22 Jan 2019 12:00:00 PM

TalentCorp returnee Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman's unconventional path to the stars

Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman shares how she fought gender conventions and expectations to become Malaysia's first astrophysicist.

Dr Mazlan: I wanted to be an Einstein. But when I told people I wanted to take up physics, there were objections.

For all intents and purposes, Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman was a bright child destined for a great career in science. Decades back, being a medical doctor was the pinnacle for someone who was book-smart.

However, Datuk Mazlan eschewed family expectations and conventions as she had fallen in love with physics in her late teenage years.

“I wanted to be an Einstein. But when I told people I wanted to take up physics, there were objections. Unfeminine, tough field, hard to get lab partners because they were mostly boys. These were some of the things I heard,” she told a captive audience during her Talent Talk at TalentCorp’s LIFE AT WORK 2018 Awards on 26 November in Kuala Lumpur.

She earned a BSc. (Hons) from the University of Otago in New Zealand in 1975 before joining Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) teaching staff. She then returned to Otago to earn a doctorate in physics in 1981, becoming the first woman to do so since the university was founded in 1869.

She also bucked trends in her chosen field. At UKM, she wanted to further explore the field of astrophysics. That time, the topic was almost foreign and she was discouraged by her head of department. 

“Instead, I focused on solar energy for three years since it was as close as I could get to the stars. There was no women leadership simply because women were not allowed to go on field trips with the guys. Sounds ridiculous now but it was true then.

“Still, I did not abandon my plan to teach astrophysics at UKM. I was informed there would be no grants, even no promotion. It was the biggest risk for me then.”

She credited her colleagues around the world for the help they extended while she was coming up with the programme.

“I did get my professorship before my head of department. You just have to follow your heart and find a way to get where you need to be.”

Among her earlier achievements was working with Pusat Islam KL to predict the new moon that marked the start of Ramadan and Hari Raya. 

“I could predict the new moon for the next 50 years but we needed to get other Asean countries on board. We had so many discussions.”

By then, she already made her name for herself in international circles, with research collaborations in Japan, Europe, US and Indonesia. 

But it was a comet named Halley that steered Mazlan to serve her country.

“Comet Halley was making a return after 75 years in 1986. Pusat Islam was very interested in helping me set up an exhibition, with a focus on the glories of Islamic astronomy. 

“I was also training for a marathon so while I was running, Halley was lighting up the skies.”


The exhibition caught the eye of the Prime Minister’s Department and Education Ministry. She was soon seconded to the PM’s Office to put together a paper to set up a national planetarium.

“It was about laying a foundation for astrophysics in Malaysia. It was also time for me to do something for the country.”

After the planetarium opened in 1993, Mazlan was made Director-General of the Space Science Studies Division, where she oversaw the microsatellite development programme. Her career trajectory was even more fascinating after that.

She was appointed by the then seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan in November 1999 to head the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), and reappointed by his successor, Ban Ki-moon, in 2007. 

UNOOSA is tasked with international co-operation in space, prevention of collisions and space debris, use of space-based remote sensing platforms for sustainable development, co-ordination of space law between countries, and the risks posed by near-earth asteroids.

In July 2002, she was appointed by then PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as the founding Director-General of Angkasa (Malaysia’s National Space Agency).She candidly told the audience about the various challenges she faced in her work, which was about putting the first Malaysian in space.

“Parts of the astronaut programme that relate to arts, culture, science and even food were deemed unimportant,” she said.

She was at Angkasa for five years.

Eventually, she returned to Malaysia under TalentCorp’s Returning Expert Programme. 
Since September 2017, she is serving as Director of the International Council for Science (ICSU) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Before she ended her talk, Dr. Mazlan has this to say: “Be rest assured - follow your heart and you will find the way!”
To learn more about work-life practices visit https://www.talentcorp.com.my/wlp or contact our team at worklifepractices@talentcorp.com.my. To find out more about the LIFE AT WORK Awards visit http://lifeatwork.my