Pursuing excellent translational research

Solid research initiatives can create powerful societal impact by addressing and finding solutions to global challenges and contribute towards the betterment of the community and the world.

Since its inception in 1998, Monash University Malaysia has continued to strengthen its research capabilities to become a leading research-led education institution that nurtures, develops and sustains knowledge and innovations that can positively impact diverse communities; while aptly utilising sustainable and translational research to improve the lives of others.

In order to achieve this, our Vice President (Research and Development), Professor Mahendhiran Nair explained that the university has multidisciplinary research platforms in five key areas, that is strategic to the development of Malaysia and the region. This is also aligned with the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals.

These include Tropical Medicine and Biology; Advanced Engineering; Global Asia in the 21st Century (GA21); Brain Research Institute Monash Sunway (BRIMS); and a multidisciplinary health and demographic surveillance site, the South East Asian Community Observatory (SEACO).

1. Tropical Medicine and Biology

Prof Nair highlighted that food security is a critical issue for developing countries such as Malaysia and other countries in the ASEAN region, which has a population of approximately 626 million.

“Malaysia is a tropical country and a large agrarian-based economy,” explained Prof  Nair.

“Some of the country’s key industries include palm oil, fisheries, and agriculture. Meeting the demands of the nation and global economy is going to be really important.”

“This requires bringing in modern methods, techniques, and technology to raise the productivity and efficiency within those sectors. It’s becoming an increasingly competitive sector as Malaysia’s workforce is relatively smaller than other ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, China, and India.”

“To stay competitive, we need to be more knowledge intensive and technology savvy. This is where a lot of our researchers are channelling their effort to make breakthroughs in new breeds of crops, technology and management systems that will not only ensure the competitiveness of the Malaysian agriculture sector, but also ensure that it develops in an environmentally sustainable way. Our researchers are also studying changing demographics and lifestyles in terms of food and products in Malaysia and the region, ensuring that there is adequate nutritious supply of food promoting a health life-style.”

Under the university’s Tropical Medicine and Biology platform, researchers undertake a multidisciplinary approach to themes in medicine and biology, including studying the rich biodiversity and human habitats in Malaysia for projects in tropical diseases, agricultural production, food science, environmental management and evolutionary biology. Among the major initiatives include a community-based approach to addressing the dengue epidemic in Malaysia.

Prof Nair

2. South East Asia Community Observatory (SEACO)

The South East Asia Community Observatory (SEACO) is a public health surveillance site that tracks some 30,000 of the population’s health and well-being in Segamat in Johor, Malaysia.

Prof  Nair explained that the platform collects salient and high-quality data to gain insights into factors that affect health and socioeconomic well-being in a more ‘holistic’ way from a diverse set of communities,  from the orang asli to communities living in cities with good infrastructure and facilities.

“It seeks to understand how forces of globalisation and industrialisation of the Malaysian economy are impacting the diverse communities from various perspectives including the health, social and economic viewpoint,” explained Prof  Nair.

“It also allows a better understanding of the types of policies and intervention strategies that is needed from a public health perspective to help these communities adjust to the changes and the transformations that is happening so that they have a better quality of life.”

Jointly funded by Monash Malaysia and Monash Australia, SEACO acts as the university’s contribution to the local community and the region. Lessons from Malaysia will also provide valuable insights to policy-makers in other developing countries from a similar background.

3. Advanced Engineering

The manufacturing sector is a key catalyst for economic development for Malaysia and other countries in the ASEAN region. Among the contributors to the Malaysian economic wealth, is the electrical and electronics industry, which has come under intensive competition from other larger regional economies. To ensure global competitiveness of the electrical and electronics industry and the manufacturing sector, there is urgent need to intensify research and development activities, that will move firms in these sectors up the global innovation value chain, As the country continues to transition towards becoming a more information-driven and knowledge-intensive economy, fields such as the ICT sector will play a critical role, more so when more companies are being powered by technology.

“In Malaysia, national businesses and industries are transforming towards industry 4.0, which is essentially an integration of multiple technology platforms that gives the industry an opportunity to seamlessly integrate their processes, systems and enhance their reach through technology and also richness of their products,” Prof Nair said.

With the increasing use of technology, the university’s researchers and engineers have been developing tools, technologies and systems that have wide range of applications across the economy, including the development of green electronics, new smart devices for the healthcare industry, lighting industry, waste management and environmental management

4. Brain Research Institute at Monash Sunway (BRIMS)

The internationally recognised Brain Research Institute Monash Sunway (BRIMS) is the university’s main institute for neuroscience research. BRIMS is at the forefront of works on the human brain, studying various changes that are happening globally, including issues related to depression, addiction, neurodegeneration and the growing phenomena of autism in the community.

Prof Nair revealed BRIMS received a large funding a few years ago, from Agensi Inovasi Malaysia (AIM), a governmental body under the Prime Minister’s Office – for the Malaysia Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MyMAP) project – which seeks to study tropical plants that could be potential candidates for addressing the aforementioned disorders.

“BRIMS is doing quite well. In addition to producing a lot of high-end work, it has an excellent collaboration with the region’s leading brain scientists. They run annual workshops for researchers and students annually, to look at new techniques and methodologies to study the human brain,” he explained.

5. Global Asia in the 21st Century (GA21)

Global Asia in the 21st Century (GA21) studies key issues that impact Asia and its communities. This includes how the forces of globalisation, liberalisation, regionalisation, and digitisation are transforming the region and how economic, social, political, and cultural transformations take place due to changes that occur both internally and externally, along with its impact on society.

Prof Nair highlighted that there is a big push towards trying to understand how work has affected the health and wellbeing of communities in the region. This includes understanding the dynamics of work, health and lifespans of an individual and managing such instances.

This platform has a strong team of researchers that undertake economic policy modelling for industry and government agencies in the country. Researchers are also undertaking research of Islamic approaches to banking, business and environmental management practices.

Research that matters

Prof Nair explained that the five key research platforms were continuously refined to ensure it aligned with the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals and contributes to the strategic development of Malaysia and its regional economies. It touches the UN’s 17 goals, tackling issues such as eradicating poverty and hunger and ensuring policies and strategies implemented contribute to the development of a just, environmentally-friendly and economically sustainable society .

The term ‘quadruple-helix’ is used to describe the university’s strong partnerships and linkages between the government, industry, university and community organisations. Due to their strong partnerships, Prof Nair explained that the university strives to ensure that their education and research and development translates into outcomes that benefits all segments of society in the region .

“We work with industry on a number of areas in all five platforms. These include industries in the life science areas, engineering and manufacturing, pharmaceutical companies and individuals in community organisations, among others,” he said.

Prof Nair added that their researchers have also worked with the government in policy planning, both at the district, state and federal level. “Many of our researchers provide policy analysis for key government agencies, industry and community organisations for a whole range of community-based issues,” he said.

Prof Nair reiterated that research and development, in addition to educational development is critical in enhancing the quadruple helix which impacts the community through translational research and educational innovations.

He added that the establishment of Monash University Malaysia as an international branch campus in 1998 has provided the country access to high-quality international education and research that are relevant to the strategic development of the region and global community; contributed to Malaysia’s talent development strategy; attracted talents back to Malaysia; raised the quality of higher education in the country; and enhanced research-enriched teaching and learning materials and content from the region; and enabled Malaysia to be part of the global knowledge and innovation network .

“All the above is what makes the vision of making Malaysia a regional centre for educational and research excellence a reality,” said Prof Nair.