The Underwriters Laboratories-ASEAN-U.S Science Prize for Women is an award set up by a partnership between the United States, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-Underwriters Laboratories Research Institutes, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Launched in 2014, the competition now in its tenth year, has attracted 418 total applicants from ASEAN countries and has awarded 12 winners, 11 honourable mentions and $240,000 in cash prizes. The competition was created to highlight the work of female academics and professionals and affirm the important role of women’s leadership within the fields of science and technology.

Dr. Chan Yoke-Fun, Dr. Neni Sintawardani, Dr. Supiya Charoensiriwath and Dr. Charlle Sy are four award-recipients who exemplify ASEAN women’s potential for high-level success in science.

Dr. Chan Yoke

Credit: Dr. Chan-Yoke Fun for Nathan Associates, a Cadmus Company

The 2020 award winner, Dr. Chan-Yoke Fun is an expert on infectious diseases who has been researching the development of vaccines, antivirals, and educational tools for children’s disease. A particular research area she is focusing on is how heparan sulfate could potentially block the receptors of the A71 virus and create a vaccine against it. Finding ways to combat the A71 virus is essential as children may suffer mild symptoms of Hand, Foot and Mouth disease from the virus. In extreme cases, the virus may attack the brain of some children, leading to considerable damage and other serious diseases.

Winning the Prize supported Dr. Chan’s career significantly, and it came with widespread acknowledgement within Malaysia. With this newfound recognition, she now participates in various seminars, encouraging young women to take up leadership roles within the scientific field. She tells young women to “find something that is daunting, that you’re scared of, face it, and that will make you better.”

Dr. Neni Sintawardani

Credit: Dr. Neni Sintawardani for Nathan Associates, a Cadmus Company

The recipient of the 2021 Senior Scientist Category award from Indonesia specialises in community sanitation and waste water treatment research. Dr. Neni’s published research focuses on utilising anaerobic processes for the treatment of municipal solid waste and agro-industrial runoff. This is one of her various research projects in liquid waste treatment and the enhancement of community sanitation.

“The sanitation problem is a societal issue that has complex dimensions”. She also championed on building awareness on the negative effects from the lack of sanitation and its effects on women and children. She designed solutions for community waste treatment and management in which women and children are key agents of change in influencing perceptions about hygiene and sanitation.

Her research is applicable to communities seeking solutions to their sanitation problem. She advocates for a culturally sensitive approach in addressing water use and sanitation within the ASEAN region. With the Prize, she is better able to advocate and support her research area and create a cleaner and sustainable future.

Dr. Supiya Charoensiriwath

Credit:  Dr. Supiya Charoensiriwath for ASEAN-USAID IGNITE 

Dr. Supiya Charoensiriwath won the Prize in 2022 in the Mid-Career Scientist category for her work on Artificial Intelligence (AI), which was used to analyse health-related data. Dr. Supiya is a health and childhood nutrition expert, and she utilised 3D body scanning technology to collect data from the Thai population in order to create standardised body size charts.

Her work is crucial for development of a new dietary recommendation for the Thai population. She also works with other ASEAN Member States, such as Malaysia and the Philippines, in their surveys regarding body size.

Ever since Dr. Supiya won the Prize, she now has better access to research funds. She still wants to “drive new initiatives to improve the quality of life of all children” and notes that food safety and accessibility “remains a priority for local communities across the ASEAN region.” With the Prize enhancing her career, she now participates in mentorship programs for scholars, shares her insights as a speaker and encourages women to pursue career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

Dr. Charlle Sy

Credit: Dr. Charlle Sy for Dr. Chan-Yoke Fun for Nathan Associates, a Cadmus Company

Winning the 2023 award, Dr. Charlle Sy is commended for her work on bringing electricity to rural communities without access to the national grid. By leveraging micro hydro power—electricity generated by diverting water from local rivers through valleys—Dr. Charlle Sy offers a viable solution for power generation in these areas. Her approach, known as Target-Oriented Robust Optimization approach, uses mathematical models to identify the most economical and practical path for micro hydro systems, ensuring their long-term sustainability.

In the Philippines, Dr. Charlle Sy’s work has been applied in the rural community of Brgy, Parina, where access to electricity has significantly enhanced not just household living conditions but also the local economy. The community now benefits from expanded agricultural work capabilities, enabling activities such as grain milling, farming incubation, and agro-processing, which contribute to improved livelihood.

Dr. Charlle Sy is passionate about being a mentor to future generations of women scientists and hopes she can further aid rural communities through her research. She states that she wishes “to mentor and collaborate more with women… so that we can have more women in science.”

Shining a Light on ASEAN Science: Women Leading the Way

For the past decade, the award has honoured exceptional women throughout the ASEAN region for their outstanding contributions. In addition to those previously acknowledged, the awardees, along with their categories and years of recognition, are as follows: Dr. Pimpa Limthongkul in the Senior Scientist Category for 2023, Dr. Sok Ching Cheong in the same category for 2022, Dr. Li Hongying as a Mid-Career Scientist in 2021, Dr. Yan Zhou (2019), Dr. Gay Jane Perez (2018), Dr. Nguyen Thi Hiep (2017), Dr. Worajit Setthapun (2016) and Dr. Nuttaporn Pimpha (2014). Furthermore, we wish to acknowledge the dedication and significant achievements of the scientists who reached Finalist status and those who received Honourable Mentions. The full list can be found through this link.

The contributions of all of the Prize winners offer a glimpse into the diverse and vibrant scientific landscape of Southeast Asia. From tackling sanitation challenges in rural communities to developing life-saving vaccines and revolutionising health data analysis, these women are leading the way in addressing critical issues relevant to the ASEAN region. The Underwriters Laboratories-ASEAN-U.S. Science Prize for Women serves as a vital platform for showcasing and amplifying this regional scientific excellence, fostering collaboration, and ultimately contributing to a more sustainable and inclusive ASEAN.

This initiative is set to continue its impactful journey. It aims to further recognize the scientific contributions of female scientists and promote a more inclusive approach in science and technology development. Moving forward, the ASEAN Committee on Science, Technology, and Innovation (COSTI), in coordination with the ASEAN Secretariat, will play a greater role in managing the Prize. This marks a new chapter in nurturing this vital initiative.

A version of this story was published here.