In conjunction with the 10th year anniversary of UNMC’s School of Biosciences (SoB), IGNITE spoke to Professor Festo Massawe, the Head of SoB, to gain some insight on the Biosciences field in UNMC from his perspective. Their tagline, 10 Years of Biosciences in Malaysia, Nurturing the Solutions of Tomorrow, captures the essence of the SoB, which is educating the next generation of bio-scientists to find solutions to fundamental challenges of food, nutrition, health and environmental sustainability.
How did you get involved in the SoB?
I have had a long association (since 1995) with the SoB based at Sutton Bonington Campus in the UK. Back in 2005, Dr Peter Alderson, the founding Director of Studies of the SoB at the Malaysia Campus approached me to the discuss his plans to set up SoB in Malaysia. So in 2006, I was recruited to join Dr Alderson to establish the SoB in UNMC. Since then, I have been in Malaysia.
Why should someone be interested in SoB at the Malaysia Campus?
In short, we are the best biosciences school in Malaysia and in the region. SoB is one of the strongest teaching and research schools for fundamental and applied biological, environmental, nutritional and food sciences. Our presence in Malaysia enables us to conduct major research to address some of the most important global challenges of the 21st century including global food security, industrial pollution, environmental degradation, nutrition and health. We work very closely with colleagues in the UK and our partners across the globe and we offer our students an industrial placement, crucial for their career development and employment.
What is the progress that has resulted from SoB over the last 10 years?
We have trained over 400 quality graduates and outstanding leaders who are out there making a difference in our societies. Our graduates are widely regarded as being well-trained and of high quality.
As an example, for Biotechnology graduates, the emphasis is placed on applications of recent biotechnological advances to produce food sustainably, combat diseases, produce cleaner energy and to develop more efficient manufacturing processes. Our nutrition graduates are armed with the knowledge and practical skills that enable them to use scientific evidence to explain the relationship between diet and health and disease.
At the Malaysia Campus, we are one of the leading research schools and we work closely with partners in industry to enhance the societal impact of our research. In addition to specific research related to biotechnology for crop improvement, industrial and medical applications, more generally, our research focuses on finding solutions to food and nutrition security, environmental and climate change.
All our school academic staff are research active publishing regularly in major international journals. The school has also attracted a significant research income over the last 10 years. It is also important to note that the SoB in UNMC enjoys close links with the SoB in the UK that enable researchers to tap into combined expertise and facilities that exist between the two campuses.
Since you have mentioned ‘partnership’, what are the collaborations and partnership that UNMC has with business communities, public organisations, authorities and international science councils?
We have many strong collaborations nationally, regionally and internationally. These partnerships range from teaching and learning (for example, undergraduate exchange programmes and dual degrees for postgraduate research) to research collaborations and training. For example, nationally we work with other institutions of higher learning such as University Putra Malaysia and University Malaya. We also collaborate with industrial partners such as Sime Darby, FELDA, MPOB and Medklinn.
Internationally, we have collaborations with partners such as Fraunhofer, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and John Innes Centre.
I would like to highlight two of our current major partnerships. One of these is an industrial partnership with Applied Agricultural Resources (AAR), a centre involved in oil palm research. This collaboration has resulted in a state-of-the-art Biotechnology Research Centre that provides multipurpose, high-end lab used by our students and researchers that require facilities for biotechnology research.
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Another main partnership is with the Crops For the Future (CFF) that provides research and educational resource for underutilised crops and agricultural biodiversity. This centre is making a major contribution to the field of bioscience and food security, changing people’s perspective on the food we eat and where it comes from. Generally, we only rely on a few mainstream crops; rice, wheat and maize for our calories – this should change because of population growth and nutrition issues we face today.
We have also partnered with CFF to offer the first doctoral training programme (CFF-UNMC DTP) in Malaysia.
This programme aims to train over 100 postgraduate research students. We are very proud of all our partnerships and the value they bring to our students, researchers and society.
What are the activities planned in lieu of the 10th year anniversary?
We have had many activities as a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the School in Malaysia. One of the earliest events was a ‘Food Waste Campaign/Awareness seminar organised in partnership with UNMC Youth Chapter of Junior Chamber International (JCI).
Then, there was a Biosciences Student in Nottingham Club career event organised by Biosciences students and careers advisory services, which links directly to a new ‘Professional Skills’ module for second-year students. This is one of the modules we introduced as part of our efforts to ensure Biosciences graduates are best prepared for life beyond university.
As part of our celebrations, we also had a 10th anniversary SoB Essay Competition. We also organised a summer school called ‘Global Food Security’ — organised jointly by the school of Biosciences in Malaysia and UK.
We also organised ‘Green Week’ inviting UNMC students and staff to do gardening and plant trees. For this event we were joined by Forest Department of Malaysia who also donated the trees we planted. The SoB together with people from different schools planted 30 forest tree seedlings of four species in the memorial planting site beside the main gate.
We also organised public seminars inviting international speakers to share their research with students, staff and the public. The seminar topics reflected the theme of our 10th anniversary: “10 Years of Biosciences in Malaysia, Nurturing the Solutions of Tomorrow”. Last but not least, we had our Alumni and friends of Biosciences dinner event on Saturday the 22nd October 2016 to celebrate our successes.
What is your vision for the future, from an individual perspective and the school as a whole?
Vision is a big thing. The last 10 years have seen Biosciences grow from strength to strength, delivering excellence in teaching and research.
I would personally like to see us develop our core capabilities further, to deliver excellence in teaching and research in food and nutrition for health and biotechnology and allied areas.
As a school, we will strive for excellence in teaching and research focusing on biotechnology for crop improvement, industrial and medical applications and food and nutrition for health. We will continue to work with our partners to ensure our research is relevant and our graduates are well equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills. I think we will need an excellent team of people in the school to deliver another 10 great years. I look forward to seeing what the next 10 years will bring.
By Siti Safiah