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In Conversation: an interview with Professor Aileen Tan

Aileen Tan Shau Hwai is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). Currently, she is the Director of the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS) at USM and the Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific University-Community Engagement Network (APUCEN). She was the first female president of the UNITAS Malacologica, based in Belgium, from 2013 to 2016.

Professionally, her field of expertise is in marine sciences, specializing in mariculture and conservation of molluscs. She is the first Malaysian woman to successfully culture oysters from eggs and sperms through artificial spawning. Her work on oysters, as featured in the website of World Oyster Society, has gained vast recognition, not only in Malaysia but internationally. Her pioneer oyster project in generating additional and sustainable income to the fishermen in Merbok, Kedah received 1st place in Entrepreneurship by University-Community Transformation Centre (UCTC), Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia 2015.

Aileen is also involved in building human capacity, receiving the Best Women Scientist Award for her work in empowering the women of the Johore Islands to earn their own income through the giant clam conservation programme. To date, she has published more than 100 articles in various scientific journals, monographs, proceedings, conferences and seminars.


Q: Thank you so much for speaking to us, Professor Tan! To start things off, could you tell us a bit about your education history?

A: I did my BSc degree in botany, specialising in microbiology, in UKM Sabah (now UMS). Both my Master’s Degree and PhD, which I did on a part-time basis at USM, were in marine sciences, specifically molluscs (oysters and giant clams respectively).

Research was quite different back in the day, when we had the financial means (and fewer students) to go down to the ground frequently for sampling. Of course, it was not easy as many rural areas could only be accessed via dirt roads and we did not have instruments as sophisticated as those we have today that can give immediate results (we actually needed to preserve samples from the field for future analysis in the lab). I had the opportunity to cover all of Sabah’s rivers for my project, and while it was challenging, being out in the field was great exposure to not only what science can do for the environment, but also for the community.

However, due to limited resources, students nowadays typically have only a single opportunity to go out on the field for sampling throughout the two semesters of their final year. This is often insufficient for the students to generate genuine interest and passion for their research. As lecturers, we think field experience is essential for our marine science students – there are so many ecosystems such as seagrass ecosystems, mangrove ecosystems, coral reefs and mudflats that students have to see for themselves to truly understand. Cost is a major barrier to this, and we are trying to overcome these limitations by creating living laboratories.

Q: What’s a typical day/week like for you?

A: After sending my children to school, I’ll be working! If I’m not in the office, you might be able to find me on sampling trips out in the field with students. Sometimes, I will be travelling around attending conferences or giving talks, or working in the oyster or giant clam hatchery producing oyster/giant clam babies to be supplied to farmers!

Oyster seeds Oyster hatchery

Matured oysters

Q: Are there any particularly memorable projects that you would like to share with us?

A: Through my masters and PhD projects on oysters and giant clams respectively, not only did I manage to produce oysters and giant clams to restock our reefs, I was also able to share my knowledge with the community and give real benefits to others. My work on oyster farming helped create alternative livelihoods for fishermen, while giant clams helped for conservation purposes as they are a keystone species. Malaysia as a country is a biodiversity hotspot, and furthermore, we are located in the coral triangle.

When I started my giant clam project back in 1995, based on historical information there were nine species of giant clam in the world, of which seven species could be found in Malaysia. However, we only had one individual of Tridacna gigas (the largest clam in the world) remaining in our reefs. I studied the life cycle and reproductive cycle of Tridacna gigas as part of my project. Luckily, as giant clams are hermaphrodites (animals/marine organisms that have both male and female gonads within an individual), I was able to retrieve sperm and eggs from this individual, fertilise them externally, and return 900 baby giant clams to our reefs. I am proud to say that the giant clam population in Malaysia is doing well now! Therefore, these projects are, to this day, still very close to my heart.

Professor Tan next to a giant clam

Q: That’s great to hear! How has the oyster farming industry in Malaysia developed since your research was applied in this field? Can you elaborate on the social, economic andr environmental implications of your research on local communities in Malaysia?

A: I started my work on oysters in Penang, but as of now I am collaborating with oyster farmers in six states - Kedah, Perak, Selangor, Johor, and Sabah. My next target is the East Coast, although a major challenge to this is the monsoon season window. Monsoons bring a lot of freshwater into the water systems, which cannot be tolerated by oysters for long periods of time. The plan now is to put in the oysters right after the monsoon season ends and harvest them right before the start of the next monsoon season, although it will be tricky.

Oyster farming is an example of green aquaculture. Unlike prawns and fish, which need to be fed at least three times a day, oysters are filter feeders which can be farmed anywhere as long as the site is clean and rich in phytoplankton. Consequently, the initial investment capital and the commitment required is relatively low. Furthermore, the oysters are cultured in floating cages next to rivers. Mangroves do not need to be cut down for this purpose.

