Dr. Chan Yoke Fun – Scientist
The last thing Dr. Chan Yoke Fun wants is a typical day at the lab. As an Associate Professor at the Department of Medical Microbiology in the University of Malaya’s Faculty of Medicine, her research into virology and proteomics – with specific emphasis on hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) – means that she wants results, fast. “In the research lab, nothing should be routine! Every day should be very different because you’re hoping for new, interesting results. Then you can move on to finding more answers,” she explains.
Her sense of rapid efficiency developed while she was completing her PhD in virology in the late 1990s – a time when outbreaks of HFMD were rife in Malaysia, often leading to potentially fatal brain infections in children. “It became a crucial research question as to why the Enterovirus A71 had such a severe neurological impact, and whether we could control it. That’s where I got hooked: I started examining different aspects of the virus, trying to understand how the disease spread and attempting to find a cure for it.”
Dr. Chan’s decision to focus on combatting the virus by using protein drugs to target its autophagic machinery – the cellular process through which the Enterovirus A71 survives and multiplies – has since attracted plenty of attention, such as being recognised as an ‘International Rising Talent’ at the 17th L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards in 2015. Despite her armful of awards, she’s fully aware the fight isn’t over yet, and has also extended her research to include respiratory syncytial virus and the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus.
She’s equally serious, too, about the challenges presented to women in the scientific industry and young, aspiring female science students: “The stereotypes that really set women back in any field – science included – are those that suggest girls aren’t supposed to go to school, that women must scale down after marriage and motherhood, that they should be homemakers and childbearers. It kills your enthusiasm to excel in your career, so these are the most deadly perceptions of all. In that sense, we need a change of mentality.”