UM professor awarded Fulbright scholarship

Professor Dr Yvonne Lim Ai Lian, a professor at the Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya (UM), was one of four in the country to be awarded the Fulbright Malaysian Scholar programme for the 2021-2022 cohort.

Apr 08, 2022

The family celebrating Prof Yvonne's parents' 50th Wedding Anniversary and Joachim’s 16th birthday on January 8, 2022.

By Gwen Manickam

Professor Dr Yvonne Lim Ai Lian, a professor at the Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya (UM), was one of four in the country to be awarded the Fulbright Malaysian Scholar programme for the 2021-2022 cohort. The programme provides opportunities for Malaysian academics to develop or update their research through interaction with distinguished counterparts in America. Under the award, she is currently on a three-month research stint at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Maryland, USA.

A parishioner of the Church of St Ignatius, Petaling Jaya, Professor Yvonne told the HERALD: “I feel blessed and humbled to receive this prestigious scholarship, and the wonderful opportunity at be at NIH, one of the world's leading medical research centres.

“It is an honour to be selected. I applied for the competitive award in 2020, and after an online interview with the board, I received the good news in 2021.” She said because it was a US award, all necessary paperwork and visa application to travel there was a breeze.

Being on the grounds of the NIH, this reporter wondered if she’d met the recently famous, Chief Medical Advisor to the US President and Director of NIAID, Dr. Anthony Fauci. She giggled and said, “No, many of us have not met or even seen him due to his busy schedule. We only know which building his office is at.”

Besides lecturing, Melaka-born Prof Yvonne’s research focuses on the largely neglected tropical diseases among the underserved populations, like the Orang Asli and migrant populations, linking conventional and advanced tools like bioinformatics to understand these diseases.

At NIH, she is working on finding the benefits of worms to the human body through their interactions with the gut bacteria. “For years, we researched and talked about worms being detrimental to one’s health. Now we want to learn how worms, which enter the body as an egg or larva, manage to grow to adulthood and survive for years in the human host, without being expelled by the body’s immune system. How do they evade or immune-regulate? It is estimated that 10 to 15 worms in the body can be beneficial, but once it reaches hundreds and thousands, it becomes counterproductive.”

Prof Yvonne has received numerous awards and recognitions, among which were the Malaysian Society of Parasitology and Tropical Medicine Medal for being an outstanding young scientist, and the Top Research Scientists Malaysia (TRSM) Award. She has published more than 225 scientific papers and featured as one of the 10 "Science Stars of East Asia" in Nature.

The 49-year-old is married to Dr Benedict Sim, and is the mother of three strapping young men, John Paul (22), Joseph (20), and Joachim (16). “I come from a small, close-knit family made up of one sister and my parents. Am happy to say that has continued in my married life as my parents moved in to help look after our eldest son after he was born, and they are still living with us.

“When we were young, my father was the sole breadwinner and my grandmother, who was widowed at age 30, lived with us. She would always ask us to tell her when our exams were or any projects we were working on, so she could pray for us. This beautiful tradition continues till today, as my parents pray for their grandchildren.

“My grandmother suffered a stroke and later battled cancer, yet she remained fervent in her faith. She never complained about the effects of her illness and was always praying the rosary. She would ask friends who came to visit, what they wanted her to pray for. She’d say, ‘I’ll offer my suffering for you’. Many testified that her prayers were answered in their favour.

“We grew up knowing prayers are powerful. It doesn’t mean all my prayers were answered. I learned if I don’t get what I am praying for, it’s because God knows best, and He is moulding me for something better. It was also ingrained in us that no matter how difficult the situation is, God will guide us through.”

Prof Yvonne said, “My greatest gift is my parents Albert and Agatha's prayer blessings every day. Now that they are much older, they tell me, ‘We can’t help you much, but we bless you and pray for you, and that is more valuable to me than anything monetary.”

In 1996, after completing her undergraduate studies in Zoology at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), she was the first batch offered to proceed directly to study for their doctorate. “My grandmother passed away shortly after my undergraduate final exams, my father had just retired, and my younger sister entered university. It was an emotional year for me. Due to financial constraints, I could only further my studies with a scholarship. I prayed, asking God for a sign - ‘If you show me this, I’ll know you want me to take this route’,” said the Infant Jesus Convent Melaka alumnus, who always had a strong conviction that God was guiding her way.

“Thankfully, I got a scholarship and managed to stretch the funds to supplement my sister’s education as well.”

Armed with a doctorate in parasitology, Prof Yvonne taught at UKM for two years before favouring motherhood and resigning. As someone who enjoyed teaching, she soon joined Tunku Abdul Rahman College as it didn’t involve time-consuming research and it was near their home. Two years later, she was invited to be part of the pioneer group of PhD holders to join the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, which at that time, was thought to be eventually at Kampar.

However, “My family and I were not prepared to move to Kampar. Just then, I met UM's then Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, and I was headhunted to join the university. God has His ways.”

Her family prays together every night. She also has the practice of saying prayers with her kids in the car on the way to school. Although the older two sons are pursuing their tertiary education and are not always at home, the youngest will not go to bed without praying with both or either parent.

Dr. Benedict serves as an adviser on the KL Archdiocese Crisis Management Team, Parish Pastoral Council and Communion Ministry while Prof Yvonne helps in the Altar Servers Parents Group in their parish.

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