Cambridge PhD candidate Ihsan Nazurah Zulkipli
Tell me a bit about yourself
All about myself. Hmmmm, let’s see. Well, I’m the eldest of 6 and the only one (so far) to do sciencey stuff. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol, a BSc in Biochemistry with Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. By the end of the course, I realised that biochem wasn’t really my thing so I took a MSc in Human Molecular Genetics at Imperial College and loved it, so here I am doing a PhD in Genetics.
There aren’t any specific people who have inspired me but if I was pushed, I would have to say my parents. I heart them very much. 😀 They’ve always let us do (more or less) what we wanted and always helped us be our best (and not in the pushy way). They’re big believers of fresh air and so my siblings and I had great childhoods, playing in the rain and pretending to be explorers or pirates or whatnot.
What drives/motivates you?
My undying passion for science is all I need to motivate me! Well… no, I kid. This is a bit of a tough question actually. Depends on what you mean by "motivate." If you mean my day-to-day work/life in the lab, well… I do have to admit that it can get difficult sometimes. Not everything you try will work but when you do find out something exciting, that can motivate you to do more.
So I suppose that would be my main source of motivation – finding out something new. It doesn’t have to be anything world-breaking or something like that, but just something that is not known before. The idea that you’re the person who discovered that, it’s just… an amazing feeling. Being in the forefront of scientific knowledge is just exciting and I love that.
Are you as passionate about cooking as you are about science?
To be honest with you, I am a science geek – always have been, always will be and am not ashamed to proclaim it to the world. 😉 Cooking, on the other hand, is a bit of a new thing.
Up until 5 years ago, I ate fried chicken almost exclusively, haha. Everyone relished forcing me into the kitchen because… I had no idea what to do there and they found it amusing to watch, I suppose. That changed when I came to the UK for university, because I obviously had to start cooking for myself. Of course, I could have stuck with sandwiches and Maggi and whatnot, but my mum makes a lot of tasty food like cucur ayam and chicken pie and I was not about to go through a whole year without having them.
So I forced myself to learn how to cook. So, you see, its not really the cooking part that I really like, but the food part. 😀 And the eating. And now, I like taking delicious looking pictures of food because everytime I see them, I feel happy, haha. So yeah… it’s not cooking that I’m "passionate" about as you put it, but delicious scrumptious food. But, just to put it all in perspective, the first meal I ever cooked here was one of those ready-made pizzas. And I burnt it.
What course are you doing now?
Right now, I’m doing a PhD in Genetics. That’s a bit of a misnomer, actually, because I do a little of everything – a lot of cell and molecular biology with a smattering of biochemistry and just a pinch of bioinformatics. That makes it really interesting, because I get to experience a lot of cool techniques, which is awesome. Specifically, I’m studying the role of a particular protein which is thought to be involved in cell division.
Ihsan during the recent Bruneian Postgrad Symposium
in London giving a talk about her research on cancer
How has your answer to that age old question "what do you want to be when you grow up?" influenced your decisions so far from an acedemic perspective?
Ah. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" When I was 8 or so, I was struggling with a composition we had to do on that. See, my parents had always given us an excess of science books (for kids, of course… like the Horrible Science series, loved those!) and I really really really wanted to be a mad scientist. Yes, that’s right. A mad scientist. My siblings and I even made up a story book about a mad scientist who kidnapped a girl to transform her into the Frankenstein monster, or something like that. (complete with photos – I played the scientist of course).
Also, I’ve already heard of the mystical Nobel Prize by then and I really wanted one. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted it anyway. But at that time, there wasn’t much of research going on in Brunei and I kinda knew that, so I grudgingly put "To be a doctor" as my answer to that question. And throughout high school, I worked towards that but due to… a few technical difficulties, shall we say, I wasn’t able to pursue it further.
At this point, I thought that it didn’t matter what the state of research was in Brunei, I am going to be a scientist, though perhaps not a mad one, haha. So that’s when I took up my undergrad studies – I’ve always liked biology and dabbled a little in chemistry so I thought biochemistry would be the answer. Then, I realised that actually, chemistry confuses me so I switched my focus over to molecular biology and genetics, which I found absolutely fascinating.
Did you know that genetics played a role in a lot of the siginificant events in science in the 21st century so far? The Human Genome Project was one such event, but there are many others. Perhaps its a leftover from my doctor-wannabe days but I wanted to look at the genetics of fairly common diseases and see what was going on there. I’ve focused on cancer because its fascinating. How does a normal human cell rebel against the body’s controls and start dividing uncontrollably?
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
In 10 years time, I will, insya’Allah, be an established scientist. What I am really keen on doing is getting involved in communicating science to the public. It’s been mentioned somewhere that the number of students (in Brunei, at least) opting to take science at a higher level is decreasing every year, which is sad I feel.
I’d someday like to be doing something that reaches out to children and draws them into the fasinating world that is science. Here, in Cambridge, we have an annual Science Festival where actual working scientists take part and show off their research to the public. Because a lot of children are involved though, you have to make it simple and exciting. Explosions are always a hit. Perhaps, someday, Brunei can have it’s own Science Festival.
How do you see yourself contributing to our country’s development?
Well, UBD has apparently started setting up research centres so I am really really hoping to be a part of that. I think it’s an exciting time to be involved in the scientific "scene" in Brunei. Everything is just starting up so you get to be a part of it from the very beginning and not only watch it grow, but also help it grow. What can be better than that? =)