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International Researchers and Opinion Leaders Convene to Discuss Sustainability Challenges

 In an effort to drive interdisciplinary collaborations to develop solutions for humanity’s most pressing challenges, Sunway University, in partnership with the University of Cambridge, as partners for the ASEAN Emerging Researchers Conference (ASEAN ERC) had recently brought together seven international sustainability experts for the first of its series of virtual events known as the ASEAN Emerging Researchers Hub which was held on November 30. 

The virtual conference, attracting more than 200 participants from around the world, focused on thought-provoking key ideas, case studies and challenges concerning the sustainability and conservation of global development. 

The virtual conference was opened by University of Cambridge Wolfson College president Professor Jane Clarke and Sunway Education Group chief executive officer Dr Elizabeth Lee, and convened by University of Cambridge Whittle Laboratory Research Fellow Dr Wen Yao Lee.

The conference presenters and panellists include architect and ecologist Ken Yeang, named by The Guardian as “one of the 50 people who could save the planet”; former science adviser to the Malaysian Prime Minister and former member of the UN Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) founding chair Tan Sri Dr Zakri bin Abdul Hamid; former European Union ambassador to the Arctic, Canada and Mexico Marie Anne Coninsx; ASEAN-US Science Prize for Women 2016 winner and Chiang Mai Rajabhat University Asian Development College for Community Economy and Technology dean Dr Worajit Setthapun; former specialist adviser to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and serial clean technology founder at University of Cambridge Department of Engineering Professor Steve Evans; science communicator and independent researcher Tina Carmillia; and University of Cambridge Wolfson College Sustainability and Conservation Hub representative Charlie Barty-King. 

In her opening speech, Professor Clarke underscored the importance of researchers coming together to solve humanity’s most pressing issues. 

“The COVID-19 crisis has made us realise what a small world it is and just how global the problems are that face the world today. It is just through a community of researchers in universities and in companies and without that we are going to find answers to these problems,” she said.

Dr Lee, in her opening speech, said the ASEAN ERC is the group’s attempt to rebuild the world in this new normal. 

“Learning to live sustainably requires enormous advances in our understanding of the natural world and our relationship with it. With so many people, food, clean water, housing and energy needed; but to stay within our planet’s carrying capacity, we must be smart about how we utilise while protecting Mother Nature’s resources.


“Everyone must come together and work towards balancing the needs of our planet and the global economy. We have to constantly look out for solutions, for the benefit of future generations. Which is why at Sunway, our Chancellor Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah is very committed towards harnessing the brightest minds from around the world, to work towards global solutions,” Dr Lee added.

Biointegration as an Environmental Solution

In Yeang’s keynote address, he shared insights from his work on remaking the built environment for a resilient planet. 

“Everything depends on biointegration. If we can biointegrate everything that we make and do on our  planet with natural systems and the natural environment, there won’t be any environmental issues. Effective biointegration is not just for architects and designers but also for everybody whose daily lives impinge on the environment,” he said.  

He shared an analogy that biointegration is similar to what a doctor does with prosthetic devices and poses an interesting question. “A prosthetic device is artificial, it’s human-made. It’s synthetic, in some instances, semi-synthetic and is attached to the host organism,” according to Yeang. 


“Everything then depends on effective biointegration. It is not effective if the prosthetic device breaks down or the host organism is affected. What if the built environment is remade to be nature-like becoming part of nature as constructed ecosystems that emulate and replicate ecosystem attributes?”

Ideas: Sirens, Moss, Fruit Bats and Terrace Houses for Corals

Four presentations from emerging student conservationists were then held. 

University of Cambridge alumni and creator of the Siren Sundays web-series Lashanti Jupp from the Bahamas, introduced her web-series, citing it is aimed at breaking the silos between conservationists and environmentalists and the  public.

Kasetsart University Faculty of Science Department of Botany’s Patsakorn Tiwutanon shared his research on chemical profiles and chemometric analysis of selected leucobryum species from Thailand for the conservation of the moss. 

