Veröffentlicht 7. September 2023 von Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Liyana Binti Azmi

Liyana with her students at the zoonotic outreach programme in Kuala Tahan, Pahang, Malaysia. All photos/credits: in courtesy of Liyana Binti Azmi

Liyana from Malaysia is a lecturer at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, Malaysia.

Her research focuses primarily on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) through understanding protein structure and functions. Proteins are subjected to complex interactions with both micro and macro molecules and undergo evolutionary stages, ultimately leading to phenotypical changes in organisms. Understanding how changes in protein structure and function relating to AMR can ultimately contribute to better drug designs and comprehensive treatments for resistant microbes.

Liyana participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Liyana and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

Selfie of Lyana Binti Azmi in the lab
Liyana Binti Azmi in the lab at the University of Glasgow

I would like to think that science picked me! To be honest, my exposure to the research programme at the University of Glasgow sparked my interest in doing science as my career (see question 3). During my time in Glasgow, I was surrounded by passionate scientists from all walks of life that were great teachers and inspired me to be curious and that doing science can be a rewarding lifetime career.

Who are your role models?

I have come across many inspiring people in my life. Still, the person who has inspired me the most career-wise would be my Ph.D. supervisor Prof. Olwyn Byron. She’s hardworking and always had time for my million questions when I was her student. I loved that she had high expectations of me but, at the same time, always provided support. Apart from being active in research, she’s an avid science communicator and a strong advocate for women in STEM, which inspired me the most.

On a more sentimental note, my parents and aunt have been my role models since childhood. Growing up, they have always portrayed themselves as objective, hardworking, and family-oriented. I have parents who are working full-time with six children in a small household. Growing up, I remember them pushing through during busy days but never dropping the ball on the family. Meanwhile, my aunt is a microbiologist and the first lady to hold many administrative and scientific roles in Malaysia. Looking at her career path, I now realise that being the first of many things isn’t easy, particularly as a woman.

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

As a child, I was always fascinated by animals, dinosaurs, and nature. Naturally, when I went to school, I took the science path, where we had to take subjects like biology, chemistry, and calculus. I eventually graduated with honours with a Biomedical degree but had little idea what to do next. I thought about working, but ultimately, I dreamt about studying abroad.

Thankfully, I secured a place as a Masters’s student in the Infection and Immunity programme at the University of Glasgow. During my Masters, I had the liberty to explore many types of research, and even in exams, we were expected to provide open-ended answers that required critical thinking. That was the first time the gravity of science dawned upon me, how research ‘forces’ a person to think critically and encourages pondering and reflection on everything in life. I did my Master’s research project with Prof Andrew Roe and Prof Olwyn Byron, combining structural and molecular biology to solve a protein structure. With my lab colleagues’ help, I grew protein crystals and gathered data from the synchrotron for three weeks. I remember this to be one of the most incredible moments in my life, and I discovered a newfound love for biophysics. I was thrilled with the outcome of my Master’s project, which naturally motivated me to do a Ph.D.

As I began my Ph.D., initially, I had struggles producing results. I remember having imposter syndrome and started doubting myself as an active scientist. But it was with my supervisor’s encouragement, my family’s belief, and through good friends I found the confidence to push through and present my results at conferences. I remember winning the best poster during the British Biophysical Society meeting in 2016, which was a huge confidence boost as I was only in the first year of my Ph.D. My supervisors encouraged me whenever I wanted to try new techniques, such as cryo-electron microscopy. In 2017, I was placed in Dr David Bhella’s lab to learn and gather cryo-EM data. It was a fascinating and humbling experience. Ultimately, cryo-EM became a crux to my Ph.D. findings as it was the technique used to solve the protein structure I was working on then. Apart from cryo-EM, I avidly used small-angle X-ray scattering and analytical ultracentrifugation. It was through the translational use of SAXS and AUC I was given many opportunities to collaborate with other labs and had the chance to meet other scientists globally. I remember being part of the international AUC workshop in Glasgow, where I had to help manage the conference, present and mingle with international participants on AUC topics. It was a gratifying, eye-opening experience for me. Since 2020, I am an lecturer at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.

