Fatehah Mohd Omar
School of Civil Engineering
Universiti Sains Malaysia
AsianScientist (Jan. 25, 2017) – Dr. Fatehah Mohd Omar was one of three recipients to receive the 11th L’Oreal UNESCO for Women in Science Award for Malaysia at a ceremony held at the swanky St. Regis hotel in Kuala Lumpur and attended by socialites and celebrities. Her journey to recognition, however, was much less glamorous and involved subsisting on a diet of toast as a PhD student.
But Fatehah is all the stronger for having persevered though those financial struggles. Now a running a lab of her own at University Sains Malaysia, she is undaunted by the funding woes commonly faced by researchers in resource-strapped developing countries and is proactively seeking out non-traditional funding sources.
Working on the socially-relevant issue of providing clean drinking water to her fellow citizens, Fatehah researches on how wastewater from the palm oil industry and other sources can be cleared of nano-sized pollutants. In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, she shares with us what keeps her going and her ideas on improving science in Malaysia.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?
My research focuses on the characteristics, behavior, fate and transport of nano-pollutants generated from industrial wastewater.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
I don’t consider any of my research projects ‘complete’ yet; there’s still so much to discover. I am currently entering my second year as a lecturer in Universiti Sains Malaysia and many of my research projects have just commenced.
However, I am proud of my PhD research project about the characteristics, behavior, fate and transport of zinc oxide engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) in aqueous systems. Zinc oxide ENPs are found in everyday products such as sunscreens, cosmetics, home products, etc. and have entered the water body. My study provided crucial information on the movement and the transformation that these nano-sized pollutants undergo in various conditions. Currently, I am working on nano-size pollutants generated from palm oil mill effluent and semiconductor industries.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
My vision is to one day see our entire society have direct access to drinking water from their taps. We may be a long way from achieving this aim but it is not impossible. My goal is to apply my fundamental knowledge in wastewater treatment to matchmake coagulants to the right type of flocculant to be incorporated into the treatment process.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
Both my parents inspired my passion in science; they remain a strong influence on my research work. My son and husband are my main motivation. My family’s strong support has brought me to where I am right now.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
In mid-2013 while I was still doing my PhD in Switzerland, I was evicted from the room I was renting as I could no longer afford the rent. So I moved my belongings to the office that I worked in at the university, secretly keeping my clothes in the drawers of my office desk. I carefully stacked the rest of my stuff in small boxes in a corner behind the cabinet in the office. Luckily, there was a shower and a pantry there, so I could carry on my homeless life in secrecy.
At the same time, I sustained myself by working as a babysitter and a house cleaner for a couple of hours each day of the week. Money was incredibly tight, so much so that I was forced to live on a budget of five Swiss Francs week! I lived on just bread and butter, but I had a little toaster next to the coffee maker, so that made me happy. I lost a tremendous amount of weight during that time.
Nonetheless, I swallowed all the difficulties I faced in a positive manner. Nobody knew about this except my husband; he and my then six-month-old son gave me the ultimate motivation. The adversities only made my determination to complete my research work even stronger.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
We face a wide range of obstacles, from simple problems such as proper laboratory training for post-graduate students to funds to carry out maintenance on lab equipment, purchase chemicals or apparatus and pay students their monthly salaries. Furthermore, young lecturers who are concurrently active researchers are weighed down with a lot of responsibilities.
From my point of view, instead of drooping my head in misery, I have got to rise to the challenge to find means of obtaining revenue to support my research work. We have to think out of box and can’t be too dependent on the government for research funds; there are so many ways to resolve the problem. The key is to be resilient, proactive, and never be embarrassed to ask around.
On the other hand, there are not many organizations or corporations who are open to the idea of providing a research grant in Malaysia. It may seem redundant to them and they think that the money spent on research could have been better spent elsewhere. The connection between private corporations and research universities needs some fixing. But recently the Ministry of Higher Education has created a platform called the Public-Private Research Network which I find is an excellent way of connecting both parties.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I would definitely have become a businesswoman.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
Spending time at home with family, doing household chores and tending to my son; it’s therapy for me.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I would tackle the issue of having a clean water supply.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Do not allow failure or any obstacle to stand in your way to success. Be patient, consistent and persistent in whatever you do. Follow you heart and go for your dreams.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Fatehah Mohd Omar.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.