Sunway University’s Yong Joon Yee presented his findings on the importance of fruit bats, currently being hunted and killed as pests, are durian pollinators. Yong hopes that by demonstrating an ecological link between bats and the local economy, his research will provide policymakers and durian farmers with insight into the actual role of fruit bats and the importance of their conservation to increase the production of durians. 

National University of Singapore student and Our Singapore Reefs co-founder Sam Shu Qin presented her unique work in Singapore’s marine environment, building unique “terraced houses” for corals which allow corals to take root and grow naturally while providing nooks and crannies where marine life can take shelter. 

Creating Science Networks and Importance of Making Science Accessible to Everyone

Thereafter, a panel discussion took place with panellists sharing insights, success stories, key transformative ideas, and stressing the urgent necessity to create science networks and making science accessible to everyone, so people can come together to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. 

Dr Setthapun pointed out the communities’ role in building smart cities, and that understanding local cultures and connecting people should be factored in to produce solutions. 

“All of us have heard of smart cities, and there’s much effort put in globally to build smart cities. I believe smart cities should go together with smart and green communities in big cities and local areas, so they can become smart and green together.”

Tan Sri Bakri added that while the UN’s CEPA (communications, education and public awareness) is important, there is also an urgent need to communicate science to political leaders. 

“Can your science advise create jobs? Can your science advise increase incomes? If you can answer these questions, you can make changes,” he said.

Carmillia highlighted the importance of specialised journalists. 

“We need journalists with not just editorial skills to do fact-checking and verify user-generated content but also possess technical knowledge of the subject matter, whether it’s ecology, green technology or environmental law,” she said. 

“That way, we can have action-based and solutions-driven journalism that can cater to specific segments of the public instead of giving an ineffective broadstroke treatment to the story.” 

Barty-King advanced the ideas of the citizens’ assembly being more active in democracy, collaborative commons, as well as the concept of commodities being land, water and air deemed as public goods as opposed to private saleable items, as keys to make them more inclusive for people. 

”We don’t have to be actively involved in the decision-making but we have to show what the demand is there for. If we don’t show that there’s demand, then policymakers have no reasons to listen to you,” Barty-King said.

Forwarding his work in Ho Chi Minh which has effectively decreased water usage from 800 litres to just a litre to produce a pair of jeans in a factory, Professor Evans also shared insights from his work such as factories need to be part of healthy urban systems. 

“If we are really going to have healthy urban systems, we can’t have flows of materials going vast distances; we must create value i.e. products from the waste of the city,” he said 

“If that’s going to happen, we must have factories in cities and I want to encourage the masses to think positively about that. The air coming out of factories must be cleaner than the air coming in, and likewise for water. 

“We can use local waste to make new products. And we rent out those products to neighbours. That creates great jobs that people can easily  reach on foot  and products that we can use daily.”

Coninsx and Barty-King highlighted one of the quickest pathways to 2030 is to demonstrate to all how global systems are interlinked to people. 

Coninsx propounded that what is happening in the Arctic is clearly affecting the rest of the world. 

“The warming up of the Arctic is responsible for an increase of 25% of global warming. It is causing extreme weather in all parts of the world. It has an influence, for example, on the monsoons in India,” she said. 

“But the reverse is also the case. What’s happening in the world is affecting the Arctic. For example the pollution that is going to the Arctic – the Arctic has the highest level of microplastics - is mainly from South and Southeast Asia. Because it’s all interrelated, you need international policies and cooperation.”

The ASEAN ERC, an international platform, aims to drive research excellence and stimulate interdisciplinary research to address ASEAN’s needs. It is a strategic partnership among the ASEAN Young Scientist Network, Sunway University and the University of Cambridge’s Wolfson College. 

To view the full discussion on Facebook :visit Interested collaborators can reach the panellists and speakers on the Facebook page.