Hoping for science to be more mainstream, founder A Mahaletchumy aims to get the bimonthly publication distributed to secondary schools nationwide.
KUALA LUMPUR: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Bill Nye – these are some of the scientists who are known the world over, having appeared on television shows and in the media.
They are famed for deconstructing complex topics such as geology, astrophysics and biotechnology, making them accessible – even entertaining – to a wide audience.
In Malaysia, however, few platforms exist for scientists to disseminate knowledge to the public, much less engage with the masses in layman’s terms.
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Recognising this, biotechnologist Mahaletchumy Arujanan started the country’s first science newspaper, The Petri Dish, alongside Sarawak-based journalist Joseph Masilamany.
“The mainstream media doesn’t really give so much importance to the sciences; they cover it when there is a crisis, when scientists and doctors are sought after. I wanted a mouthpiece for scientists, especially local ones,” Mahaletchumy, 54, told FMT Lifestyle.
Spearheaded by the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre, a non-profit dedicated to creating public awareness of science and biotechnology, The Petri Dish is published online every other month and with physical copies.
These are placed in private hospitals, coffee shops, hotels, shopping malls, certain universities, as well as in the parliament building.
Apart from a brief break during the pandemic owing to lack of funding, the paper has since been going strong since its first edition in February 2011.
“If you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, they might say they want to be a scientist like Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton,” Mahaletchumy went on. “But we have our own scientists. Why are they not in the limelight and appealing to locals, too? I think they would make better role models.”
She said her father, a former educator, had always stressed the importance of learning and empowering oneself through knowledge.
Mahaletchumy, who became the first Malaysian to complete a PhD in science communication, thus believes a love for science begins in schools, which is why she aims to get The Petri Dish into secondary schools nationwide.
“It is very relevant to students,” she noted. “They should be reading and understanding policy, who the key players are, and the current goings-on in Malaysia.
“That way, if they leave school and wish to go into the sciences, they would already know about the respective fields and their prospects.”
Following recent funding from the Malaysian Indian Transformation Unit (Mitra), The Petri Dish began including four pages of Tamil articles, with plans for the paper to be distributed to all Tamil schools over the next two years.
Mahaletchumy shared that she has been reaching out to certain government ministries, but attributes part of the slow uptake to a limited view of science. “It often comes under the science, technology and innovation ministry, but science is there in every other ministry, too,” she pointed out.
“It is in the women, family and community development ministry: how can we get more women to understand science so they know how to govern their family and motivate their children?
“Science is in the housing ministry: how do we manage waste? Until today, we don’t have proper waste segregation.”
She also believes science and publications such as The Petri Dish are not just for scientists. “It’s also for anyone who is ‘non-science’, because today, we see a lot of misinformation. We need to increase the science literacy of all Malaysians,” she concluded.
Learn more about The Petri Dish here.