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A Story Of A Woman And Her Second Chances

In conjunction with International Women’s Day, we celebrate the story of Dr Aini Ideris, Pro-Chancellor of International Medical University and her journey in science.

Dr Aini Ideris, IMU Pro-Chancellor. Picture courtesy of IMU.

Before assuming the position of Pro-Chancellor at International Medical University (IMU) in early 2021, Dr Aini Ideris was the first woman to be appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) — she was the eighth Vice-Chancellor — a position she held from 2016 to 2020.

Since graduating with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree in 1979 from UPM (known at the time as Universiti Pertanian Malaysia), she has collected numerous accolades and achievements, from international and national awards for research and innovation, vaccine research breakthroughs.

She has also been published in over 260 journal publications, and in over 400 publications, comprising proceedings and book chapters.

She is a well-known name internationally among avian (her chosen field of specialisation) veterinarians. 

There is no doubt that she has a gift for science, but it was something entirely different — her writing skills — that opened the doors for her, many years ago when she was still in school. 

“When we were in Form Three, the school that I went to, Sekolah Tun Fatimah in Johor Bahru, selected the students to be placed into Arts or Science streams based on one written examination,” recalled Dr Aini.

“I always wanted to be in the Science stream. Unfortunately I had misunderstood the biology question and because of that I didn’t do well in the paper, and I was placed in the Arts stream. I cried and cried. I was so disappointed as I wanted to be a doctor and not getting into the science stream had shattered all my dreams,” she said. 

However, she accepted her fate and carried on in her Arts classes.

“I was also good in my arts subjects,” she says. And when her English teacher assigned the class to write an essay about anything that they wanted to, Dr Aini took that opportunity and poured her heart out in the essay.

“I wrote about my interests in science subjects and disappointment in not getting into the Science stream and how that has shattered my childhood dreams of becoming a doctor.”

Her essay grabbed the attention of her English teacher, who shared it with the other teachers.

It led to the class teacher arranging for a reassessment of Dr Aini’s passion in science and her scientific knowledge through another exam.

This was the second chance that she needed.

“I made sure that I read all the questions carefully, and answered them very well,” she said.

This time, the teachers were convinced that she was good to be in the Science stream.

All Creatures Great And Small

She did not, however, carry on to become a doctor of the people, as she had envisioned herself, but rather became a doctor of all creatures great and small. 

“When I applied for scholarships after my STPM, I was offered the Colombo Plan scholarship to study nursing in Australia, and later received an offer from the University of Malaya to study dentistry,” she explained.

Although these programmes are related to the medical field, she was not enamoured by them (she did confess that she was briefly tempted by the scholarship to study overseas).

She declined the offers, and with great effort and determination searched for  opportunities in other fields.

“Remember, there was no internet then, in the early 1970s,” she added.

“I found out that there was another programme that was closely related to medical science, and that was veterinary science,” said Dr Aini.

“I read up on it and got very interested because you get to learn close to everything that you would in a medical programme, from anatomy, physiology, pathology, medicine, surgery, post mortems, various treatments and so on.”

“They were very similar disciplines when I looked at it in that way. On top of that, veterinary science would be interesting because you’re not dealing with just one species but with many different species, big and small. From a hummingbird weighing a few 100 grams to elephants weighing several thousand kilos!” 

That was the first thing that attracted her to the course. The second thing that sealed the deal for her was her love for animals.

“I love animals. With this programme, I could learn everything about the medical field and also help animals,” she said.

“I have never regretted pursuing the veterinary programme. It has been a very interesting journey all the way.”

Soaring Career

After getting her degree, Dr Aini then joined UPM as a tutor and pursued her postgraduate study at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, receiving a Masters in Veterinary Science (MVSc) degree in Avian Medicine, in 1981.  

While serving as a lecturer at UPM, she pursued her doctorate degree on a part-time basis and was awarded a PhD in 1989 by UPM. 

She later went on to do her sabbatical leave and postdoctoral training at the University of California, Davis, United States, from 1990 to 1992. 

In 1993, she was awarded the Asian Development Bank Fellowship, for further postdoctoral training via a research attachment at Cornell University, where she was involved in avian molecular biology research together with two other postdoctoral fellows.

Her interest in avian species, led her to be actively involved in research related to the control of poultry diseases and development of poultry vaccines. 

Her great breakthrough in research was when she successfully cloned a new heat-resistant Newcastle disease virus, V4-UPM.

This vaccine could be administered not only via conventional methods, but could also be incorporated in animal feed. 

This novel method of administering vaccines in the feed created a lot of interest worldwide. 

The commercialisation of the Newcastle disease vaccine, and later of a Fowl Pox vaccine, in 1995 and 1996 respectively, was instrumental in the establishment of the first and the only local animal vaccine company in Malaysia.

Dr Aini was the principal investigator in research on both these vaccines, making history in Malaysia.

The two vaccines are now registered and sold not only in Malaysia, but in close to 20 other countries. 

Dr Aini was also the co-researcher of two other important poultry vaccines, live and inactivated Infectious Bursal Disease, which were commercialised in 2005 and 2015, respectively.

Today, although she is fully retired, she is still on the team (led by Prof Mohd Hair Bejo) that is conducting research on an inactivated Covid-19 vaccine.

“Because of our experience and expertise in developing poultry vaccines, we were given a research grant to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. Covid-19 is caused by a coronavirus and in poultry we also have a disease caused by coronavirus, known as Infectious Bronchitis,  with very similar symptoms. Trials are ongoing and so far the results seem good,” she said.

Future Of Science

“I’m happy where I am now. I have taken the right path in terms of progression of my work, research, profession,” she said, adding that her own second chance all those years ago has made her more mindful of giving her students support as well.

“If they don’t do well in exams, I talk to them, find out what their problems are and how we can assist them, because I know some students have different issues, different problems, so we cannot just dismiss them like that. We give them the opportunity to tell us what they are facing and try to help them.”

Having played such an instrumental role in the development of the science field in Malaysia, what does she think about the younger generation and their interest in science?

Are the young just as passionate about science as she was as a 15 year old? 

“I can see that there is a decline in the interest in science among students. Every year we see less applications than there are places in science-related programmes in the universities,” she lamented.

This is why Dr Aini has been involved in programmes that create awareness and exposure to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields in schools.

“And not just urban schools where they already have access to a lot of information. We must also go into schools where students have less exposure because they have no access to things such as the internet,” she added.

She believes that science holds no gender bias and that both boys and girls should be encouraged to explore the many different facets of science and research.

“There is no reason why a woman can’t go up to the moon. I can’t think of anything that a man can do that a woman cannot do in science and vice versa,” she said.

“Gender is not the issue. It depends on the individual. You are your own passion and competition. You can do anything but it’s up to you to choose what you want to.”

And her parting words to all who aspire to be scientists: “You will do well if you are passionate about your work and believe in it.”

Article by International Medical University (IMU).

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