By Erda Khursyiah Basir
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) -- Dr Noor Hasnah Mohamed Khairullah and Sheriffah Noor Khamseah Al-Idid Datuk Syed Ahmad Idid are two women on a mission.
Both have made inroads into the male-dominated nuclear field and while Noor Hasnah is out to clear public misconceptions about nuclear energy, Sheriffah Noor Khamseah is determined to inspire more women to participate in this sector.
Getting more women to be involved in an industry that has been erroneously demonised will, as a matter of fact, elevate them to a status they can be proud of as nuclear power can be applied in a number of important areas that are beneficial to humankind.
"Generally speaking, people tend to associate nuclear power with weapons, violence, threats, wars... and perceive it as an industry fraught with risks and only suitable for men," said Noor Hasnah, who is Women in Nuclear (WiN) Malaysia president.
"In reality, the nuclear field is much more extensive than that and (its applications) covers various aspects of life. In fact, women have all the essential characteristics that are required of the people who work in this sector."
Speaking on the sidelines of the eighth Annual Nuclear Power Asia Conference, here, Noor Hasnah said it was a woman's inherent nature to be thorough and meticulous when undertaking a task and these were the very qualities demanded by the industry.
In a highly regulated field like nuclear science, the safety aspect was of paramount importance, she said, adding that this was among the prime reasons it needed personnel who were thorough and focused on their work.
She said WiN Malaysia - which has nearly 100 members with nuclear backgrounds in the fields of research, medicine, agriculture, industry, education and others - was established in March 2014 to support and encourage women working in nuclear industries in Malaysia and enable them to share their expertise with the people.
"WiN Malaysia is out to educate the people and disseminate accurate information on nuclear power. We're also dispelling negative perceptions by organising programmes and conferences where our experts engage with the public to provide explanations on nuclear power," she said.
The Annual Nuclear Power Asia Conference, held on March 7 and 8, was organised by Clarion Events and co-hosted by the Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation in partnership with the Malaysian Nuclear Agency (Nuclear Malaysia).
Its main areas of focus were the ASEAN nuclear power industry, its fast-changing energy landscape and where nuclear power stood as part of Asia's advancement towards fuelling a sustainable future using nuclear power.
Pointing to the stigma attached to nuclear power, Noor Hasnah - who has been involved in the nuclear field for 37 years - said society should be exposed to nuclear's benefits to prevent the people from blindly rejecting it.
People often overlook the beneficial role played by applications of nuclear technology in their daily lives.
"Take the medical field for instance... the doctors and radiologists involved in nuclear medicine, X-ray units and those working in industries using the tracer technique all make use of small amounts of radioactive material. In nuclear medicine, nuclear power used in radiopharmaceuticals (a group of pharmaceutical drugs which have radioactivity) can be helpful in detecting and locating cancer cells easily," she said.
Noor Hasnah has previously worked with the Nuclear Malaysia and Atomic Energy Licensing Board, and served as Science Attache at the Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the United Nations, Vienna.
In hospitals, surgical gloves and gowns were sterilised via the gamma irradiation process, she said, adding that nuclear technology was also applied in, among others, agriculture to render rice grains more resistant to pests.
MARIE CURIE AS ROLE MODEL
Sheriffah Noor Khamseah, an innovation and nuclear advocate, said women should look up to Polish physicist Marie Curie as a source of inspiration to explore the nuclear field. Marie Curie, who died in 1934, was famous for her work on radioactivity and had won the Nobel Prize twice in physics and chemistry.
"Marie Curie is considered one of our key role models as she did something very significant, having discovered the radioactive elements polonium and radium.
"Her breakthrough discovery offers women hope as well as encouragement... the nuclear industry is a male-dominated sector and if a woman who lived generations ago could be so successful (in the field), we too can succeed if we try our best," she said, adding that it was while studying physics in secondary school that her interest in nuclear energy was kindled.
"I found it very interesting," said this alumnus of the United Kingdom-based Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine.
Sheriffah Noor Khamseah said she, personally, had never viewed the field of nuclear science from the gender perspective. Instead, she added, it was her keen interest in the subject at school and later in university that propelled her to the field.
WOMEN'S INVOLVEMENT STILL LIMITED
Sharing her experience as a panellist at the Global Women In Nuclear Conference 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, she said there had been a lot of discussions on the involvement of women in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and on the topic of gender equality.
"There were also discussions on women's involvement in the nuclear sector. A study in the United Kingdom showed that only an average 20 percent of the workforce in the sector consisted of women. According to a study by PwC, only eight women hold board positions out of the 100 positions available.
"I certainly don't think that women are not capable but I personally think that by using a different approach and strategy, more opportunities could be made available to them to enter, participate and be highly successful in this male-dominated sector," she said.
In the context of Malaysia, she suggested that Malaysia Nuclear Power Corporation conduct a survey to determine the number of women involved in the nuclear field.
"They must find out how many women are involved in (nuclear) research and development activities and in committees evaluating R&D proposals and evaluating International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Technical Cooperation programmes. They must also find out how many women are at the mid and senior management levels, as well as sit on the board (of companies)," she said.
She added that the survey findings can be used as input for policy formulation to further enhance women's participation in the nuclear industry.
"It can also be treated as a pilot survey, with our government sharing the statistics with IAEA, which can then ask its other member states to conduct similar surveys and assess the participation of women in the nuclear sector in their own countries."
On Malaysia's plan to develop its nuclear energy programme and issues pertaining to the impact of the resultant toxic radioactive wastes on the environment, Noor Hasnah said WiN Malaysia would fully support the government's agenda as long as the safety aspect was prioritised.
"Our principle is to allow any application of nuclear technology on the condition that its safety procedures are enforced by law and it has complied with the specifications and standards set by regulatory bodies, especially IAEA, and the public is convinced of its safety," she said.
Sheriffah also encouraged students, especially from the fairer sex, to take up STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). These subjects will provide them with a good background in seeking a career in the nuclear field. Subjects like law and finance are also relevant in this field.