In addition to teaching organic chemistry at the University of Malaya, Zanariah runs outreach programmes in the Malaysian jungle.
A love for organic chemistry
Zana spent her childhood in Malaysia and throughout her early secondary education, her teachers cultured her interest in science. She pinpoints where her exact love for chemistry came from: “my chemistry teacher was very mean, I was so frightened that before I went into class I had to read through all the chemistry laws, but from then on, I loved it!”
When she came to Bath to study for her A-levels, Zana’s love for organic chemistry developed. She explains, “the way the organic lecturer taught us to love organic chemistry really inspired me. It fascinated me the way he taught us that when you mix A and B you get something else.” Zana went on to study chemistry at the University of East London and then for a PhD at Queen Mary University of London, where she focused on the application of spectroscopy in organic chemistry.
Into the jungle
Currently dean of the science faculty at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Zana has taught as professor of chemistry and been involved in the administration since 1995. “My training in chemistry has helped me a lot in administration. I am involved in sports and I’m in charge of arts and culture, as well as carrying out research at the same time. I also have 12 PhD and MSc students so it is really hard for me to cope but I manage it. ”
As well as Zana’s administrative duties and her role in designing the chemistry curriculum for schools, her greatest love is her outreach work, engaging school children and pre-university students in the delights and wonders of chemistry and science. Although both her roles maintain a deep root in the sciences, she emphasises the stark contrasts between her work in rural communities and her role at university.
“At my university, we are encouraged to do hands on chemistry in rural areas but sometimes they can only be reached by a two-hour boat journey. We give them motivational talks as well as show them simple science, like growing crystals. It has helped the children a lot; even though some of them don’t understand, they see the wonder of science through their own eyes.”
With her close work in the communities, Zana has noticed that some of the children are now interested in studying at university: “we try to visit every three months and some children are already asking questions - how do we get to university, what should we do?” She reassures them “If you don’t have any money and your parents are poor, the government can provide you with boarding schools, hostels and scholarships. Hopefully our visit becomes an eye-opener for them and if 20 % of these children go into university, that is really great for us.”
As co-author of Women's Involvement in Science and Technology in the Universities of Malaysia, Zana has noticed something quite unusual in Malaysia and in surrounding countries. With females making up 70 % of the undergraduate chemistry students, she jokes “males aren’t interested in university but in professional college. There are only three males out of thirty students in my organic class, where are all the males?!”. She hopes that one day the government will help bridge the gender gap and encourage males to enter university.
Her hopes for the future are to focus on outreach programmes; she says “I am still teaching organic chemistry but it’s my passion to engage with the community, especially those in the rural areas. It’s better to see how they are coping with your own eyes and not just through phone calls and emails.” Zana’s work is a refreshing look at how we value our education. She is working with the RSC, the government of Malaysia and the University of Malaya to plan more outreach programmess to continue and advance her valuable work.
Zana ends by giving her advice to people planning a career in the chemical sciences:
“Trust yourself, you can do it. Really yes! Some of you may have bad pasts but forget the past, look and work hard for the future.”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Zanaria Abdullah