Sunday, November 1, 2015

Confessions of a rookie FB user

I wanted to be the last person standing on Planet Earth without a Facebook account.
But my email inbox was flooding with enquiries from students, parents and the general public - so I thought, well, an FB page will give me a breezier platform to entertain their queries when I am more relaxed and not on work mode.
So, two months ago I connected with the universal world fraternity on FB.
It has been a great platform for connecting with the people, inspiring them, and understanding their concerns in biotechnology education as well as discussing careers and vocations in the field of biotechnology – as well as to put a human face to my own profession and career.  
A greenhorn at FB skills, I am now learning the maneuvering and machinations of FB technology and am already enjoying the interaction and all the sharing of information and updates.
But there are moments of frustration as well. I get “likes” seconds after posting a video with a footage lasting four minutes.
This simply means that the video is “liked” even before it has been completely viewed – the tendency to “like” anything that is posted without understanding and appreciating the content.
The other frustration is when I get more “likes” for photos than information. Yes, I am not na├»ve. I know there is serious lack of hunger for knowledge out there, especially if it is science-related.
But I am not giving up. I know there are a few science fans who share my posts and send personal messages, appreciating the information.
I am going to keep pushing science/biotechnology to the public domain till it becomes a culture. This is my new “cyber boulevard” and it gives me the opportunity to have my fingers on the pulse of my audience.
And of course, it is important for me as a science communicator to understand what interests my audiences, their concerns and the best tool to reach them.
On a related subject, I was introduced to a techie lecturer in UPM who uses latest IT gadgets and apps to teach microbiology. Look her up on page 11, October issue of The Petri Dish. We need more Dr Wans at universities and schools to inspire our students in science and appreciate science & technology.

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Farewell to the ‘Missile Man of India’

This is one man I really was hoping I could meet one day in person. The late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam is the pride of every Indian.

He was an Indian by citizen, a Tamil by mother tongue, and a Muslim by religion - a perfect amalgam that united India.
I don’t know any other living scientist who is so accomplished in his field while being a poet, philosopher, held the presidency of a country and a mentor and inspiration of every youth in his country.

He is one of the most respected rocket scientists in the world and played a pivotal role in advancing India’s nuclear research and programmes.
The Petri Dish editorial team strongly felt that his story should get a mention in the front page. This is the least we could do as a science newspaper.

Born into a fisherman family in Tamil Nadu, he went on to study aeronautics, earning all his degrees in India but becoming a world class scientist.

He is known for his simple lifestyle and down-to-earth personality. His legacy will stay forever, perhaps just like Mahatma Gandhi.

Using his space technology, Kalam designed prosthesis limb weighing just 400 grams which increased the mobility of  disabled children tremendously. And Kalam was said to have cherished it more than launching rockets.

When he left Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of  Indian President after five glorious years of being the president of India, all he had to vacate was a large collection of books and two bags with his personal belongings. He did not acquire assets during his presidency. All he acquired was the hearts of Indian.

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Monday, July 13, 2015


I was not blogging for a while because I was/am basking in stardust for a while now, so to speak. Never in my wildest dream had I thought I will go viral on social media. After all, who even takes a second look at someone who is involved in science? But things took a complete twist when the news broke that I am listed by Scientific American Worldview as one of the 100 most influential people on biotech in the world.

Although I knew about this about three months ago, it did not occur to me that it will make news outside the scientific community.

While waiting to collect my bags at the airport, I was approached by a young man who showed the news from his mobile phone and congratulated me.

The week that followed was completely out of my control. A number of journalists from print, television and on line media wanted an interview with me. It wasn’t in my wildest dream that I will get that much attention being in the scientific field. While it was quite daunting and stressful, I was advised by some close friends to make use of this situation to inspire young people to excel.

Then I realised that I did not only make news among the media and public but also those in the corridors of power.  Deputy Minister for Education II, P. Kamalanathan called to congratulate and even tweeted about me. Then the Special Advisor to Prime Minister on Women Entrepreneurs and Professional Development, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil sent a congratulatory letter.

I know my celebrity life will not last as the news has its life-span but my aspiration to communicate biotech around the world and to create an enabling ecosystem is now further boosted.

While all this is flattering (and exhausting), what is it that will really make me happy? Here is a list:

1. A clear research direction for our country, with long-term goals and thorough follow ups till we achieve the goals. And the goals must be market-driven to solve our local problems in agriculture,  medical and public health (i.e. dengue), and environmental issues etc. No more megaprojects, please.
2. Strong focus and emphasis on basis research. Does this contradict my first point? Not at all. Without basic research, we can never get into commercialisation, unless we want to keep borrowing technology from outside. Every product we use today stems out from basic research. Looks like we are losing our appetite for basic research and keen to make some quick buck.
3.  Elevating our education system, quality of our teachers and pedagogy. Instilling critical thinking instead of rote learning in our schools.
4.  Putting the right persons to helm major institutions and agencies, truly based on merit.
5.  Divorce science from politics. These should no political appointments. Projects should be approved based on need and not to gain political mileage.

