Crushing sySTEMic biases

Having been in the STEM industry for close to a decade, Dr Aini Hasanah Abd Mutalib, a primatologist and research officer at the Institute of Tropical Biodiversity and Sustainable Development, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, says when it comes to Malaysian women’s involvement in STEM, the landscape is evolving.

“It is worth addressing that women have many roles, not only career-wise. I often look at my mother and other female colleagues and think that they are really super women for wearing that many hats. It’s not easy to juggle everything day to day,” she says.

Disability not a barrier

Dr Aini Hasanah Abd Mutalib started researching primates, specifically orangutans, in 2015. Using an unmanned aerial vehicle or drone, she measured the nest characteristics of the orangutan.

After completing her PhD, Aini worked at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu’s Institute of Tropical Biodiversity and Sustainable Development. Here, she undertook a research project in the Kenyir rainforest using bioacoustics (the study of the production, transmission and reception of animal sounds) to measure the forest’s health, specifically listening for the sound of the gibbon.

Aini decided to focus on the sound of the primate because she has a visual disability. More importantly, she is pushing the boundaries of her research and is setting an example to show that people, especially scientists, are not only able to use their visual skills, but their auditory skills as well.

“The gibbon is an elusive species of primates, but their singing can be loudly heard in the rainforest when they mark their territory and perform duets with their partner too. This is their unique feature, and bioacoustics help us to locate them,” she explains.

When Aini was still working on her PhD, she and her colleagues started a non-governmental organisation, the Malaysian Primatological Society, to focus on primate research and conservation on the ground by providing environmental education for local outreach and building a network among various stakeholders, both locally and globally.

Like the adage, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour”, they started small in 2015, with the aspiration of building a representative society of primatologists in Malaysia, given that the primate diversity here is quite rich (26 species, to be exact).

“[This year,] we will organise an international primate conservation congress, bringing together more than 500 primatologists from around the world to Kuching, Sarawak. We have come a long way, even though we are still a humble NGO, working together for primate conservation in Malaysia,” says Aini.

In the wildlife or primate conservation field, there isn’t much space for gender bias as the community is small and everyone leans on each other, she points out. However, within the conservation space, it is important for women scientists to have a sense of security, which includes gaining support from other women as well.

“The industry is growing beyond gender and orientation expression [and adapting to] the principle of diversity, equity and inclusion. In terms of employment, the research and development space is pioneered by women in Malaysia,” says Aini.

“I would definitely think [more women would join this field]. My hope is that we remember our objectives in our field. With innovation and technological advancements, together we can achieve our purpose and mission in our respective fields. Faith is a long-term game and along the way, despite any disappointments, it will get us to where we want to be.

“Conservation is not rocket science as it goes beyond the definition of a single field. We need ecologists, biologists, geographers, social scientists, historians, science policy advocates and many other people to fill in knowledge gaps and solve challenges.”

Aini is planning to venture into bioacoustics and small ape/gibbon studies and dive deeper into what can be done to protect the species and their habitats. She is one of five recipients of the Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment, which will enable her to start her research attachment at the K. Lisa Yang Center of Conservation Bioacoustics at Cornell University in New York. She also received seed funding from the American Society of Primatologists to start her project: “Saving Primates Where They Live and from Wildlife Acoustics”.