Raja of Perlis and USM chancellor Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Ibni Al-Marhum Tuanku Syed Putra Jamalullail (second left) honouring marine biologist Dr Aileen Tan (right) with a place in USM's Sanggar Sanjung (Hall of Fame) during a ceremony in late October. With them is USM vice-chancellor Datuk Prof Dr Asma Ismail (second right) and USM board of governors chairman Tan Sri Dr Zulkefli A. Hassan.
Prof. Dr Aileen Tan’s work with oysters spans a quarter of a century and created a momentum that has spread down Malaysia’s west coast.
As a fresh graduate, one is prone to taking on unusual first jobs. But few of these jobs would require travelling by boat daily to the office. Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)’s Prof. Dr Aileen Tan Shau Hwai, however, made the journey as a young woman almost every day for over 10 years.
Her “office” was in Muka Head. “There were scheduled times for the boat, so if you missed it, you’d have to hike in! It was 1989 so the (hiking) path was underdeveloped – it was just a small trail. Now, there are stairs and everything, so it’s no challenge,” Tan, now 51, jokes.
The Pahang native began her academic pursuits in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s former Sabah campus, coming away with an undergraduate degree in biology. Her husband, who graduated two years before her, had managed to secure a job in Penang so Tan grabbed whatever opportunity she could upon her own move to the island.
Tan became a research officer at the Muka Head Marine Station as part of a project to introduce oyster farming in Malaysia, while doing a master’s degree in marine biology part-time. She graduated in 1993. She then headed to Oregon in the US, where she worked as a consultant for nine months setting up an oyster hatchery for Wiegardt & Sons.
In 1995 she returned to USM to be a science officer at the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies, also located in Muka Head. At the time, study leave was hard to come by in an office with a small number of employees, so Tan opted for PhD studies on a parttime basis. Her study of giant clams from a conservation point of view gained her a PhD in Marine Biology from USM in 2001.
Researchers must often apply for support and sponsorships, and Tan is no exception.
She first secured a grant from the Johor government to catalogue and inventory giant clams on offshore islands. “Johor has the most marine park islands in the country. Aside from recording the number of giant clams in the area, I focused on their reproduction as well. I had some success in producing baby clams, so in the second phase of the grant the Johor government requested that I restock the area,” Tan says, adding that at least 500 baby clams were repopulated into the reef.
Tan diving in the seas off the Johor coast during her PhD studies on giant clams.
In 2001 Tan finally left Muka Head and became a full-fledged lecturer at USM’s School of Biological Sciences, teaching subjects like ecology, biodiversity, and marine and coastal ecosystems. Her own research and contributions continued, mainly with government grants from agencies and ministries like the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti), leading her to study everything from green mussels, cockles and scallops to sea cucumbers, snails and a host of other invertebrates.
Her first community project came through a RM50,000 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) grant. “They asked how we could use my giant clam research to help women in the Johor islands. So I chose two villages in Pulau Pemanggil and Pulau Aur – the outermost islands – and taught the islanders how to identify the clams and we made a sort of clam garden in front of the kampungs. The villagers would encourage tourists to stay nearby and snorkel while the women would do the catering for the hostels, bringing in income. They also learned stories about the different kinds of clams, which Westerners in particular loved to hear,” she says.
Dealing with the temptation to harvest and eat fresh oysters was always a challenge, but Tan and her team tried their best to show villagers the long-term benefits of preserving the oyster population. “We always tried to implant the thinking of ‘clam in the kuali (wok), RM20; clam in the garden, RM2,000 per month’,” she says.
Over the years, Tan’s work with communities grew to include equipping villagers in Kedah with the knowledge of growing oysters for side income and directing a steady stream of undergraduate and postgraduate students to these sites for research – a process that benefits all parties.
“USM gave me the first grant of RM40,000 for this community project. The Ministry of Higher Education then stepped in in 2013 with a RM160,000
grant to expand the programme and now the Kedah state government is investing and taking over the project. Since this is happening, the Ministry asked me late last year to move to Perak with a RM80,000 grant using the same model,” Tan says, adding that her vision, hopefully to be achieved before she retires, is to extend this project to Selangor and then Johor, thus covering the entire west coast of Malaysia.
The benefits of this project to rural villagers have been undeniable, as it is a low-risk, halal and low maintenance business. “This is an example of a successful, low-tech knowledge transfer. Currently, they buy seeds from a hatchery, grow them and either sell them on their own or sell them back to the hatchery. The long-term goal, however, is to start off backyard oyster hatcheries where the farmers can carry out the whole process on their own.”
LEFT - Part-time and full-time oyster growers tending to the cages located in Sungai Merbok, Kedah.
RIGHT - Broodstock oysters that are used for spawning at the SeaHarvest Aquamarine oyster hatchery in Pulau Betong that Tan helped establish.
Women in Science and Taking on the World
Tan’s contributions to local oyster production (currently, only up to 20% of oysters consumed in the country are sourced locally) hardly stops at small-grade farming. In 2007 she and her colleague Prof. Dr Zulfigar Yasin were appointed consultants in a Mosti TechnoFund grant scheme to set up a high-tech oyster hatchery in Balik Pulau.
Partnering with SeaHarvest Aquamarine, the hatchery was officially launched in 2009 with full production being achieved three years later. It has since been certified as the country’s first commercial oyster hatchery in the Malaysia Book of Records. “The hatchery can now produce up to a million spats (oyster babies) a month,” Tan says.
For her, achievements and awards have been many, but the one Tan feels most gratified
by was being elected the first woman president of Unitas Malacologica (UM) – an international body of distinguished malacologists. “This 54-year-old society has been very European-based but when they opened their doors to Asians, my name popped up and they extended an invitation letter. After two (three-year) terms as a council member, I was chosen as president in 2013. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get funding to be at the meeting in Azores, Portugal, but we did a Skype president’s speech,” Tan says good-naturedly.
Her role reached its pinnacle when she organised UM’s 19th World Congress, a triennial conference bringing together scientists from all over the globe to discuss issues related to molluscan research. “We had 300 participants from 41 countries converging at Hotel Jen for the week-long congress last July. It was a great opportunity for young Asian scientists to come and meet their seniors from all over the world. We had participants who were up to 78 years old, who had already retired but still came to share their knowledge – these are the people everyone should grab the opportunity to talk to,” Tan says, adding that it was only the second time the congress had come to Asia.
To top it off, Tan was awarded a full professorship in August and honoured with a place in USM’s Sanggar Sanjung (Hall of Fame) in October, receiving the premier Outstanding Figure Award.
As to her overall success, Tan thinks balance is the key. The mother of two says that women often believe they have to be more like men to succeed, but that is not the case. “To go far, you have to contribute and sacrifice a lot. For women, once you are married, you are more or less tied down with family and that is a reason a lot of women stop halfway (professionally).”
“I think (as women) we have to think of doing things in different ways – chasing our dreams without letting it interfere with personal things,” Tan says, adding that supportive family, babysitters and even helpful students who occasionally looked out for her kids played a big role.
“I feel balancing all this is one of my great accomplishments,” she says.
Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.