Throughout time, we have been graced with the presence of brilliant, resilient, powerful women in all strata of society.
She is the woman in your family, in your workplace, in your government. She is the local merchant you patronise, she is in your social media feed, in the movies you watch, in the books you read and in the songs you listen to.
They are the women you meet daily. The women around you. The women you look up to. The women you draw strength from. The women you emulate and aspire to become. The women who have paved the way for you to live your life in exactly the way you are living it now.
Edith Wharton once said, “There are two ways of spreading light. To be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” For our International Women’s Day feature, we’ve had the absolute delight of speaking to a woman who is both… and more.
Dr. Nethia Mohana Kumaran is a Senior Lecturer in USM’s School of Biological Sciences and more recently she’s one of three incredible women in science who received a research grant from the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science programme.
Since its inception in 1998, The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science (Malaysia) programme provides fellowships to promising women researchers at pivotal moments in their careers. Every year, an esteemed panel evaluates and selects female scientists, each of whom is working on breakthrough scientific research which addressed critical global challenges that could help millions across the globe.
In 2016, Dr. Nethia Mohana Kumaran was awarded the fellowship for her research on a customised treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC is a type of head and neck cancer). This cancer starts in the nasopharynx, “the upper part of the throat behind the nose and near the base of the skull.” Your nasopharynx is a passageway for air from the nose to reach your throat and eventually your lungs.
We spoke to Dr. Nethia not only to gain insight on her important work but to illuminate the woman behind the science.
The Origin Story
JS: Dr Nethia, Why did you become a scientist? What drew you to this field?
Dr Nethia: I have always been in love with biology, science discoveries and teaching science and it has been my lifelong ambition to become a scientist.
JS: What are the discoveries that have lead up to your current work?
Dr Nethia: In 2005, an article in Nature (high impact science journal) reported on the discovery of a drug known as ABT-737 by Abbott Laboratories. I started working with this drug in 2009 and I am working with related drugs until today, experimenting their effects on cancer cells particularly Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) cells.
JS: Do you have an analogy to help us understand your work?
Dr Nethia: My research focus is targeting a set of proteins known as the BCL-2 family proteins for therapy. The BCL-2 family consists of both pro- and anti-survival molecules and they critically regulate apoptosis, a built-in cell suicide program. In a normal cell, these proteins are kept in check so that cells don’t encounter too much of death or undergo uncontrollable proliferation/division.
However, in cancer cells, this balance is tipped and we have more pro-survival proteins helping cells to survive and evade death. Hence, these pro-survival molecules are ideal targets for treatment with drugs known as BH3 mimetics. When the pro-survival molecules are abolished/restricted by these drugs, apoptosis (programmed cell death) can be initiated in cancer cells leading to death.
JS: What prompted you to apply for the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science grant?
Dr Nethia: L’Oréal-UNESCO is a coveted prize and winning one would put me on a different pedestal – a different league altogether because that is when people start noticing you and your work.
JS: How has your life been impacted since receiving the grant?
Dr Nethia: I get noticed more by other scientists in the field and my work is appreciated. I get to network and work with them. More importantly, the public is also interested in the work that I do which is great.
JS: Why is your area of scientific discovery important for the ordinary citizen?
Dr Nethia: My cancer of interest is Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC). NPC affects the nasopharynx (a small region behind the nose) and Malaysia has one of the highest national incidences in South-East Asia. In Malaysia, it is the 4th most common cancer.
The cancer is highly curable at early stages but patients are often diagnosed late and at this stage, there are limited treatment options and my work concentrates on finding strategies to improve treatment for NPC so that patient survival rate can be increased.
JS: What kind of response have you gotten on your research/findings so far?
Dr Nethia: Response has been encouraging as we just received a grant from MOHE to continue our work.
JS: Congratulations Dr! What happens next?
Dr Nethia: The work that we are doing has to be published in a scientific journal and we are also going to make an effort that it also reaches the public.
Women in Science
JS: Dr Nethia, what does being a woman in science mean to you?
Dr Nethia: Strong and motivated.
JS: Please share a turning point or a defining moment in your work as a scientist.
