Dr Siti Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah (centre) with FameLab International Final contestants Vanessa Pirotta (left) from Australia and Veli Vural Uslu from Germany.

SHE may have been crowned the World’s Best Science Communicator in the 11th FameLab International competition, but Dr Siti Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah is modest about her win.

“I wanted to win so badly because I knew many people back in Malaysia were waking up early to cheer me on, praying for my success. But all the contestants were amazing and I think it could have gone to anyone,” the lecturer from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Biological Sciences told the New Sunday Times.

Dr Siti Khayriyyah, who teaches medical microbiology and microscopy, beat 27 of the world’s best communicators with her presentation “To Find a Hidden Killer”, which was about diagnosing infectious diseases accurately using biomarkers. Her laboratory focuses on the discovery of biomarkers of tuberculosis and novel anti-microbials.

“I think I won because I was different. I tried to tap into the audience’s emotions and make them feel something. The judges said my calm and commanding manner was the reason they chose me, but I did not feel calm or commanding at all in my head,” she said.

Encouraged by a friend, the mother of two boys joined the competition to convey the research challenges for tuberculosis — an important disease that she feels is greatly underfunded.

“I wanted to tell a story about why it is an important disease. I wanted to relate how biomarkers can address some of the problems we have in controlling the disease.

“I tried to construct a speech that the audience could relate to, using basic human emotions and weaving the science into the story. I had help from many people — Idzaan from Malaysian Industry-Group for High Technology (MIGHT), Rowena from the British Council, Abhimanyu, Zaid and other Famelab Malaysia alumni, as well as our trainer from BBC, Dallas Campbell.”

She said she owed her win to a huge team effort, with even her family helping out.

“My sisters helped with props and timed me during practice runs, my friends humoured me, listened to drafts and gave feedback, while my mum took time off work to help with the boys. She has always been my rock.”

She said her father was one of the reasons why she ventured into research.

“He was a computer scientist who developed the first C to Java Compiler under his company, Axiomatic Solutions. He died in 2007 and is one of the most intelligent people I know. We also share the same sense of humour.”

She said her interest in biological sciences began in her school days.

“I loved biology as a student, especially since it is related to human health and physiology.

“On its most basic units of life, our bodies mirror humanity — so it is familiar and mysterious at the same time. But my interest in tuberculosis came from a chance encounter with Prof Arthur Dannenberg Jr in 2010 (who died in June). We sat next to each other at a tuberculosis seminar. Afterwards he explained about his research in tuberculosis.

“He was 86 at the time, but came to work every day and taught a course on bacterial infections, which I took as I found him so interesting. He entertained my questions and was a lovely person who inspired me to pursue my love/hate relationship with this tough disease.”

Elated by her win, Dr Siti Khayriyyah said she could not wait to see where this path would take her.

She described her experience in the competition as “surreal”.

“I loved hearing people’s perspectives on science and being infected by their enthusiasm. It was amazing when people came up to me and told me that I inspired them.”

On what was next on her to-do list, Dr Siti Khayriyyah said: “That is a tough one. I am eager to pay it forward and help the next Malay-sian Famelab Champion to defend the title.”

FameLab is delivered by the British Council and Cheltenham Science Festival (CSF), and MIGHT, the country partner for Malaysia. This was Malaysia’s fourth Famelab competition, first female finallist and its second world champion.

This year’s finals featured contestants from 27 countries, including Poland, Greece and Italy.

It was held in front of a live audience at the Arena in Cheltenham, the United Kingdom. Judges included Vivienne Parry (science writer and broadcaster), Clifford Johnson (professor in physics and astronomy, author and science communicator) and Farrah Nazir [Acting creative and partnerships lead (public engagement) at Wellcome Trust].

Dr Siti Khayriyyah moments after being crowned the World’s Best Science Communicator at the 11th FameLab International competition.

Our winner an overachiever

DR Siti Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah, who pursued pre-medicine in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, and Kuantan, was one of the pioneering batches of students in the Kulliyyah of Science campus, International Islamic University Malaysia.

She stayed briefly in Geneva, Switzerland, for an internship with the World Health Organisation (WHO), as part of her master’s programme at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. While pursuing her PhD at Macfarlane Burnet Institute in Melbourne, Australia, she completed a research attachment in Beijing, China.

She began academic research in epidemiology of the Hepatitis C virus infection stemming from an internship at WHO in Geneva. She developed an interest in tuberculosis (TB), which led to studies on development of diagnostic biomarkers of TB and mucosal infections in her postgraduate training under the supervision of Associate Prof David Anderson.

Her evolving research interests span immunological biomarkers of mucosal infections, antigenic properties of mycobacteria (particularly M. tuberculosis complex), and viral hepatitis (particularly Hepatitis C virus), aimed at improving knowledge gaps in infectious disease diagnostics.