Saturday, September 20, 2008

Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be...

Ask a class of primary school students, what they want to be when they grow up and you will have more than half the class say “doctor”. Ask a class of students in the science stream in secondary school and most likely all will say “doctor”.

I still remember one particular year when there was a big hue and cry when many top students did not get a place in the local university to pursue medicine. The Prime Minister himself had to intervene and allocate places for them at various public and private universities. I wished a different approach was taken.

I always wondered the reasons for students to be so interested to become doctors. I wouldn’t mind if they are sincerely and genuinely interested to help the sick and poor. But I am not convinced. Many just want to take up medicine because of the title and it sounds glamorous. I have met students who are not interested in Biology who aspires to be doctors. I have met parents with young kids who want their children to become doctors. These parents don’t even have the patience to wait and see the inclination of their children. For all we know, the child might be so artistic that he or she wants to be an interior designer! I also know an average student who went overseas to do medicine and took almost 10 years to complete his study. I heard he is now practicing in Johor. The next time I go to Johor and fall ill, I will be careful not to end up in his clinic...

The point I want to make here is - students should be exposed to all the options that are available, career prospects and what the job entails. Most of all, parents and teachers should be aware of the child’s interest, potential and inclination. There is no point forcing someone who is weak in science and math to take up medicine. I get calls from school leavers on what is the best field for them. It just amuses me to see that only after almost 12 years at school, these students are thinking and worrying about their career path. They should have at least some idea on what would interest them, what is the job they would enjoy doing, what is their strengths and weaknesses. Parents should play a big role here. The school too should expose the students and provide career guides to them. This can be done by inviting professionals from various disciplines to give talks describing their jobs, the challenges, the requirements etc.

The other point I would like to make here is – how would Malaysia attain the developed status if all our best students only want to be doctors? Don’t we need scientists, pharmacists, laboratory technologists, engineers in various fields, food technologists, nutritionists, etc? This list is simply never ending. We aspire to have a Nobel Laureate, but there seems to be no incentives for being scientists. We lack human capital, especially knowledge workers in the area of biotechnology. How many plant breeders do we have in Malaysia? Out of this how many are rice breeders? How about analytical chemists? Molecular biologists? These are the real endangered species in Malaysia. We need more of them. Human capital is the main asset for any industry. This area needs immediate rejuvenation. Students in the science stream should be encouraged to take up various other courses besides medicine.

I always stress that biotechnology is not a stand-alone field. It is a culmination of various fields and for commercialization to take place it requires the efforts from various experts. It is akin to a complicated surgery, e.g. detaching a conjoined twins, that requires not only a paediatric surgeon but an anaesthetist, neurologist, trained nurses, and technicians. I am sure there are others who are involved as well. The same goes for any biotech research. For a GM crop to be developed, it requires molecular biologists, tissue culturist, breeders, soil scientists, plant pathologists, entomologists, ecologists, botanists, etc. The same goes to develop a drug – virologists, bacteriologists, microbiologists, mycologists, pathologists, physicians, pharmacists, toxicologists, experts in clinical trials, and a whole lot of other experts are involved. The biotech sector not only requires scientists trained in life sciences but also engineers, bioinformatics, IT, and chemistry. And not only scientists are required but also highly skilled lab technologists.

This need must be realised. How many of our science students in schools are aware of the whole gamut of disciplines in life sciences? What have the relevant authorities done to expose and counsel them on all the available options? Who is responsible – the students themselves, teachers, parents, or ministries?
The other question that often plays in my mind is - what is the ratio of scientists to population in Malaysia? How do we compare to developed countries and what are the measures taken to increase this? I am also often perplexed with the high number of ministries in this country compared to even the US. Can't we make the system more lean and efficient and plough that money elsewhere where it is more productive? Anyone with statisctics, please tell me the ratio of administrative civil servants to population in Malaysia. I don't mind the teachers, doctors, engineers, and scientists - but can't the country do with fewer civil servants at the administrative level?
-by Mahaletchumy Arujanan

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