Nature Publishing Group (NPG), an international publisher of high impact scientific and medical information in print and online services, interviewed Dr. Nitsara Karoonuthaisiri, Head of BIOTEC Microarray Laboratory as a founding co-chair of the Global Yong Academy. In her interview she discussed about youth empowerment in the developing world and her experience in reintergrating into Thai cultures after several-years of studying aboard.
Global Young Academy co-chair says the organization can help reintegrate western-educated scientists.
The Global Young Academy — a group of exceptional young scientists from more than 40 countries — celebrates its first anniversary at a meeting in Berlin on 20–22 March. Nature talks to one of its two founding co-chairs, 32-year-old chemical engineer Nitsara Karoonuthaisiri from Thailand, about empowering youth in the developing world and helping them to reintegrate into their own cultures after training abroad.
Why does the science community need a Global Young Academy?
We have a tradition of well-established scientists coming together. But I don't think there are many young academies anywhere. The pioneers are in Germany [the decade-old Die Junge Akademie] and in the Netherlands [De Jonge Akademie].
Young scientists, around 35 years old, are in their prime: their creativity hasn't been limited; they haven't been moulded into a certain form. They have a lot of energy and they think outside the box. Also, if you learn to collaborate when you're young, this becomes the culture you grow up with — which we hope will help at a time when so many problems are interdisciplinary.
How did it start?
Around 40 young people, including myself, were invited in 2008 to attend a World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in China — that was the first time the Inter-Academy Panel and the WEF joined up to invite young people. Together we agreed we had power — well, not power, but energy — so we decided we should do something. We eventually founded the academy in 2010.
What does the academy do?
We have four working groups: science education, science and society, early career development, and interdisciplinary research for regional and global problems. One project we're working on is recording researchers giving undergraduate lectures on video and sending those out to developing countries, starting with Pakistan. We also try to encourage the establishment of national young academies throughout the world: we have helped to found a Nigerian Young Academy and a Thai Young Scientists Academy, and others are looking at doing this. We got a grant from the Volkswagen Foundation in Germany last month — more than €200,000 (US$280,000) — which is a start-up fund for these activities.
You're also the founding head of the microarray laboratory at Thailand's National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. Does the academy work take up much of your time?
Now, in this busy time leading up to the annual meeting, I spend 8–10 hours a day on my research and an extra 3–5 hours on academy stuff. It is a long day.
You pursued your university education in the United States, finishing with a PhD from Stanford University. Why did you decide to come back to Thailand?
I went to the United States because I won a very competitive national Thai scholarship, which supports the top 20 or so high school students to study abroad. But the obligation is to come back — if you don't come back, then you repay the government.
What was it like to come back?
It was a culture shock for me. I had spent 10 years, becoming an adult, elsewhere: I left when I was 16 and came back at 26. I was reluctant to come back, because the United States was my home. I had friends and some of my family there.
Even the language was hard. Of course I speak Thai fluently, but you never have to write anything in Thai in the United States. In formal language that was already difficult for me. And I'd learned all the technical terms in English. Your native tongue comes back quickly, but then you lose your English too.
How is doing research in Thailand different?
When I first came back, everything was slower. Some chemicals took 45 days to get here, when they come the next day in the United States. There you have so many grants and the scale is huge; you can do a lot of fundamental research. In Thailand, there's a limited number of grants with limited budgets, and you have to make it really applicable and relevant. My project now is on economically important black tiger shrimp. I was lucky, because my workplace has such good executives who care about the well-being of their staff. And I have seen rapid progress in Thailand in the past six years.
Is readjustment an issue that young academies can help with?
Oh yes. The developing countries really need this, because some young scientists there have a really good education from Britain or the United States, but when they return they face a lot of problems. They need to help each other out.
Plus, in many countries there is a barrier to young people speaking up or trying to change things. In the West, you take it for granted that young people can have a voice.
What is next for you?
I have been awarded a Marie Curie fellowship to work in the United Kingdom for the next two years, starting in August, at Queen's University in Belfast. I want to be the link between the European Union and Thailand.
What are the academy's goals for 2011?
To create more national young academies. Right now we have close to 150 members, and we are opening another membership application round this fall. We don't want to have too many: 200 is about right. And of course there's our first annual meeting. We were going to have it in Egypt: we had this really beautiful plan to be in Alexandria. But with the unrest there, we had to change the location to Berlin, so everything has to start from scratch. It has been crazy for the last month or so. But that's what young people can do.