Dr. Chai Lay Ching, or fondly known as Dr. Chai, is one of the three amazing scientists who was awarded the L'Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship
Since its inception 20 years ago, the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) have worked together to support and recognise accomplished women researchers, as well as assist them once their careers are in progress.
So yeah, you could say that winning the award is a big deal.
We had the opportunity to speak to her in person to know more about her journey and what the future holds with her scientific findings – something that could potentially make a big difference in our everyday lives as it involves food – and how food safety is not a matter to be taken lightly.
Becoming a scientist
Dr. Chai describes herself as “just a small town girl” – yes, you sang that right!
She hails from Taiping, Perak. Throughout her childhood years, her interest had always been leaning to arts. It was – and still is – her passion.
“I was a very shy girl. I spent most of my time drawing,” she said. “I only draw. I seldom talk. I didn’t know how to express myself. I also love music. I can play the organ from morning until night,” she added.
It does help that her parents are very supportive of what she likes too. She had no care in the world except for that of her interest.
However, things started to change the day her father was diagnosed with kidney failure.
“It was not just one side but both kidneys gone at the same time,” stated Dr. Chai. “Until today we do not know what caused it.”
She admitted that the situation turned her family upside down. The introverted girl who had always kept her emotions to herself now feels overwhelmed by it. She was only seven years of age then.
Like the rest of her family members, she also cried for a whole week after the news broke.
“My dad could no longer take us to the zoo or to travel. He was sick. There were wounds on his body. He had to be careful with his food. My mum was spending a lot of time and attention on him. Relatives would come and tell me to take care of my siblings and not create issues to lessen my mum’s burden. It was like growing up overnight.”
Experiencing the major differences that were occurring in life, she started to feel angry.
“I asked myself what is this disease and why he was getting sick.”
She started to read to find out more about it. She even took the initiative to ask her teachers on the matter.
“I asked why my friends’ fathers are okay. I just didn’t understand why it was such a case. My dad was young and okay but suddenly, things just happened,” she told us. “My dad had to go for dialysis three times a week. Taiping Hospital has the facilities but they are limited. So, he has to go to a bigger hospital in Penang.”
With that, she started spending a lot of time at the hospital, accompanying her father.
“I still remember me and my sisters would run along the corridor of the hospital. Since we were very young, the doctors and nurses accommodated us. They would talk to us.”
Their kind gesture sparked her interest in the medical world.
As a little child, seeing the majority of doctors being men while nurses are generally ladies: “It gave me the impression that if I wanted to get into medicine to treat my dad’s disease, I need to be a nurse. My teacher at that time also said that as a girl, I could be a nurse,” said Dr. Chay.
“That was the time I started my journey into the science field.”
On essays that ask what she would like to be when she grows up, she would write that she aspires to be a nurse because she wants to find a cure for her father. As she grew slightly older, she understood that she, too, could become a medical doctor. Her father was so proud of her ambition.
“He felt that there was something positive from what happened.”
Even though there were those who didn't think she could become one, she stood her ground. She began devoting her time and effort into her studies. She was determined to know what caused the disease and find the solution to it.
“The more I know, the more I know that I don’t know.”
When she was about 13 years old, she learnt about how there are lots of bacteria that could cause a lot of diseases including kidney failure.
“For example, E. coli O157 in beef – if the beef is not cooked properly, it can get contaminated with this bacteria and it causes not just diarrhea and stomach pain but it can also cause the destruction of both of your kidneys. That was what one of the doctors told me.”
She was fascinated. Her curiosity to know more about the microorganism world intensified.
Upon learning about what biotechnology is at the age of 15, she realised that was her true calling.
“The DNAs, the potential – we can do a lot of things. It hit me that this is exactly what I want.”
Although she dared not say it aloud, she knew that being a scientist is what she really wants – it is the path she is headed for. Sadly, her father passed away when she was 17. However, she held on to realising his dream to have her save lives.
She enrolled in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) for the biotechnology course.
“I remember we have eight choices we need to fill in – I filled all of the options with UPM – Biotechnology, UPM – Biotechnology, UPM – Biotechnology,” she said with a laugh.
She managed to get a spot and even graduated with First Class Honours. She pursued her Ph.D. in Food Safety there too. Today, she plays the part of a scientist and a senior lecturer in Universiti Malaya.
The accidental discovery
As she worked on her Ph.D., focusing on the Campylobacter
bacteria in raw chicken and vegetables, she spent many years in the lab growing the microorganism and observing agar plates.
Here’s a terrifying fact: the Campylobacter
bacteria is found in 90 per cent of raw chicken. They don’t cause a problem then. But if the chicken is not cooked properly, those who consume it are at risk of contracting stomachache, diarrhea, and nausea. In worse cases, they could face complications months after eating it and become paralysed. It is no joke.
Well, one fine day, Dr. Chai discovered that the Campylobacter
bacteria actually produce a specific scent. Those in the lab with her could not smell any difference. So, to prove whether or not her theory was valid, they conducted a blind test.
Some plates contained the bacteria while the others didn’t. She would sniff it and put the plate in its category. It turns out she got them all right!
“It’s because I always work with them and I have a sensitive nose. So, I could differentiate it.”
She took it a step further by checking with the machines on the scent produced by the bacteria. Just for the record, this was not even part of her Ph.D. studies but her curiosity pushed her to further understand the issue at hand.
Upon checking, again, her theory on that this particular bacterium has a certain scent was proven right.
“So, I thought we can use this to come out with an equipment or a tool to smell the food to test if the food is positive or negative (of the bacteria) based on the scent,” she explained.
“I was so excited that I told my family all about it. Until today, my mum still asks me to smell if a food is spoilt.”
Yes, in case you're thinking the same, it’s just like that scene from 'Ratatouille'!
She is now working hard with her team to make food testing more efficient with this particular finding. Biosensors or electric noses are the way to go, she said.
“We are still at the early stage. We are now collecting the database. If all goes well, hopefully, in five years time, it will be ready.”
In case you’re wondering how big of a deal this could be, well, at present, it takes up to two weeks to achieve results from a food test. Also, the sample in which the test is conducted on will also be destroyed in the process.
Dr. Chai is working to ensure that in the years to come, real-time results
can be achieved and that the sample does not have to go to waste.
It is for the development of this research that she had received a RM30,000 grant from the L'Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Fellowship
Watch what you eat
It is safe to say that she certainly knows her stuff about food. So, we took the opportunity to ask her about her opinion on eating outside as well as having raw food.
“To me, I feel that eating outside is not an issue if everyone plays their role. You should not sacrifice too much of your lifestyle and the food that you love.
"Just be more aware. When you go out to eat, get some knowledge – what is the condition of the stall, look at how they prepare food; do they put on gloves, are the food cooked properly – those sort of things. That’s what I practice, that’s what I do.
As for parents (or parents-to-be), the same applies for their child.
"Some mums ask if they need to sterilise everything. They become paranoid. Be moderate. Don’t overdo it – don’t be too extreme. When you have no bacteria at all in your life and you keep your kids away from the microorganisms; that is also a problem because we need microorganisms for our good health.
"The kids need to be exposed to microorganisms so that they can build and train their immune system. If you keep them away, your child will have a lot of issues later on because they do not get to know the bad guys out there. When they grow up, it is already too late to train their immune system. So, don’t totally avoid it.”
If you love your sushi or sashimi, Dr Chai said it's fine to indulge - only if you know where the protein is from.
“For raw food, you should try to reduce the frequency of consumption unless the source is trusted. Raw fish is okay for consumption if they come from a safe zone. Make sure the fish is fresh. As for raw chicken, NO WAY – you cannot eat it.”