STEM Science Prize for Women Success Story
Dr. Chan Yoke Fun, 2020 Award winner
“Find something that is daunting, that you’re scared of, face it, and that will make you better. Don’t let anything back you off.”
Dr. Chan Yoke Fun, a scientist specializing in infectious disease research in Malaysia heard about the Underwriters Laboratories-ASEAN-U.S. Science Prize for Women competition from the Dean of the University of Malaya. At the time, Dr. Chan Yoke Fun, also known as Dr. Chan, was an Associate Professor at the University’s Department of Medical Microbiology. The Dean of the school thought that Dr. Chan’s research to develop a vaccine to combat the enterovirus A71, a virus linked to Hand, Foot and Mouth disease in young children, had the potential to make Dr. Chan a winner in the competition. Encouraged by this support, and the fact that her research aligned well with the competition’s theme on preventative healthcare, Dr. Chan entered the 2020 Science Prize for Women contest.
After successfully winning a fellowship as one of three Malaysian scientists chosen for the 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Fellowship Program, Dr. Chan completed her Bachelor of Science and PhD degrees at the University of Malaya. Following graduation, she joined her alma mater as research scientist and became involved in developing vaccines, antivirals, and educational tools for children’s diseases. Early on, Dr. Chan became fascinated by viruses and chose to apply her skills and knowledge to preventing their spread. In a region historically prone to the rise of new and deadly viruses, her work gained interest and attention.
During the 2020 ASEAN Science Prize for Women competition, Dr. Chan’s research examined how heparan sulfate could potentially block the A71 virus’s receptors. Children younger than five years who catch the A71 virus usually suffer milder symptoms of Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease. In more extreme cases, however, the virus can attack the brains of some children and lead to diseases such as meningitis, encephalitis, and acute flaccid myelitis. Since the virus can be transmitted through the air and by physical contact, young children with weak immune systems are more prone to catching Hand, Foot, and Mouth disease. Therefore, blocking the receptor for this virus could prevent young bodies from hosting the virus and improve the efficacy of preventative treatments.
The 2020 Science Prize for Women Competition
In 2020, the contest had 250 applicants from all 10 ASEAN countries. Despite the huge competition, Dr. Chan’s research was the clear winner because of the tremendous potential her research opened. During this time, the world was undergoing lockdowns as preventive measures to stop the spread of another virus, COVID 19. Dr. Chan found winning the award cheered her up during lockdown. In a country like Malaysia, many scientists like Dr. Chan have access to advanced technology but face potential challenges such as local experts’ unwillingness to share their knowledge and research and gaps in long-term funding to cover large research efforts requiring several rounds of testing and extensive investigation.
Dr. Chan shared most of her cash award, funded by Underwriters Laboratories, with family and lab colleagues. She spent some of her research on unfunded portions of her research, including a project to examine zoonotic virus transmission from animals to humans.
Where is Dr. Chan now?
Dr. Chan gained notoriety from winning the USAID-supported ASEAN Science Prize for Women. She received a congratulatory letter from Malaysia’s Prime Minister in 2020, and appeared in multiple Malaysian newspapers and magazines, several of which interviewed her and showcased her work. Dr. Chan also received a special award from the Sultan of Malaysia, who included her in his list of 30 Malaysians making important contributions. In 2021, Dr. Chan was promoted to a tenured professorship at the University of Malaya. Since her win, the L’Oréal-UNESCO Foundation honored Dr. Chan as one of their 15 Women in Science “International Rising Talents”.
Dr. Chan participates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) seminars attended by secondary school students where she discusses how women can accelerate their leadership in science. Dr. Chan also makes it a priority to encourage other Malaysian women scientists to participate in the ASEAN Science Prize for Women annual competition, just as the Dean at her university once encouraged her. Dr. Chan wants to ensure future generations of women are aware of the Prize and take advantage of the opportunity it provides.
Dr. Chan’s advice for women who are interested in following in her footsteps is clear. “Find something that is daunting, that you’re scared of, face it, and that will make you better. Don’t let anything back you off.”
Aligned with the U.S. strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) maintains its commitment to partnering with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This collaboration aims to promote prosperity, security, economic inclusion, women’s empowerment, and good governance. The Underwriters Laboratories – ASEAN – U.S. Science Prize for Women competition, now in its tenth year, underscores the invaluable contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) research and highlights the enduring public-private sector partnership with ASEAN, USAID, and UL Research Institutes. Since 2014, the competition to date has attracted 418 total applicants from ASEAN countries and awarded $240,000 in cash prizes to 23 winners and honorable mentions reaffirming the significance of women in advancing sustainable societal improvements through science and technology expertise.