Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Banking for the future

I like to broach on the subject of conservation of plants. It is interesting to note that this has become quite an issue in the international arena where everyone is worried about how to keep plants alive for the future generation. Many a time we have to be reminded that plants are among our most valuable resources for survival and well being. When disaster strikes, causing paralysis to agriculture, seed banks serve as insurance policy and come to rescue. Growing samples of the many plants on the ground is maybe the best way to conserve and maintain species of plants (or animals) in their natural habitats. This is not practical to conserve a large number of plant species and their wild relatives in their natural habitats. This is why using another way of preserving using seed banks is a popular, efficient and economical method. This is globally recognised as well.

Did you know that this idea of storing seeds in a seed bank was conceived by a Russian botanist called Nicholai Valvilov. He actually collected 200 000 cultivated plants from all over the world. The oldest seed bank is located at the Valvilov Institute in Russia and the newest in Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) in Norway in the Arctic region. There are 1400 seed banks all over the world. Some of the internationally recognised seed banks are kept in institutions, research organisations and government departments.

A simple seed bank may just consist of a number of cold freezers in a seed laboratory while the bigger ones are more sophisticated with many cold rooms for short term, mid term and long term storage. Some are even run by robots like the one in Japan. Nowadays, seed banks serve as a global system of information and seed exchange making it easier for many to exchange crop diversity to meet the future needs at a time of increasing food prices, climate change and water scarcity.

A seed bank deals with things which are alive and therefore we must handle them with great care. Seeds are collected, processed and only those with good quality are stored and catalogued. Very similar to the librarian who organises the different books according to their category and labels them appropriately. These stored seeds do not immediately bring benefits. They are only used in times of need. Many plant breeders select these seeds and use them to breed new varieties using the old or modern technologies. Seed banks serve as rich genetic resources that could be tapped for both conventional breeding  and modern crop biotechnology. In order to keep the seeds alive, the seeds will be constantly checked using many methods. These seed banks will ensure the conditions the seeds are stored are suitable for them to be alive.  Management of these seed banks is expensive and needs careful monitoring of the storage conditions.  We will discuss more on this subject next time.

By Christina Stephensons

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD)

The Malaysian Chapter of Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) was established in 2011. OWSD is an international organization under the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) whose central role is to promote women’s access to science and technology, and enhancing their greater involvement in decision-making processes for the development of their countries and the international scientific community. 

The Malaysian Chapter of OWSD was established with a mission to support and promote in-country activities and policies which improve female participation in science and technology, and thereby contributing to regional goals.

Its objectives are:
* To create networking, advocacy and information provision between similar institutions and individuals for promoting increased participation of girls and women in science and technology professions.
* To work towards strengthening regional scientific and technological activities in the spirit of co-operation among developing countries.
* Initiate activities which address national concerns and work with all levels of society (grassroots, schools and universities).
* Evolve and develop strategies for mobilizing financial and human resources towards achieving TWOWS’ objectives
Malaysian Chapter are expected to develop the following:
* Advocacy programmes to increase awareness among political, NGO professional and lay circles on the value of gender equity and female participation in science and technology.
* Gather and disseminate information on equity issues in science in order to contribute to policy development.
* Initiate research projects in the areas of interest to TWOWS: science and technology; education; environment; health and nutrition; information technology; and food and agriculture, with particular relevance to critical development concerns.

Some of the key areas that will be focused by Malaysian Chapter are:

1. Nurturing Young women scientists
2. Young women scientists awards
3. Collating Senior scientists as role models for young scientists
4. Increasing fellowship for young women for South-South Cooperation
5. Developing Mentor-mentee programme

The Malaysian Chapter of OWSD is open to all women involved in science and technology and with a minimum basic degree in science.

For those who are interested, please contact me at for membership form.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Religion and Biotech

I am not going to write about ethics and what religions say about new technologies. This is one of our forte but not for this post.

Here, I want to share a recent activity we organized using a religion platform to reach to the public. Through our research we understand that religious concerns and perspective are very important for a country like Malaysia, where everyone upholds in one way or another religion of choice/birth. Religions play an important role in almost everyone’s life and a number of decisions are made based on one’s belief, varying from one religion to another.

However, religious scholars do not have good understanding of biotech and it isn’t their priority to address concerns on this subject unless, a crisis occurs. Government agencies too do not engage religious scholars in their biotech communication strategies.

So, we decided to break the norm.
It all started when I was approached by a Hindu based organization (Arulneri) to give a talk on biotech to their youth to encourage them to pursue studies and careers in biotech. I never imagined that it would be the biggest public seminar for MABIC. What was meant to be a simple talk and Q&A evolved to become a half day activity complete with talk on biotech, panel discussion, DNA extraction session, and media interviews. What more with more than 150 participants – students, teachers, parents, religious scholars, and media.
Excitement was in the air. The pathway towards getting into biotech and related programmes at public and private universities, career prospects, safety of biotech products, its potential and documented benefits, and impact to the environment were the common questions from the audience.