If I can be a change agent for the above and successfully influence the government, then I declare myself as the most influential person in SCIENCE in Malaysia. I pray for patience in my endeavours…

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Correlation between Autism and GMOs

The increase in the number of autism cases has been correlated to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and vaccines for long. While it is true autism cases has been in the rise in the past few decades, the spurious correlation to vaccines and GMOs does not hold any water or stand the security of science.

Arvind Suresh in an article written for Genetic Literacy Project says that researchers now believe that nothing is causing the rise of this disorder. It is merely a statistical mirage. Compared to about one out of every 2000 children who had autism in 1970s and 80s, the figure has skyrocketed to one in 150 among 8-year-olds in the USA, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the critics of GMOs and vaccination, it is a mighty easy task to speculate and do some armchair research – correlate the increase in vaccination and increase in the adoption of GM crops to the increase in autism cases over the years and drive home the point that autism is caused by GMOs and vaccination. Bear in mind the advocate for anti-vaccination, Jenny McCarthy proudly said in an Oprah interview, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from”.

If you want to have fun with statistics where one can correlate anything with similar trends and jump into a conclusion, visit this page: . Here you will see real spurious statistics – among others, age of Miss America correlates with murder by steam, hot vapours and hot objects, US crude oil imports from Norway correlates with drivers killed in collision with railway train, and number of people drowned by falling into a swimming pool (USA) correlates to number of films Nicolas cage appeared in.

If one were to do the same standard to research done by critics of GMOs and the pseudoscience, then increase in autism could also be correlated to increase in organic food sales – see figure below.

So why the increase? In fact evidence show that there is no dramatic increase in autism after all. 
The apparent increase is due to changes in the diagnostic criteria, increased screening and awareness of this disorder. Forbes reported that:
The way autism is defined in the U.S. has changed dramatically since 1980, when it first appeared in the DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as “Infantile Autism” and could only be diagnosed in children whose symptoms began before they were three years old. Autism spectrum disorders have expanded to include diagnosis without a specific age requirement beyond the “early developmental period” and without requiring significant language impairment in the recently revised DSM-5.
The vast majority of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders today would never have qualified under the 1980 classification, and no formal classification separate from schizophrenia existed before then. So it’s not surprising that numbers have increased in the U.S.

The definition of ASD has also been expanded to include a collection of brain development disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome. For example, Denmark expanded its diagnostic criteria in 1994.

Not only the diagnostic criteria was widened, the national data tracking in Denmark began to include diagnosis made from outpatient patient visits rather than just diagnosis of those admitted to a healthcare facility. This happened in every country where autism cases were soaring.

A paper published in JAMA Pediatrics (2015 Jan 1;169(1):56-62) concludes that the change in diagnostic criteria taken together along with the diagnoses made outside of a healthcare facility accounted for as much as 60 per cent of the increase in prevalence of autism spectrum disorders.
It is important to understand that with early screening programmes introduced by governments and newer diagnostic techniques coming into play, there will be a prevalence of certain diseases. The same case can also be argued for increase in certain types of cancers.

Whatever, it is cherry picking of data should be stopped and the public must be equipped with some knowledge to discriminate against pseudoscience. 

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan

The Rise and Rise of Biotech/GM Crops

While the critics of biotech/GM crops are busy trying to impede the approvals and commercial cultivation of the crops, farmers are happily increasing their hectarage.

A record 181.5 million hectares of biotech crops were grown globally last year - an increase of more than six million hectares from 2013.

This is according to a report released here today by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

With the addition of Bangladesh, a total of 28 countries grew biotech crops during the year. The 20 developing and eight industrial countries where biotech crops are produced represent more than 60 percent of the world's population.

"The accumulated hectarage of biotech crops grown in 1996 to 2014 equals, roughly, 80 percent more than the total land mass of China," said Clive James, ISAAA Founder and report author.

"Global hectarage has increased more than 100-fold since the first plantings of biotech crops."
Since 1996, more than 10 food and fiber biotech crops have been approved and commercialized around the world. These range from major commodities such as maize, soybean and cotton, to fruits and vegetables like papaya, eggplant and, most recently, potato.

The traits of these crops address common issues affecting crop, benefits to the consumer and production rates for farmers, including drought tolerance, insect and disease resistance, herbicide tolerance and increased nutrition and food quality.

Biotech crops contribute to more sustainable crop production systems and provide resilient responses to the challenges of climate change. 

Two apparent push for biotech crops were political will as exemplified by the Minister for Agriculture in Bangladesh by approving Bt brinjal and bringing it to the farms in less than 100 days of approval and the private-public partnerships as for drought-tolerant sugar cane (Indonesia) and drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize (Africa) and herbicide-tolerant soybean (Brazil).

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Is this a form of Compulsive Disorder?

I read some time ago that people who have an aversion to math may be less able to understand topics linked to GMOs and other health-related information. This was revealed by researchers at Penn State University. It might be due to their lack of understanding of statistics.

I always felt that there are many reasons for being anti-GMO. Ignorance or lack of knowledge on science, driven by business motives (such as pro-organic, funding from chemical and pesticide companies), genuine concerns on food and environmental safety (though it is unfounded), influence from green NGOs (due to inability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience), and for some it is a cult/religion which they follow blindly.

Here I found a new reason – some sort of compulsive disorder. Just look at the pictures below.

These people need medical help….

By Dr Mahaletchumy Arujanan