As its new global coordinator, Dr. Mahaletchumy Arujanan is planning to lead the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) into an era of greater visibility and collaboration.
There’s no question she’s poised to succeed. Arujanan has already completely restructured one of ISAAA’s affiliates, the Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC), which she turned into a household name among the country’s biotechnology community and will continue to lead as executive director.
Now she’s ready to apply her management expertise, and the entrepreneurial skills she’s honed as founder and editor-in-chief for The Petri Dish, Malaysia’s first science newspaper, to advancing ISAAA.
“My vision is for ISAAA to emerge as a strong partner to governments in the developing world to create the political will to embrace innovation brought by modern agribiotechnology,” she says. “I want to bring in more donors and partners to support our mission.”
Arujanan has a wide network to draw upon. She serves as a communication specialist for the FAO biosafety program in Sri Lanka and adjunct lecturer at Monash University Malaysia, in addition to sitting on many international committees.
“I share ISAAA’s vision and values,” she says. “It gives me an opportunity to leave a footprint in making this world a better place. I love the idea of working with multiple stakeholders and governments. It is enriching and satisfying.”
The Cornell Alliance for Science is among the organizations keen to support her goals for ISAAA. “Dr. Arujanan and I are both committed to strengthening our partnership as we work toward our shared mission of ensuring access to innovation to improve lives globally,” says AfS Director Sarah Evanega. “No organization can do this on its own. We must work together as a collaborative global coalition.”
Arujanan, who earned a PhD in science communication and a master’s in biotechnology, says her professional journey has not been easy. “But I was/am blessed with great role models and mentors at ISAAA who gave me the freedom to explore and create opportunities,” she notes.
Among them are the late Dr. Randy Hautea, who held the post Arujanan now assumes. “My predecessor was my best boss who saw the potential in me,” she says. “And Prof. Paul Teng, ISAAA chair, who is a great mentor, had a big role in my career growth.”
Their support, however, was something of an anomaly in a field that is dominated by men, especially in management.
“Women generally should be identified and recognized for leadership roles,” Arujanan says. “What is even more glaringly lacking is women from developing countries to assume leadership roles at international organizations. It is not that we have a deficit among professional women, but the culture of who you want to see at the top of an organization and to be the face of an organization has to change. It is an issue of credibility. Women, too, should earn the trust and credibility. We often deliver, but we are happy to be invisible and work behind the scenes. Women don’t demand. All this has to change. More so, in the fields of STEM. As women climb up the ladder, they should also give back to fellow women who need the support. I am involved in a number of community organizations where we mentor women and provide the support system.”
Arujanan, who frequently speaks at schools and community events to encourage young people to chase their dream and unlock their potential, is undaunted by her newest challenge, in part because she’s driven by the urgency of the issue at hand.
“Ensuring farmers who feed us have the best technology to do their job must be a shared responsibility of all,” she says. “There is so much that needs to be done and it is frustrating to see unrealistic ideology and pseudoscience influence policy-making more than science.”
She’s also inspired by “passion, love for what I do and the attachment to the cause of my organizations.”
In the case of ISAAA, that means helping smallholder farmers gain access to the agricultural innovations, including the tools of biotechnology, that will allow them to succeed, while also supporting sustainable development and mitigating the effect of climate change.
“ISAAA’s efforts have helped millions of farmers to have better lives,” Arujanan said. “ISAAA was a pioneer in facilitating North-South collaboration and has been steadfast in supporting developing countries through capacity-building programs that help them to adopt and approve biotech crops. Our efforts increase the adoption and approvals of biotech crops, reduce trade barriers, help in regulatory reforms and increase public understanding on agribiotechnology.”