Published 31 May 2017 by Ulrike Böhm

Sheela Chandren Never Wanted a Routine Life

Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Sheela Chandren

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Sheela and get inspired.


Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren
Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

Sheela Chandren, 33, from Malaysia is a senior lecturer at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. Her current research focuses on the development, characterisation and application of titania-based photocatalysts in various chemical reactions. Among the photocatalysts that have been successfully prepared are well-ordered titania by using magnetic fields, titania encapsulated in hollow silica shell for organic synthesis and titania on stainless steel for outdoor applications.


What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

Growing up, science has always been the only field for me. Perhaps it was due to the education system in my country when I was growing up. Science was seen as the field for smart students, for those that were important. So I pushed myself to study hard just so I could get good results and get into the science stream.




Who are your role models?

As cliché as this sounds, one of my biggest role models would be my mother. She is not very educated – she did not even finish her high school studies. But she worked so hard by crossing the borders to Singapore every single day in the week (I live in the most southern part of Malaysia, right next to Singapore), coming back when it is dark, repeating the whole process every single day just so she can send all five of her children to school. How can she not be my role model after what she has done till I am a PhD holder today? The other two role models I have would have to be my supervisor for my master degree, Prof. Hadi Nur, and my supervisor for my doctorate studies, Prof. Bunsho Ohtani. They showed so much faith in me, even though my results weren’t good to start with. They keep on pushing me and guiding me. I owe it to them where I am today.


Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren
Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren


How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I did not always wanted to be a lecturer in Chemistry (my current job). Teaching has never been my thing. At least that’s what I thought. After finishing my undergraduate studies, I did not want to work in the typical jobs available, like being a chemist in factories. I did not want to lead a routine life. So I decided to pursue my master degree. During my masters, I was exposed to what research is all about. I quickly fell in love with it. Towards the end of masters, I was presented with two chances of furthering my PhD abroad: one at Queen Mary University of London and the other one in Hokkaido University. I am very lucky as I was accepted into both with funding, but after thinking it through, I chose Hokkaido University. I enrolled under the Asian Graduate Schools of Chemistry and Materials Science, under GCOE of Japan. And I have never looked back. I would not have done any of this if it wasn’t for my masters’ supervisor, Prof. Dr. Hadi Nur, who helped me with all the processes and gave me all the encouragement I needed. Many times, as a lady in a foreign country, I wanted to give up. In fact, the first year of my PhD in Japan, all my results were negative. To make things worse, I lost my father due to cancer that year. It was a really tough time for me, as the passing was really sudden. But thanks to my family and my supervisor, Prof. Bunsho Ohtani, I managed to force myself to pull through. My supervisor taught and guided me really carefully till I managed to finish my PhD in exactly three years, while fulfilling all the requirements.

I would really like to be one of the top scientists in my field.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The freshest one that I can think of is entering the FameLab Science Communication Competition organised by the British Council, Malaysia, about a couple of months ago. Basically, what the contestants have to do is to explain a scientific concept to a general audience in just three minutes. Going for oral presentations in scientific conferences and seminars may be normal for me. But explaining a scientific concept in three minutes to an audience that is not made up of scientists was something completely new to me. But I thought it will be quite fun to try it out. Instead of talking about something in the field of my research, I decided to talk about something even closer to my heart: the chemistry of cosmetics, as I am a self-proclaimed makeup enthusiast. I have to admit, although it was only three minutes, it was really nerve-wrecking. I took forever to come up with a speech using terms and analogy that a layman can understand. In the end, although I did not get to proceed to the finals, I am glad I entered. It was eye-opening for me and I finally understood how important science communication is. It felt really nice to step out of my comfort zone. So this may not be cool to others, but for someone who has mostly talked about science to either scientists or science students exclusively, it was definitely cool to me.


Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren
Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren


What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

My mother is someone who does not openly show her love or affection. She almost never praised any of us, no matter how well we did in something. But one day, I caught my mother talking to her friends about me. About how I obtained my PhD in the field of Chemistry from Japan and I am a senior lecturer in a public university now. I saw that her face was gleaming with pride and joy. I was so touched and proud that tears actually started streaming down my eyes. So yeah, I guess that was when I felt proud.


What is a “day in the life” of Sheela like?

I wish I have something exciting to write about but my day is usually filled with very academic stuff. I will start my morning by giving some lectures in the field of Inorganic Chemistry, usually followed by some admin meetings. Then I will see a few of my students to discuss about their research, pop by the laboratory to check on some students, then proceed to sit in front of the computer replying emails, preparing lecture slides and admin paper works. My work day will usually finish around 10 p.m.


What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Although this may seem a bit far-fetched for now, I would really like to be one of the top scientists in my field. To be able to continue doing what I love, while being recognised for it.


Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren
Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren



What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

As we already have to read so many journals and academic books every day, in my free time, I enjoy reading books that do not require me to think too much, such as romantic literature. I am also a big, big fan of Harry Potter.


What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

I guess the most important thing is to know what you want and just go for it. I think the world is changing and the taboo of women in science is almost disappearing. So they should be no more limitations for women to go as far as possible.

It felt really nice to step out of my comfort zone.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

This is a tough question. I wish I really knew so I could be the one making the breakthrough, but what I wish would be the next great breakthrough would be something that, instead of curing cancer, can prevent human from even getting it. This is of course my bias opinion, as I mentioned above, I lost my dad to cancer. And we see so, so many people suffering from cancer. Not to mention how more and more articles are popping out every day about how almost everything can cause cancer. After all, prevention is always better than cure.


What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Providing a working environment and facilities catering for women. Such as nurseries and feeding-rooms. I know many places have started providing these, but even more have not. Extra incentives for women would also be great because I believe in equity, instead of equality. So perhaps, more research grant or funding specially for women would be great.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.