Breaching Frontiers
Her World Malaysia|September 2018

Dr Wan Wardatul Amani Wan Salim dissects her time at NASA and the key ingredient missing in nurturing our homegrown talents.

Poon Li-Wei

“Why is the sky blue?” When little Amani posed that question to her parents, little did she suspect that it would set her on a trajectory to NASA. Growing up in the United Kingdom during the better part of her formative years while her father did his PhD, she readily credits its conducive learning environment, which encouraged thorough understanding of a subject, for sparking her interest in science – a leaf she hopes Malaysia will take out of their book in moving away from a rigid examination structure driven purely by results. Her accomplishments are also to the merit of her parents, who would readily nurture her innate curiosity by bringing her to bookstores and sending copious amounts of encyclopaedias her way – although, she charmingly jokes, they must have been up to their eyeballs from being constantly bombarded by her questions.

TROUBLE ADJUSTING

For someone with such a bright mind, you wouldn’t peg Dr Amani as having struggled with her studies when she was younger. But, truth be told, when she returned to her homeland at the age of 10, her report cards bore plenty of red. “I learnt that to survive the system, I had to memorise and really study the book. But is that really the same as learning? I don’t think so. Our teachers teach and our students absorb – it all flows only in one direction. I do think our teachers are trying to be more creative but, perhaps, we need to allow them to be creative!” she critiques. With her inquisitive mind held back and restricted by the system over the next couple of years, by the time she hit Form 5, she was raring to leave Malaysia – the specifics of her studies didn’t matter as long as it was in the vein of mathematics and science; both subjects she had excelled in. So, she accepted the very first scholarship she received – to study engineering in the University of Minnesota.

PROVING HER WORTH

It was there that her curiosity as to what happened within the walls of a lab was piqued – especially when she saw people walking around in white laboratory suits dubbed ‘intel bunny suits’. Interestingly, she found out that one lab in particular, which created devices, painted its walls yellow so as to not allow a certain wavelength of light to destroy the devices. And so, after speaking with her professor regarding opportunities for a close-up experience, she was told that she could volunteer there. However, she would have to perform the menial tasks (such as cleaning glass slides) that nobody wanted to do, without pay. “Here’s the thing, my philosophy is that any job given to you, whether it’s repetitive or not, is a window to another thing as long as you do it very, very well,” she asserts. And true enough, it allowed her to interact closely with individuals in the lab, including researchers from well-established companies, who would go on to encourage her to embark on a similar path.

ON HER WAY UP

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