Antarctic Science Research, One of Main research Areas At IMU

“As of today, more than 50 Malaysian researchers and students have participated in Antarctic expeditions for research purposes,” Dr. Wong Chiew Yen said.

Antarctic Science Research, One of Main research Areas At IMU

Dr. Wong Chiew Yen, a pioneer in the Malaysian Antarctic Research Programme expressed her delight that Antarctic science research is becoming one of the main research areas at International Medical University (IMU), noting that the Malaysian Antarctic science research field is divided into three major areas: biological sciences, physical sciences, and Antarctic policy.

“As of today, more than 50 Malaysian researchers and students have participated in Antarctic expeditions for research purposes,” she said.

Dr. Wong Chiew Yen, a pioneer in the Malaysian Antarctic Research Programme, a task force established by the Science, Technology, and Innovation Ministry (Mosti), has lived and breathed Antarctic research for the past two decades.

It all began in 2002, when she went on a field trip to the South Pole in search of a research project for her postgraduate studies at Universiti Malaya (UM).

Wong, who is now a senior lecturer at International Medical University’s School of Health Sciences, has never looked back. Her contributions to Antarctic research earned her the Sultan Mizan Antarctic Research Foundation (YPASM) Medal for Polar Education and Communication on October 18.

This was in recognition of her excellence or innovation in communicating Antarctic research, as well as her sustained commitment to doing so: educating the next generation of Antarctic researchers or building new capacity in Malaysia’s Polar initiatives; and establishing a significant record of achievement in terms of the quality, effectiveness, and creativity of her engagement in one or more of these three key areas of education and communication.

Obtaining funding, according to Wong, has been the most difficult aspect of her research journey.

“The public always asks why we do Antarctic research when there are so many areas and resources that we can explore in a tropical country,” she said. Further added that she is constantly improving her proposals in order to increase her chances of receiving funding from various agencies.

She has obtained Antarctic research grants from Mosti, YPASM, and UM over the years for the continuous establishment of Antarctic algae culture collections, publications, student training, and research collaborations with national and international researchers.

“Antarctica is important to every life form on Earth, as its ice, ocean, and ecosystems play a profound role in regulating the world’s climate. The Antarctic ice sheet’s four-kilometer thickness helps scientists understand global climate change, and it also provides a unique record of what the Earth’s climate has been like over the past million years,” she explained.

She warned that melting sea ice due to global warming could raise global sea levels and cause global flooding, pointing out that the Antarctic ice sheet determines global sea levels.

She also mentioned that Antarctica serves as a natural laboratory for studying the effects of human-caused pollution (pollutants) on simple life forms (microorganisms) found in the south polar region.

“Microorganisms are the foundation of ecosystems, which support all living things. Any impact on these microorganisms will eventually have an impact on organisms at higher trophic levels of the food chain, including humans,” she explained.

Wong went on to say that because Antarctica is not owned by any country, it is governed by a global agreement, transforming it into an international science laboratory for scientists to study its climate, meteorology, ozone layer, geology, oceanology, marine life, and ecosystem.

“Microorganisms found in Antarctica can be a promising source of new bioproducts, such as enzymes, proteins, and bioactive compounds. They may produce secondary metabolites with biological and pharmaceutical importance, such as antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anticancer properties. As a result, they are valued for biotechnological applications,” she explained.

On a more personal level, Wong stated that her “great interest” in Antarctic science drives her research pursuits, and she finds happiness in constantly making new discoveries in the field.

Her research, which has advanced global understanding of how climate change affects microalgae, a primary producer in ecosystems, has been divided into three major categories: climate change, environmental pollutants, and phytoremediation.

She has visited Casey Station in Antarctica twice, in 2002 and 2005, as part of a collaborative project between UM and the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), with funding from the Malaysian Academy of Sciences (ASM).

She has also travelled to Ny-Alesund in the Arctic to conduct solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR) research, which was funded by UM as part of a collaborative project between the university and the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

Wong recalled having to be emotionally and physically strong due to the short stay durations, as Antarctica and the Arctic are pristine areas with very little human activity and nothing much except the research lab and a few simple buildings for accommodation.

“Due to the poor Internet connectivity at that time, I had to make my own judgements and decisions while carrying out my research. “I also needed to communicate and collaborate closely with people I didn’t know,” she explained.

Following the death of Prof Chu Wan Loy, one of the national Antarctic researchers leading Antarctic science research at International Medical University (IMU), in 2020, Wong took the lead in continuing to establish Antarctic science research in the varsity, as well as its algae culture collection.

She has since helped postgraduates obtain funding for Antarctic expeditions and has assisted both postgraduates and undergraduates in presenting research findings at various conferences.

Wong, who was appointed vice president of the Malaysian Polar Alumni Association in July, suggested incorporating hands-on activities to encourage students to develop an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“Practical sessions in schools involving demonstrations by teachers and experiments in labs help younger students, who are full of curiosity and are eager to explore everything.”

“Competitions involving scientific innovations and inventions can also inspire creativity in secondary school students.”

Wong also advised students to “get out of their comfort zone and grab every single opportunity to improve themselves whenever possible.”

She encouraged students to read books other than school textbooks because it is one of the best ways to increase knowledge and personal value.