International Women’s Day 2020: Celebrating Southeast Asian women in research

This is the second of a weekly blog in March 2020 that coincides with International Women’s Day. Each blog will feature 2-3 amazing women in research.

There are many remarkable Southeast Asian women who work in important areas in research institutions, governments, universities and pharmaceutical companies. This project aims to celebrate these amazing women and to inspire young women to take up careers in research and research-related fields.

Assistant Professor Dr. Wirichada Pan-ngum (Pongtavornpinyo), Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU), Mahidol University, Thailand

Dr. Wirichada Pan-ngum or Pan, a mathematical modeler, is currently the head of the Mathematical Modelling (MAEMOD)group at MORU and Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine, Mahidol University.

“I started working in the health research sector when I finished my master’s degree at the University of Oxford. I wanted to come home  to Thailand to find a job.”Anyone who’s ever looked for a first serious job has probably faced the agony of that vicious circle, in which you’re seeking experience while employers tend to opt for those who already have it. Pan didn’t get the job she applied for, however, she was offered another job to do a modeling project and to do her Ph.D. with MORU, for which she is grateful.

“I was lucky,” she admits. She continues: “I was a little bit lost after her Ph.D. I wanted to try something different, so I went into data management, which is a support role for research. I did that for a while, and when the MAEMOD team was created at MORU, I joined a modeling project.”

Pan’s research mainly involves modeling and field surveys to gain a better understanding of transmission routes of zoonotic diseases and the Human-Animal-Ecosystems interface. Her current work focusses on leptospirosis, one of the many health problems experienced by agricultural workers in Thailand. Her model explores the importance of these environmental factors as well as the risk of disease exposure during traditional rice farming activities in relation to the incidence of human leptospirosis.

“We want to prove that we are as good as men at work, and at the same time, we want to be a good mother and wife. Do we have time for ourselves? I think that’s the real challenge. Women don’t have time to take care of themselves, and I’m fighting against that. I wanted to run a marathon so I said to myself, I will run the marathon; this is my time. I am going to train for it.

Assistant Professor Dr. Wirichada Pan-ngum (Pongtavornpinyo)

Dr. Chamnan Nam, Clinical Director and Co-founder of Melvin Dental Care, Cambodia

“Men are born to succeed, not to fail”, Dr. Nam said, quoting Henry David Thoreau. “This statement motivates me to think of how to become a successful person.”

Dr. Nam had an extremely tough start in her life and career. She is the youngest of three siblings of a low-income family from Battambang province, Cambodia. Because they were so poor, after finishing eighth grade, her mum asked her to quit school, and her sisters were forced into arranged marriages, but she allowed her brother to continue his studies in the army. “It was the year I will never forget. My parents made this decision based on their children’s gender.

Her turning point came when she visited a cousin. “I ask her to support me until finish high school. I promised her that I will be independent after that and will pursue a university degree. I just realized that only education could change my own and my family’s destiny””

Dr. Nam is the co-founder and clinical director Melvin Dental Care, one of the best dental practices in Phnom Penh. She is the president of the Cambodian Orthodontic Association and vice-president of a PR and Media committee at the Cambodian Women Entrepreneur Association (CWEA). She was also among the top 12 finalists of the Cambodian Young Entrepreneur Award in 2019.

Why did she go into dentistry? Dr. Nam said, I like helping people and I want to help them to have a beautiful smile. She has come a long way but her career went through a lot of ups and downs. A senior colleague said that I was too short to be a dentist. My father also objected to my studies in dentistry because I was petite. But I’m stubborn and want to prove that one’s look and size do not relate to their abilities. We should value people based on their competencies.

What is Dr. Nam’s advice to young women?  Don’t just dream, make it happen! No matter how much hard work and effort you need, you will never feel tired if you really love what you do. First, you have to believe in yourself, then others will believe in you too. Trust me on this.”

Dr. Chamnan Nam, Clinical Director and Co-founder of Melvin Dental Care, Cambodia

 Dr. Sysanvanh Phommachanh, Vice Director, Institute of Health Education Development, Laos

Dr. Sysanvanh is a medical doctor, a lecturer at the University of Health and Sciences and the Vice Director of the Institute of Health Educational Development in Vientiane, Laos. She is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Amsterdam. Her research area is gender-based violence, domestic violence, and mental health.”

Dr. Sysavanh is a committee member of the Women Union of the University of Health Sciences, an organization established within the Women Union of the Ministry of Health and National Women Union that helps and supports women in academic development.

Why does she think it’s so important to support women? “Unfortunately many women do not have opportunities and for many of them, family support is not enough. Women can contribute to the development of a country and society in a major way if given the chance.”

According to Dr. Sysavanh, the Laos government is increasingly providing more opportunities for women to advance their education and to aim for higher positions. “The situation has improved a lot for young girls making a living in urban areas, but women in the rural areas are still crippled by traditional ways. Women get married early and they miss out on developing themselves as individuals. The Laos government has put in a lot of effort by providing more education in remote areas, but there is still a lot to be done.

Dr Sysanvanh Phommachanh, Vice Director, Institute of Health Education Development, Laos



Share this post

View the latest posts on the On Health homepage