86% of the local demand for oysters is still fulfilled by imports. If we can expand the local oyster industry, our money does not have to flow out of the country (and our impact on the environment can be reduced). The public is still largely unaware of the local oyster farming industry. For food especially, local is best. In the case of oysters, due to the extended transport time, imported oysters will either be in starved conditions or frozen (i.e. dead), whereas local oysters would be much fresher. The general public perception is that imported seafood is safer, especially for oysters as they are consumed raw. However, we do have the necessary technology to cleanse our oysters of bacteria, through a process called depuration. If we go out to the public and increase their awareness that local oysters are just as safe and tasty as imported oysters, perhaps this will be able to further boost the local industry. If demand and supply pick up, we will be able to lower the market price, which is a win-win situation for consumers and farmers.

Oyster and giant clam farming fulfil the three pillars of sustainability – sustainable for the people (many people can be involved, as the industry generates jobs), the environment (not detrimental), and the economy (it generates income and cash flow in the country). I encourage the coastal communities to start out engaging in oyster farming on a part-time basis – in the morning they can still go out to fish traditionally, and perhaps in the afternoon/evening they can go to the oyster rafts to do some maintenance work. If oyster farming turns out to be lucrative, they can slowly shift their main source of income.

Oysters are cultured in floating cages next to rivers, a practice that

adheres to the principles of green aquaculture.

Q: As the Director of CEMACS, could you tell us about some of the interesting research that is currently being conducted in the institute and their relevance to current world issues like climate change?

A: At CEMACS, we aim to promote sustainable and green aquaculture. Our work is focused on invertebrates, mainly on molluscs and echinoderms (e.g. sea urchins, sea cucumbers, starfish). Echinoderms are grazers - no additional food is required to convert them into an industry (i.e. green aquaculture).

Besides that, Malaysia is currently losing our cockle population (the annual production of cockles was 100,000 tons a year in 1995 but has fallen to 16,000 tons in 2015), due to a combination of factors. Reclamation and development has led to a loss of habitat, while over-harvesting and premature harvesting (fishermen are reducing the mesh size of their nets, and thus harvesting so-called spawners - young/juvenile cockles < 3cm in diameter - without allowing them to reproduce) are greatly reducing the cockle population; additionally, ocean acidification (lowering of pH) weakens and hinders the development of cockle shells, which consist of calcium carbonate, making them more prone to contracting disease afterwards). This is why when you visit Penang nowadays, you won’t find any cockles in your char kuay teow! CEMACS is working on innovative solutions in culturing cockles, without the need for the cockles to be embedded in the mud on the seafloor as the mud is getting more acidic and polluted. We hope that this will boost the production of cockles in Malaysia.

As for sea cucumbers, we culture them for both human consumption and medicinal purposes (gamat). We hope to promote polyculturing among our farmers i.e. setting up self-sustaining systems, where the plants (seaweeds/sea-grapes) provide food through photosynthesis for the animals which produce waste to fertilise the plants. Just last year there were two major cases of fish kills in farms due to overcrowding of fishes and consequently the lack of oxygen. Culturing marine plants in these farms would certainly help overcome these issues.

Marine sciences as a field still has tremendous potential for development, especially in terms of green and sustainable aquaculture. As the global population continues to increase, there will be more and more mouths to feed, but we must still be able to balance this economic requirement with the environment, or food production will not be sustainable in the long term.

Q: How are human/industrial activities in Malaysia affecting the environment (specifically our oceans) and what is the main challenge in combating these negative impacts?

A: Unfortunately, reclamation and development will always have negative impacts on the environment. Through damage mitigation measures, we have to minimise these impacts, as many other countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and China have done. The central and regional governments often consult scientists and do environmental impact assessments (EIAs) before undertaking such projects, however, once a project is approved, monitoring and reporting usually falls under the jurisdiction of the developers and there is no follow-up monitoring/spot-checks by a neutral party to see if the correct measures have been implemented to protect the environment. For example, in land reclamation projects, the seafloor needs to be dredged and the discharge dumped in a designated site, a certain number of nautical miles away from the source. There are cases where the dredged material is dumped along the way, bit by bit, as it is carried out to sea (to the designated dumping site) by pontoon, to save fuel.

The need for frequent spot-checks and consistent monitoring applies across industries to ensure that rules and regulations to protect the environment are adhered to. For example, factories are required to treat their waste before discharging it into the waters. Different samples should be collected and as frequently as possible - at high tide, low tide, different times of the day etc. to ensure that a holistic picture of each case can be obtained.

Perhaps it is unfair to blame this solely on development. Due to the increasing population and need to create jobs, development is absolutely necessary for the human race. The question is, how do we continue development whilst minimising our damage on the environment and our natural resources? Proper standard operating procedures (SOPs) and checks-and-balances need to be put in place. At the end of the day, this boils down to be an issue of integrity. In Japan, contractors will adhere to rules and dump dredged material at the correct location, so why can’t we do this in Malaysia?

