Suzana Yusup: Power Player
A chemical engineer turns waste into fuel.
Credit: Ahmad Yusni for Nature
Suzana Yusup didn’t have a choice in her course of study when she arrived at the University of Leeds, UK, in 1992. She had received a scholarship from the Malaysian government to do an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, but, she says, “I didn’t know what chemical engineering was”.
She quickly grew fond of the field for its mix of science and practical applications — so fond that she received a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Bradford, UK, in 1998. The eldest of seven children, Yusup is the only academic in her family. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor, any doctor, but they knew I was afraid of blood. So for them, this [degree] is something to be very proud of.”
Yusup now heads the Center for Biofuel and Biochemical Research at Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) in Perak, Malaysia. She joined the university in 2001 and began exploring Malaysia’s rich plant resources to produce biofuels. Much of her work has focused on creating fuels from biomass waste, such as used cooking oil, rubber-seed oil and discarded distillate from palm-oil refineries.
She has long explored ways in which green technology can help the environment and society. When she learnt that rice farmers around her university were struggling with pests, weeds and the health threat of chemical pesticides, Yusup started developing safer biopesticides based on compounds from plants. She adapted the techniques and facilities in her biofuel lab to produce the pesticides. Yusup has won many honours, including Malaysia’s Rising Star Award in the category of Highly Cited Review in 2016 and the Women in Science Award in 2017.
Yusup’s latest research interests reflect her hobby of gardening. In particular, she worries that she might be too weak to plough the soil after she retires. “I am an engineer and I should do something about it,” says Yusup. She developed a hydroponic system that is soil-free and requires no ploughing, then got her engineering students to teach it to schoolchildren. Her students complained, but quickly turned enthusiastic after their first harvest. When researchers see the impact they have on others, it helps motivate them to find solutions to problems, says Yusup. “That’s what keeps me going.” — by Yao-Hua Law