DR OON CHERN EIN
Winner of Women of the Future Awards South East Asia (Science, Technology and Digital Category) and Lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia
As a lecturer, doctor, researcher, mother, wife, and an active member of several prestigious cancer research associations, Dr Oon has certainly got her hands full, but she juggles everything with such poised grace, serenity and humility, that we can’t help but wonder how she does it all and still find time for herself. As a scientist, her contribution of novel molecular therapeutics in anti-cancer and development research is nothing short of invaluable, and she was awarded the Women of the Future Awards South East Asia for her ingenuity. “We now have a synthetic compound that could work alongside chemotherapy to treat resistant colon cancer,” she explained. The compound targets specific molecules, basically the rapidly dividing cancerous ones, unlike chemotherapy which just completely obliterates all healthy cells, resulting in hair loss and severe malaise. “The compound targets enzymes that are highly present in colon cancer without destroying healthy surrounding tissues. Cancer itself is complicated, and there are so many different types of mutations within colon cancer, which can influence the efficacy of treatment. Hence, we see this as an adjunct with chemo to improve therapeutic outcome and potentially improve survival rates (the current mortality rate of colon cancer is 50 percent)”. This is incredibly promising, seeing as colon cancer is the second most common cancer in men, and third most common in women. “There’s still a lot of testing involved, and we haven’t thought of a manufacturing process yet. We still have to undergo clinical trials – that’ll take seven to 10 years, and we’ll need proper regulation of reproduction as well before even thinking of administering it to patients,” she said.
When asked how it felt to have her work recognised, Dr Oon said that she felt honoured and that she now had a platform to raise awareness on valid alternative cancer treatments. Upon returning to Malaysia after getting her PhD in Oxford, she admitted that she struggled initially as no one understood the fundamentals of molecular therapy. When she applied for grants, the panel didn’t understand and banked their hopes on more natural remedies. She even encountered a case where a father in a rural village cut of his son’s ear off with a pair of scissors as he thought ear cancer was a result of black magic. She advised caution and scepticism when reading about natural remedies online, and to not buy into unproven theories, superstitions and untested herbs like belalai gajah. “Plants are made up of entirely different compositions. Every person is different, so precision medicine is very important as it caters to different genetic profiles. That, is the next generation of therapy for cancer treatment,” she stated.
Dr Oon’s passion for science began at a very young age. As a girl, she’d follow her father, a chemist, around his laboratory, and would borrow science books from his library. “I had this special interest in human anatomy. I wanted to be a medical doctor, but my mom, being very traditional, said that I would end up being married to my job. So I decided to become a different kind of doctor instead,” she said, looking amused. As a new mom herself, she found it challenging initially to work her schedule around her baby. That meant working at odd hours and even using her lunch breaks to catch up on any backlog of work. Despite her hectic schedule, Dr Oon attributes her energy to working out at the gym. “I go twice a week – I really need to. It’s important for me to have my own time, and gym helps me unwind and build up those endorphins,” she said with a smile. “Honestly, I do often feel so exhausted, and I travel almost every weekend for work or conference. That’s why staying strong and healthy is key. I simply cannot afford to take off and catch up later on in life as science is constantly moving at such a rapid pace. I’m very lucky that I have my parents to help out in taking care of my baby when I’m at work.” Her husband, who is also in science, currently works in Singapore, so she travels to see him at least once a month. “I’m like a monthly wife at the moment,” she joked.
In a field largely dominated by men, Dr Oon said that her challenges were not gender-related, but more centred around doubts concerning her young age and capability. “Being young in Asian countries is misconstrued as being inexperienced. People don’t listen to what you have to say. Being overseas has changed my perspective. You can be as young as 16 and still pursue a PhD,” she observed. As for roadblocks in terms of research, she acknowledges that Malaysia needs to have better access to funding and facilities. “We are still lacking the ability to do good science. That’s why I look for opportunities to collaborate with scientists in Singapore, to share their facilities and elevate the quality of my work. A major project in the works for Dr Oon is the integration of Artificial Intelligence into her research. If machines are able to predict how good a particular drug is in combination with other drugs, this could mean the end of laborious lab work, and more precise outcomes.
For young women venturing into the field of science, Dr Oon stresses the importance of having a good support system, from employers, as well as the community. “Women should be given the chance to work around our family schedule. Working from home is doable, but some jobs just don’t allow that, and it’s difficult to catch up once you’re back from extended maternity leave. We definitely need a better support system.” When the topic of strengths came up, she asserted that she loves making an impact on people’s lives, and to influence them to be better and make a positive change. She initially thought of being a traditional housewife after getting her PhD, but being overseas changed her outlook on life. You can be a career woman, and have a family, and lead a fulfilling life. “Not everyone has the privilege to have that kind of education and make that change. That’s what motivates me to keep pushing forward.” Dr Oon is also currently working with underprivileged children in Penang. “They are a marginalised society. Some of them don’t even get to go to school and are born out of wedlock. They don’t even have a birth certificate! I want to fight for them, and have different workshop modules for different homes. Outreach helps value what I have in life,” she said.