Q: We understand that you have worked on many research collaborations with scientists from all over the world, from Thailand to the US. Could you shed some light on the role of Malaysian researchers and research centres such as CEMACS in the global effort to combat climate change, and in contributing knowledge towards the marine sciences field in general?

A: CEMACS is currently working closely with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Subcommittee for the Western Pacific (IOC-WESTPAC), Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and UN for Ocean Sciences. We are addressing issues on oceans, especially how to create a resilient and resourceful ocean - an ocean that we want. This is our combined vision and mission.

Our main contribution to these collaborative projects is typically data and knowledge, and an advantage of working with international bodies is that our students often have the opportunity to undergo training with them, as these organisations place a strong emphasis on capacity-building and networking among scientists. International collaboration is especially important for marine sciences, which has to be treated as a transboundary research field. Take plastic pollution for example - plastic waste does not need a passport to travel from Thailand’s oceans to Malaysia’s oceans! Besides that, when we talk about the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, it did not just affect Aceh (Indonesia), but Penang and Kedah among many other places as well. Our coastlines are not independent of each other.

The main constraint to our collaborative work, unfortunately, is a lack of funding. Countries like Malaysia, or Indonesia or Thailand for that matter, are transitioning from a developing country to developed status. Our economy is not yet strong enough to support extensive scientific research, so we have to rely heavily on external funding. However, many sponsors (international agencies) consider Malaysia a developed country, and hence reduce or stop the flow of funding into Malaysia, instead diverting these funds to Thailand, Vietnam, and other countries they consider to be developing countries. Thus, Malaysia is still lagging behind in terms of research, not only in the marine sciences field, but across the board.

Many government ministries such as the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment & Climate Change (MESTECC) and Ministry of Education (MOE) do offer grants for academics in universities, but as funds are very limited, competition is extremely tough and the funds each team acquires is rarely sufficient to produce significant research output. Researchers often have to make a choice between engaging PhD students and supporting the actual research component of their work. It’s not a great situation to be in.

Q: Do you have any advice for current Malaysian bioscience students who intend to pursue academic research as a career?

A: Whenever opportunities for field courses and capacity-building arise, don’t hesitate to join! Don’t just be a desktop scientist. Go back to the basics, see what is out there in the field, and gain as much exposure as you can, as the working world is quite different from university - even in scientific research!

Students should have a job creator mindset when entering the working world. What are you trying to address through your research? Are you trying to create a new invention? Patent something? Simplify a process? Find meaning in your work and strive to make a long-lasting impact - don’t just do research for the sake of producing publications that will be outdated in time.

Furthermore, get out of your comfort zone, and always communicate and engage with each other. At the end of my field trips I often bring my students for karaoke. Lastly, be passionate about your field. Cultivate your interests, no matter how small, and build a balanced character - life isn’t just about work, you know!

Q: What are your views on the research landscape in Malaysia? What is the scientific community like in the country and what do you think needs to be done to develop the field further?

A: As I mentioned before, limited funding and limited opportunities continue to be a significant problem hindering scientific research in Malaysia. Furthermore, the Malaysian scientific community still works very much in silo. We should pool our resources and knowledge and come up with uniquely Malaysian brands and products, instead of different universities competing against each other all the time.

Q: Time for some fun questions! What do you enjoy doing during your free time?

A: I enjoy spending time with my family! We don’t have to do any activities in particular, but between our busy schedules, just being there for them is good enough for me!

Q: Are there any myths surrounding scientific research in Malaysia in general, or in the marine sciences specifically that you would like to debunk?

A: Oysters are something very close to my heart, so I’d like to talk about them! It is a general perception that oysters are high in cholesterol, but this is not true - oysters are very low in cholesterol (and high in minerals, especially zinc!). Doctors in the US are actually recommending oysters as a protein source to patients with heart disease. The cholesterol content of a dozen oysters is equivalent to just a quarter of an egg yolk.

Contrary to popular belief, oysters have a very low cholesterol

content and are high in minerals, especially zinc!

Q: Is there anyone you look up to, within or outside your field of work?

A: I would like to dedicate this to my PhD supervisor, Prof Zulfigar Yasin. I remember in particular two of his teachings - Always communicate and clarify with others and never make assumptions; besides that, always plan your dive and dive your plan. Planning is especially important before diving because it is very difficult to communicate underwater, and your teammates will not know what you’re doing if you diverge from the original plan! I feel very blessed to have had him as my mentor. He taught me not only to fly underwater, but also how to fly high.

All pictures in this article were kindly provided by Professor Tan.

Written by: Ruoh Wen Cheong


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