My Say: An interdisciplinary approach to excellence in innovation 

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 16, 2022 - May 22, 2022.
My Say: An interdisciplinary approach to excellence in innovation 
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Even as the effects of climate change rain heavily upon us, another 150 million people have succumbed to poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the past decade, the global refugee population has easily doubled. The scarcity of natural resources — including clean water — presents a dilemma for us. Trade wars loom on the near horizon.

These are complex issues of our times. While science offers many answers, it cannot by itself tackle these multidimensional issues single-handedly, as solutions will require interdisciplinary approaches.

This was apparent when I accepted the invitation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to serve as expert adviser in the work of rebuilding Fukushima after its nuclear disaster. For over 10 years, I worked alongside a team of over 100 sociologists, radiation scientists, risk communication experts and others to understand the effects of the catastrophe, and carve out novel approaches to help the community normalise. One of the outcomes of this effort is a risk communication framework. It has since been implemented as an attempt to allay fears of radiation and restore trust in nuclear energy — without which Japan would be left in a situation of prolonged energy deficit.

This project reinforced my belief that our future hinges on shaping graduates and working with teams with specific mindsets and cross-industry skills to solve growing complex problems for the greater good of Malaysia.

Courage to challenge conventions

Societies advance when leaders are willing to break convention. Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford and Galileo Galilei along with others went against popular culture to develop some of the world’s greatest inventions. Merdeka Award Laureates are among such courageous trailblazers. Among the 54 recipients are those who shaped policies on sustainable development and biodiversity conservation as well as stood on the frontlines of humanitarian causes. Ask any, and they will agree that the journey has not been without headwinds.

However, many Malaysian university students today lack courage and confidence. They prefer to copy what others have done rather than dare to do new things. Those willing to try something outlandish often find it difficult to get grants. This removes any desire to break convention, and the vicious cycle continues, putting ambitions for advanced research on a downward spiral.

To remain resilient, we must groom a strong talent pipeline while fostering a culture of innovation to encourage those who will boldly go beyond their comfort zone.

The force of collaboration for brilliant solutions

Scientists have the facts. Artists influence the way we experience the world. Together, they are a powerful force for change.

Olafur Eliasson is an example. The Icelandic-Danish artist/designer — through Project Watch — made climate issues explicit by bringing 30 icebergs from a Greenland fjord to London in order to raise awareness of the urgency for action. He placed these pieces in a circle, on a city street corner, where passersby watched and felt the melting and quickly disappearing ice. It was a simple approach — what scientists have been trying to convey for decades to the public, he translated into a living art form that immediately captured the imagination of the populace.

Eliasson also designed Little Sun, a solar powered light in the shape of a flower, which can be worn around the neck during the day to absorb solar energy, enough to light up a room at night. Little Sun’s 1.4 million personal solar devices have enabled 139 million additional study hours for children, saved households US$175 million (RM769 million) in expenses and reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by one million tonnes. Little Sun also equipped thousands of frontline healthcare workers to help power diagnostic equipment and vaccine storage facilities and support maternal health in rural areas.

Often, scientists stay in their labs without communicating their research findings in an understandable manner to the public. And when presented with opportunities to cross boundaries in their research and build bridges with others, many hesitate. For progress to happen, researchers cannot stay in silos or remain territorial.

In the process of “going to the other side”, we gain an appreciation for what and how to solve problems with a different worldview.

Holistic curriculum to shape higher-order skills

Higher-order thinking skills must be cultivated from young.

The Singapore government — in meticulously implementing heuristics pedagogy for children from the age of five, across 12 years of formal education — has its students now consistently ranked among the best in the world in reading, mathematics and science, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Pushing students into just one discipline is outdated. While science and the arts have always been two separate entities, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education must now fold in the fields of AHSS (Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences). Both the left and right brain need to be stimulated to function holistically. We must recognise there are multiple intelligences and foster these to enable our children to realise their potential. Thankfully, this has been factored in here as more Malaysian secondary schools now offer combination subjects instead of the classic streaming.

In Universiti Malaya, a Student Holistic Empowerment programme was initiated in 2021, encouraging students to take one module or subject outside their faculty to expose them to a different discipline. It allows students to work on a project or presentation as they appreciate science and arts subjects together, without the pressure of exams. Today, Sunway University has made Planetary Health a mandatory subject for all its undergraduates — a good example of fostering awareness and shaping responsible stewards of the planet earth.

An exam-oriented system that merits regurgitation will only leave us further behind on the path to a new economy. Instead, encouraging meta-cognitive skills and intentionally developing inquiring and analytical minds can help us up the ante.

Wisdom from a sense of wonder

If there is a quote I live by, it is this: “Wonder is the desire for knowledge,” by St Thomas Aquinas. This sense of wonder prompts us to discover how and why things work, and the consequences of our action on our neighbour and the environment. The best teachers for shaping young minds in this regard would be parents and the community. Going beyond the classroom, beyond textbooks and into discussions to expound the mysteries is really an adventure. Recently, Associate Professor Dr Chai Lye Ching and I founded a Citizen Science project on fungi. Here, students were given a microscope that attaches to their phone and were tasked with taking pictures of any fungi they found in their environment. Discussion sessions followed. This fosters interest and appreciation of nature and how living organisms breed.

Through failures, find successes

Scientific discoveries through ethical research are not born overnight but through years of research. This can be a costly exercise as the path to commercialisation is often fraught with reiterations. The adage that Thomas Edison burned 99 lightbulbs before his “Eureka!” moment holds somewhat true.

It is simple mathematics. The more students conduct experiential projects in school, the higher our chances of cultivating prospective solutions — whether they are low-carbon micro vehicles, rubber-based batteries or even seaweed-based vaccines for aquaculture.

Good solutions come from experimentation, problem solving and the ability to adapt to change as quickly as possible. Innovation flourishes when we are able to fail fast and move on to achieve better.


Emeritus Professor Dr Ng Kwan Hoong is with the Department of Biomedical Imaging at Universiti Malaya. In 2018, he became the first Malaysian scientist to receive the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award and was conferred the Merdeka Award in 2020. These accolades recognise his work on breast cancer imaging, which contributed significantly to the early detection and management of the disease globally.

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