scope to look at snakes and crocodiles. Snakes eat rodents which are full of germs; we found interesting anti-microbial properties in cobra blood.

    Crocodiles are interesting because they love rotten meat and live in heavy-metal polluted environments, but have yet to be found with cancer. We dissected crocodiles and found that their blood contains anti-microbial as well as anti-cancer properties. We will pursue these lines of research here in Malaysia, where our lab is the only lab in Asia to have a human in vitro blood-brain barrier model.


  7. As China, India and Southeast Asia rise as major economies, Asian science has also picked up in publication and impact. What do you think are major threats to the progress of Asian science?
  8. To be honest, I think we [Asians] are still duplicating too much of the developed countries. Yes, we learned very well from them how to publish and so on, but we are not as innovative as we should be.

    I see our students, be it here or in Pakistan, leading two lives: At home in their culture and religion, and then at work. We expect them to become innovative and critical thinkers and take on the world, but when they go home they are not supposed to question their parents or teachers. It’s very difficult.

    I don’t see us having a culture of innovation, and that is the major hindrance. We cannot think of original solutions to problems. We may be good at duplicating research but the iPad still comes from the US, alternative technologies still from there. Duplication is hindering our progress as a region.

    Even if we become world leaders in the economy, it would be temporary because other developed countries like the UK and US focus on innovation and they deliver better solutions. The Malaysian government has initiated things like the Malaysian Innovation Hub that picks innovative products from the market. That’s a good step, but what are we doing to cultivate innovation at the grassroots level?

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Naveed Khan.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Yao Hua writes on ecology and health sciences. He surveyed ants and dissected caterpillar salivary glands in McGill University, then studied cannibalism among bugs at University of California, Davis. He believes that the world is a great place, but only because it has insects and durians in it.

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