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

I’d like to think that all the projects I was involved in were interesting in many ways. But if I had to pick, I would say my Ph.D. project was an all-rounding experience – which was cool to me. I had to solve the beautiful structure of the bifunctional alcohol aldehyde dehydrogenase (AdhE), a self-oligomerising protein that can assemble up to more than 1 Mega dalton. Structurally, it forms helices (which, personally, look like intricate fusilli). I’ve always been fascinated by why and how these proteins form these superstructures. I was also tasked to understand how the lack of AdhE function in Escherichia coli O157:H7 (EHEC) attenuates its virulence and motility. AdhE catalyses the conversion of acetyl-CoA to acetaldehyde and subsequently to ethanol. However, the deletion of AdhE results in a lack of virulence and disrupts EHEC motility. The link between bacterial metabolism and virulence to me has always been fascinating, and to add, I have always thought that the superstructures of AdhE have played a role in both metabolism and/or virulence as a whole. To this day, I am still working on understanding how AdhE structure and or lack of its function leads to virulence attenuation, and it has shed light on how protein structures can have a profound effect on bacterial phenotypes.

Science should be accessible and understandable to the public. To this end, I’m reminded of a community project I was involved in as a facilitator. It was a community outreach programme where we delivered zoonotic awareness programmes to Taman Negara, Pahang aborigines. The Aborigines lived in rural areas, where they had little access to the internet and even healthcare. So, that project felt memorable to me because it was my first time experiencing what it was like to do outreach to marginalised groups in a very rural area. To me, it was a really eye-opening experience.

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

Liyana Binti Azmi during one of the many trips to the Diamond Light Source Synchrotron. Liyana with one of her students – now, Dr Aisling Brady
Liyana during one of the many trips to the Diamond Light Source Synchrotron, here with one of her students – now, Dr Aisling Brady

Teaching is one of the components of my current work. So, for me, it would be when I can inspire my students (even a little bit!) to be better and more critical-minded persons. I strive to motivate and drive my students to participate in as many projects as possible. One of my proudest moments of that was when I led four teams of students at a regional art-science competition. We didn’t win, but the students involved told me that the experience of being in an international competition has really driven them to think outside the box and made them realise that, at the end of the day, there’s more to academic life than just studying and scoring good grades.

I also relish the feeling of camaraderie in research! I take pride in solving issues together through discussing experimental protocols, running an experiment together, or executing an outreach programme. I’m reminded of the small wins, such as submitting samples and analysing our protein samples in the synchrotron, empowering the students, and teaching the community with zoonotic knowledge. These moments give me much-needed confidence boosts whenever I’m feeling down, and I hope other people are inspired by these moments too.

What is a „day in the life“ of you like?

The best part of being an academician is that there are no typical days! Every day is different, and I get to teach, do research, and deliver community outreach throughout the year. On some days, I would spend a portion of the day teaching and conducting practicals and the other half having discussions with research groups to analyse data. Some days I would spend a bit of the day in the lab to conduct experiments, and some days I love to do academic writing in cafes and meet up with other researchers to jot down ideas and collaborate.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Ultimately, I want to teach critical and objective thinking to my students and, hopefully, to society. In this day and age, factual information is essential, so I aim to deliver accurate content and straighten out as much pseudoscience as possible.

Research-wise, I plan to initiate a biophysics center in Malaysia. I have always believed in the importance of providing protein structure relating to its function. And I envision expanding this center by integrating transdisciplinary fields of information technology and biological fields.

I also hope to continue to do community outreach and strive to make science accessible to society as a whole, especially to marginalised groups. Integrating media and science is vital for community outreach, so I plan to work closely with the media to spread awareness of STEM to marginalised groups.

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

When not doing research, I love gaming, doing yoga, and playing music with my friends and family. I do either of these things daily because it gives me an outlet for work. Apart from that, I usually spend time with my family, and I love going cafe hopping and trying different kinds of coffee.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

Never limit yourself to societal or cultural norms; surround yourself with supportive people who push you to improve. In science, the universe is literally the limit! And I’ve seen a lot of women achieve amazing things when they truly go for what they want and are supported by their environment. To that end, never be afraid to reach out for help because, more often than not, your environment can be really supportive of you.

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

I think the next most significant breakthrough would be the advent of artificial intelligence and, thus, the marriage of AI to many fields. I also trust that we will make a breakthrough in developing treatments for antimicrobial resistance through drug repurposing or discoveries in generating alternative antibiotics for treating resistant bacteria.

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

I think science education and research must be inclusive for all, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. On that note, I believe there are cases where women are limited by their responsibilities or expectations to care for their families. This is one of the reasons why many women hold back from doing science or pursuing higher positions in the workforce. Personally, I’ve seen what women can achieve if their families support them – I am lucky to be in one.

On the other hand, if working organisations or academia could support families or even increase awareness against patriarchy, women would have more support and the encouragement they need to pursue science. Finally, I think science should be encouraged for girls at a young age, and female scientists must be highlighted to help inspire them to pursue science as a career.

Further Information

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.