ROLE MODEL – Inspiring Story of Women in STEM in Asia Pacific


Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujunan is the first in Malaysia to pursue a PhD in the field of science communication, having pivoted from natural sciences after realizing there was a huge void in the field of science communications. She aims to address and reduce the massive knowledge and cultural barriers between STEM practitioners and society, as well as policy makers, which currently results in uninformed decision-making when it comes to policies, regulations, funding, and the direction and priorities of R&D.

Dr. Arujunan, as a pioneer in pursuing a PhD in science communication, what was your journey like?

It was a huge challenge with no experts to guide me. I saw the need for science communication because I was fortunate to have gained work experience before embarking on my PhD. While that experience helped me, switching from natural sciences to social science was a big challenge. I had to navigate this shift in sectors by engaging experts I met in the course of my work. My PhD was in fact, supervised by an expert from Australia, although I was enrolled in a local university in Malaysia. Networking and collaborating became very useful, and I still believe that they are essential for any scientific endeavors.

My journey in this field started when I saw the knowledge gaps in decision-making around science and the consequences of policies that stifle research and development. STEM offers many unique opportunities to explore the less travelled paths - and I did exactly that by choosing science communication.

I founded the first science newspaper in Malaysia, The Petri Dish, to address the barriers that I saw between the scientific community and other stakeholders. I also initiated capacity building programs for Asian policy makers and regulators related to biosafety and biotechnology. It gives me great satisfaction to create impact in facilitating the adoption of emerging technologies that support sustainable development, job creation, alleviation of poverty, and food security. I then went on to co-found Science Media Centre, together with a former journalist, Tan Su Lin.

How did you come to be interested in pursuing a STEM career?

I grew up in a suburban town. My family was conservative and practiced our culture and religion quite strictly. My late father was the first to be educated until diploma level. He was a teacher, and later retired as a headmaster. I became the first graduate, both in my family and in STEM. As a child I was always questioning phenomena around us, and even cultural and religious rituals. Today, I see myself practicing rituals that make sense and are scientifically sound. I would say I am a late bloomer. I was weak in math and science during my primary school days. But my stars must have realigned when I stepped into secondary school. I suddenly started to do well in math and science, and soon my results motivated me to excel in STEM.

How has being a woman in STEM impacted your journey? Have you faced challenges or discrimination because of your gender?

Although I moved from natural sciences to social science (from biotechnology and microbiology to science communication), I still see fewer women when it comes to decision-making roles, speakers, and panelists. But I must say, I don’t feel discriminated against in any way. I had many role models and mentors who are/were men who supported my growth, ideas, and initiatives. Today, I get way too many invitations to speak, to sit on panels and committees related to STEM policies, regulations, outreach, education etc. I always make sure I speak my mind; I am vocal yet constructive and diplomatic. I have developed networks in various sectors – government, academia, industry, and even among politicians. I am genuine about the impact we want to create, and the dedication and passion help me to persevere and garner support.

As a woman in STEM, I feel more motivated to inspire others to pursue STEM. I am glad both my daughters followed suit, though in different fields.

Can you share with us what it’s like to be a professional in the field of science communication?

I love everything about my job. I like the challenges, the need to be non-routine, thinking outside- the-box, working with a wide range of stakeholders, tackling a wide range of issues, and meeting different stakeholders from around the world. The challenges come from the need to influence and shape stakeholder behavior and opinions. To me, this is more difficult than doing research in the lab. As a science communicator, my job varies immensely as I handle a wide range of scientific topics, and the different and customized communication approaches I need to develop for different audiences. My job also takes me places.

My career path was a non-traditional path, as I switched from natural science to social science. It was very challenging. I graduated with a degree in microbiology and a master's in biotechnology. But since I didn’t want to do research in a lab, I chose to do my PhD in science communication after 12 years of working and eventually finding my calling. It was difficult to learn new fields like science communication, policies, and regulations. But my job was a perfect platform for me. I threw myself into the ring. Being a woman while diving in headfirst also meant juggling parenting, home, and work.

My biggest challenge at work today is getting decision-makers to understand the importance of communicating about science in the right way. There is no funding for this, and no there are no policies around the involvement of scientists, nor incentives to get them involved. So, it is difficult for me to engage scientists and get them to communicate. I stay the course because the challenges create the adrenaline drive which keeps me on my toes and helps me to think of all the unique approaches to keep communicating important STEM issues. Fighting pseudoscience and perceived risks based on emotions is not easy. These challenges make me think outside the box.

How is the work-life balance for STEM professionals? Is this perceived as an obstacle for women in particular when it comes to pursing STEM careers?

For any career, we need to strive to achieve a good work-life balance. Especially when we aspire to higher positions. This is one reason why women in STEM opt to not climb the ladder to take up top positions.

I think for women to be in STEM or in general at work and keep seeking higher positions, we need support. Flexi time at work, tax breaks, and incentives for baby care and for our aging parents. Boys need to be taught from a young age that household chores and parenting are not solely women’s responsibilities.

Was it hard to get a job in your field? If so, why?

I shaped my career and broadened the scope of science communication to include engaging with the public, influencing policies and regulations, STEM education, funding, and entrepreneurship. All this involves communicating about science to decision-makers. I was lucky to have a job that I had the freedom to mold into a science communication career.

For upcoming science communicators, there are very few employers for science communication in Malaysia. But I hear there are industry players who are looking for science communicators. It is a growing field.

Who were your role models growing up and throughout your career?

I had many role models. My organization chair, Prof. Paul Teng, was my role model. I had role models who I have never even met, whose charisma, achievements, and dedication inspired me, such as the late Abdul Kalam, an aerospace scientist. I think girls must be exposed to prominent players in STEM who can be their role models. It helps a lot to stay on track. For this to happen, prominent women STEM practitioners must come forward and be more visible themselves. I do this through my social media.

Where do you think your country sits in comparison to others in gender equality in STEM?

Stereotyping jobs according to gender is still prevalent. Some employers do discriminate against women employees in terms of salaries. However, many organizations are involved in inspiring girls to pursue STEM, although these initiatives tend to be more ad-hoc and not policy-driven.

We see more girls pursuing STEM. But to retain them, enabling policies and incentives must be in place.

What is your advice to women still unsure of whether STEM is for them? What is your advice to women who feel excluded at work or at university?

Explore. Once you graduate, give yourself about 5 years to find your calling and field of work. STEM gives a lot of flexibility. I put careers into three categories - directly related to your studies, indirectly related to your studies, and not related. It is ok to pivot between these categories, as STEM training provides analytical and critical thinking. The answer might rest on us. Create your network, don’t work in silos, always work to upskill, strive to be the best you can be, and be genuine and dedicated in what you do.

I always remind myself, to be my best to bring more value to the table to be noticed, recognized, and accepted