Dr Nethia: I have published papers in a few journals but publishing my work in Clinical Cancer Research (a high impact cancer journal) was very meaningful to me. I remember the day the manuscript was accepted. It was 3 in the morning in Sydney and I was talking to my best friend when suddenly, I thought ‘let’s check the mail’…the next thing I know – I was screaming in joy!
JS: In your opinion, what are some of the obstacles women face in the field of science? How can we overcome these obstacles?
Dr Nethia: I still feel that women achievements and contributions do not get noticed as much as the opposite gender. In my opinion, women in their workplaces can form small groups within themselves to highlight women’s contributions and achievements. Head of departments and employers have to pay equal attention to success stories stemming from both genders.
JS: What advice do you have for our younger generation of females who are interested in exploring a career in science?
Dr Nethia: Don’t listen to people when they say that a job in science does not pay well and that it’s not exciting. If you are in love with science and research, just find the ways to do it…who knows you could be responsible for the next big discovery. The contribution of women in science have been phenomenal over the years and will continue to be. Nothing can or will stop us except for ourselves.
Female Empowerment in Malaysia
JS: Tell us about the most inspiring woman you know and look up to.
Dr Nethia: I grew up reading about Marie Curie and her discoveries. She is a two-time Nobel Prize winner – you cannot get better than that.
JS: What are your thoughts on women’s rights and female empowerment in Malaysia?
Dr Nethia: There are many women in Malaysia who are doing great things and achieving great heights but there are women who are still being ill-treated and have no voice in the society. They do not know their rights, people that they can go to when they need help and continuously suffer in silence.
JS: We know cultural change takes time – how can we ‘be bold for change’ as women in Malaysia?
Dr Nethia: We need to speak up when it is necessary, we have to make sure that we are heard…when we have a desire to accomplish something we should not stop ourselves from achieving it just because we are women. We have to celebrate women achievements and success, we have to engage successful women to share their experiences with others. This way they can be a source of inspiration.
I recently read an article on LEGO Ideas about a project to produce a Women of NASA set of figurines. It pays tribute to five women’s achievement in the U.S. space program and STEM (science, technology engineering, mathematics) – that’s the way to celebrate.
JS: How can we collaborate to help women advance and reach their limitless potential?
Dr Nethia: Organize motivation talks or forums. Invite successful women to share their experiences with young aspiring women who are eagerly looking out for role models to mentor and motivate them to reach great heights.
International Women’s Day 2017
JS: The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is Be Bold For Change. How will you be bold for change?
Dr Nethia: Being Bold for Change for me means that I need to always be brave and be firm with my stand and principles. I will not be intimidated from doing what I think is right and I hope to play a prominent role in improving the livelihood of women everywhere.
JS: The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186. What are your thoughts?
Dr Nethia: I believe that the process takes time and I am happy to observe that there has been progress in reducing the gender gap. There needs to be more awareness in the public sphere on this issue to ensure that we continue to move forward in this area.
JS: What are your thoughts on gender parity in Malaysia? What are the changes you expect to see in the future?
Dr Nethia: Gender parity in Malaysia is still lacking in my opinion. Despite the higher number of undergraduates recorded going into public institutions of higher learning in Malaysia every year, this somehow does not translate into a higher proportion at the workplace especially a
t the higher management positions. I sincerely hope that this will change moving forward in the future as Malaysia needs the best brains regardless of their gender to compete in a challenging world.
JS: There are 5 categories in the #BeBoldForChange campaign, which one speaks to you the most and why will you champion the cause?
Dr Nethia: I will be bold and celebrate women’s achievements. Talking about achievements is always a great way of motivating people to go after their dreams. It is one way to pay tribute to all the “Hidden Figures” in the world for their exceptional work (in any field) so that they are not hidden anymore.
Today and in the days to come, let’s heed the call to action and not only be bold for change but be willing to have ‘brave conversations’ in all our circles. Like Dr Nethia, let us be bold and steadfast in pursuing our passion like L’Oréal and UNESCO – let’s stand together and walk the talk. This is about celebrating women, empowering women – it’s 2017 and all a girl (still) wants is her fundamental rights. Together, we can do it.
*Special thanks to Dr. Nethia Mohana Kumaran and L’Oréal Malaysia. We salute you and your contribution to women everywhere.