Women in science: Empowering the younger generation through science

February 11 marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. According to the United Nations, “the probability for female students graduating with a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and Doctor’s degree in science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%.” The need for inspiring women in science could not have come at a better time, particularly as our world continues to see change in a hotter and growing world.

The Crops For the Future (CFF) – University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (UNMC) Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) programme provides a unique opportunity for students across various disciplines to conduct research on underutilised crops. The programme has recruited 49 students to date pursuing their postgraduate degrees. Of those, 33% of the students are female. While the male to female ratio of DTP students show a big gap, the percentage of female DTP students under the Faculty of Engineering (FoE) is 71%. The figures are promising, considering women remain under-represented in the science and engineering workforce, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences (National Girls Collaborative Project).

One of the DTP students is Isabelle Leong Hui Yi, who is currently pursuing her PhD in Chemical Engineering. Her project is on the extraction of bioactive compounds from red dragon fruit. We sat down with Isabelle to learn more about her project and her interest in pursuing the science field.

The red dragon fruit – an underutilised case for natural food colouring

Currently in the second year of her PhD, Isabelle’s project focusses on the extraction of red-purple pigment, composed of betacyanins (a plant-based bioactive compound/phytochemical) from the red dragon fruit – utilising both the peel and flesh.

The method she is using is based on liquid biphasic partitioning system (LBPS). “LBPS is a novel extraction technique, which shows promising extraction efficiency. The main purpose of the present study is to utilise the red-purple pigment as a natural food colouring agent,” explains Isabelle.

Striving for science

In primary school, Isabelle was yet to realise her love for science. It was not until she progressed into high school that Isabelle grew to love science, “ever since then, I found science to be an interesting subject.” For her Malaysian Higher School Certificate, Isabelle took biology and chemistry. She continued to pursue the science stream in university, where she completed her Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. 
The future of science
 
The DTP programme aims to train the next generation of scientists to tackle one of the most important challenges facing the world today – reshaping our agricultural systems into a more sustainable and productive means of meeting our current and future food and non-food demands. Speaking on why the DTP programme provides a unique platform for multidisciplinary students to showcase their work, DTP Manager, Dr Maysoun Mustafa, mentions that “to sustainably address the threat of food security in a changing climate, we need more dialogue and discussion between researchers from all disciplines – the plant scientists, computer scientists, social scientists, engineers etc. And this is what the DTP does; develop researchers with the knowledge, skill and expertise able to cut across the different disciplines.”  
 
Science remains a challenging field, with things not always going to plan – especially as our world continues to change. “Experiments are usually hard and you don’t always get the results you want to achieve.” Nonetheless, Isabelle mentions that while she has faced many challenges, her work and advisors continue to motivate her. Isabelle emphasises the need for positive female figures in science to encourage our youth to be more interested in pursuing their education in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field. “Science is an interesting world and there is a lot that is unknown. You will find yourself to be surprised and proud when you create something novel.”

For more information on the DTP programme, visit http://www.cff-unmc-dtp.com/