The audience was extremely contended with the knowledge gained on that day. And now we have a number of invitations from teachers for similar seminar at their schools. We were also featured on one of the programmes in Astro. (You can view the video here)

And the lesson we learnt as biotech communicators – that we cannot impose biotech communication onto religious scholars but we could use their platform to get quality and readymade audience. Where else could you get 150 captive participants?

By Mahaletcumy Arujanan

Friday, October 19, 2012

Meeting of the Parties to Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (MOP)

It has been very long since I blogged. At MABIC we were really preoccupied with many assignments; one of it is our newspaper, The Petri Dish. What made me to activate our blog was the feedback we received everywhere we went. It made us realise that we had followers and that our write ups were appreciated. I take this opportunity to thank all our readers.

I am dedicating this post to the recently concluded Meetings of the Parties to Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (MOP6). This meeting is held once every two years and this year was hosted by the Government of India in Hyderabad. MOPs discuss how GMOs/LMOs should be regulated.

Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) has 164 countries (Parties) that have ratified this protocol. A little tamer compared to previous MOPs as the contentious agenda items have all been deliberated and negotiated before. However, Risk Assessment and Risk Management (RA/RM) and Socioeconomic Considerations (SEC) took the limelight.

                 At the side event organised by PRRI/ISAAA/IFPRI/ICRISAT at MOP6 as a speaker

What is interesting about SEC is that only negative impacts were discussed even though there are documented positive impacts of GM crops to farmers and countries that have adopted GM crops. Poverty alleviation and reduced exposure to pesticides were hardly presented by countries that oppose GM crops. But they never fail to present imaginary negative impacts.

Another important agenda item is Article 35 of CPB that calls for assessment and review of the effectiveness of the functioning of the CPB. In my opinion, this should be the most important agenda as Parties should seriously evaluate the effectiveness of all the instruments that have been established in the past 10 years since CPB came into force. One white elephant is the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) that is hardly updated by Parties.

After attending three MOPs, I feel MOPs promote another type of tourism – Biotourism. The amount of money spent for these meetings are astronomical not to mention the associated meetings that take place in between MOPs.

Is all this fanfare necessary for a technology that has been around for 16 years without single health or environmental hazard? GM foods have undergone the biggest “clinical trial” with billions consuming it everyday.

By Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Friday, October 12, 2012

I am a newbie at this!

Anyways I am jumping in to share a recent experience. I was at this dialogue cum workshop among scientists and journalists, meeting to communicate effectively. Didn’t have the slightest clue that it was an elephant task for both parties. They had no idea what was required of each other to make science stories perky and fun! No wonder kids these days have little love for the subject.

When you ask if journalists would like to pen a science story exactly when Kate Middleton and her gorgeous blue-eyed hubby are in town, they would rather clamber over each other to cover the royalties!  Why? It is all about what readers want!

Scientists were surprised at how journalists viewed them……boring and full of scientific jargon. But it is not an easy task to simply scientific research. One science writer puts it this way, “if my grandmother understand how you explain a science topic, then, the general public will be able to decipher the topic!”

How do scientists get a hang of it: Practice and sheer perseverance.

It was reality time as a panel of scientists, journalists and science communicators sat down to deliberate on how to report on science, zeroing into agriculture biotechnology. Everyone had fun as the realisation set in. Many began to shed their coyness and share their thoughts. Scientists realised that messages need to be simply and accurately written supported by illustrations and charts. This makes it easier on the media writers.

One suggestion from a senior editor: Create celebrities among scientists. (Hey, then we might have paparazzi going after our scientists. And that would be the day…)

Arising from this workshop will be a document on Best Practices in Communicating Agricultural Biotechnology. It will help both the scientists and journalists on how best to communicate science.

By Christina Stephensons 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

I am a *Spartan Now

Last month I had a chance to attend the Science and Technology Communication Course, courtesy of Chocrane Fellowship Programme. The venue was the Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. It was a great week, listening to experts from various fields of communication talking about journalistic practices, developing articles and press releases, risk assessment, social media and ethics - and not to mention interacting with other participants who came from many parts of the world.

I must say the course was an excellent idea to nurture science communicators. As science progresses, more issues of public concern will grow. Biotechnology especially GM technology has already created fears and apprehensions. The recent paper by Seralini linking GM corn to cancer showed us how unscientific information could create fear among the public and regulators.

The role of scientists and reporters in the area of public information and education will increase as science advances and new science emerge. Nurturing and creating science communicators is instrumental and ignoring this will be at our own peril.

One of the speakers pointed out that the problem for the scientist as a public communicator is the language that could almost have been devised to conceal information. Scientist must learn to say the simplest things.

I was amazed when Dr Prakash, the founder of AgBioWorld shared a definition of GM technology by Dr Jonathan Jones :

      "Adding a new gene is like adding an app in your iPhone - it just adds a function but it is still an iPhone."

You can relate, can't you?

                                                     We are Spartans!

*Spartan is a term used for MSU alumni.

By Shamira Shamsuddin