From left,Profesor Dr Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam and Profesor Dr Halimaton Hamdan with Moderator Dr Edison Lee Tian Khoon at the Merdeka Talk Series 2019. NSTP/HALIMATON SAADIAH SULAIMAN

Commercialisation transforms one’s research from problem-definition to bringing solutions to the marketplace. In Malaysia, obtaining funding has become more competitive for young researchers as commercialisation of university research findings is one of the critical agendas in the National Higher Education Strategic Plan.

With this in mind, the Merdeka Award Secretariat recently organised a one-day masterclass to address the challenges faced by young researchers.

It featured past Merdeka Award recipients Professor Datuk Dr Harith Ahmad, Professor Datuk Dr Halimaton Hamdan, Professor Dr Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam and Hassan Muthalib.

Having won the 2010 Merdeka Award, Harith, from Universiti Malaya’s Faculty of Science, delivered a talk entitled “Understanding effective research that can lead to commercialisation”.

He said people study and do research all the time. But what sets good research apart from others was how effective it was as an end-product.

“To carry out effective research that leads to product development, it’s important to have the correct perspective of ideas. You must be focused and not get sidetracked. To make important discoveries, you need to burn the midnight oil and undertake long hours in the course of your research.”

Indeed, he said passion was needed to drive one’s research forward.

“Only do research that you’re passionate about. That does not mean that you have to stay in your field forever. If you have new ideas and want to venture into a new research area, go for it and follow your passion. You’ll make good discoveries from there.”

Harith cited the smartphone lifestyle as a result of effective research.

“Massive research has taken place for the last 50 years to develop all the technology that came about to support your current lifestyle. Many people played a part in developing ideas, technology and scientific knowledge to bring smartphones into the world.”

He shared the story of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, 2010 Nobel Prize winners in physics, on their innovative experiments with graphene.

“Fantastic ideas might not need fantastic equipment. By using only a cellophane tape, the two laureates managed to obtain a flake of carbon of just one-atom-thick. That was the birth of the material of your smartphone display screen,” said Harith.

The event’s highlight was a panel discussion entitled “Common Challenges Faced by Young Researchers and How to Overcome Them”.

Moderated by 2018 Merdeka Award Grant recipient Dr Edison Lee Tian Khoon, the panel comprised Halimaton and Abhimanyu, who won the 2009 and 2012 Merdeka Awards, respectively.

Halimaton started the session with a presentation on the reality of research and development (R&D) in Malaysia.

“Malaysia is a consumer country and that needs to change. We need to have more people who can do research and innovate so that we can become prosumers.

“We aim to reach the two percentile range for our gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD). But Malaysia is only at 1.3 per cent.”

GERD is the total expenditure on R&D for a period expressed as a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product.

“While it’s encouraging that there is an increasing number of researchers in Malaysia, we are lagging compared with other countries. We spend more money on buying patents than producing them.”

She said the National Science and Research Council (NSRC) has come up with nine national priority areas for R&D to address the nation’s sustainability and economic growth.

“For young researchers, you must look at this priority areas to develop the country,” she said.

For Abhimanyu, research is a service to others.

“As researchers, we may not be the smartest ones in Malaysia, but we are the ones that have the most opportunities to be educated. Why do we do research that continues to be irrelevant?

“It is because we are disconnected from other people’s needs. We need to have empathy. Science should not be serving scientists. Instead, we should think about how we can serve society and humanity.”

The two scientists shared the challenges they encountered in their careers.

Halimaton said: “I started doing research in the early 1980s. We didn’t have a lot of opportunities as Malaysia was only starting to embark on research at that time. My biggest challenge was to gain the confidence of people to believe in what I wanted to do.”

Having graduated with a PhD in physical chemistry from Cambridge University, she added: “You have to start from the bottom. After studying abroad, don’t return and expect to get millions worth of funding.

“There are no shortcuts in doing research. For young researchers, you must believe in yourself and don’t give up easily. Persistence is key.”

Abhimanyu said while the young researchers had more resources now, they had to face a different set of challenges.

“My biggest challenge was identifying niche research areas and to remain competitive. How do I get a promotion without hijacking my purpose?

“I always remind myself, how do I balance between the progress that everyone expects of me and the progress that can contribute to people?”

Researchers also have to juggle multiple roles at work and outside.

Abhimanyu said: “When you’re struggling to focus, you must realise that you don’t have to solve every problem in the world.

“To remedy this, you can collaborate and get more people to be apart of the research. Alternatively, you can opt to break the research down into different parts. Set goals. For example, in the next five years, this is what you’re going to address. And if it works, that’s when you can extrapolate.”

Halimaton said to focus, one had to set a niche from the beginning.

“Ask yourself, ‘Who am I as a researcher? What can I do with my expertise?’

“Throughout the 40 years of my working life, I was most active when my children were growing up. I cannot imagine how I did it — producing books and publications, and at

the same time, teaching and supervising students. Self-organisation and time management are important.”

Abhimanyu added: “The idea of achieving a balance is sometimes overrated. If you’re overwhelmed, return to your purpose. Sit down and think. Maybe that additional conference you’re organising or the new position you’re taking up is unnecessary.”

Abhimanyu has had many mentors, including Tan Sri Dr Ir Ahmad Tajuddin Ali and Professor Datuk Dr Asma Ismail.

“Peer mentoring is important as we have similar experiences. Fellow researchers in the Young Scientists’ Network inspire me.”

Halimaton said when she first joined Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in 1981, 90 per cent of the faculty members were male.

“So for women, we had to inspire ourselves and work hard to get to where we are now.”

The Merdeka Talk Series was held at the Petronas Twin Towers on Aug 15, ahead of Merdeka Award Grant 2019 announcement.