17 February 2022

New Zealand-trained astrophysicist receives top honour in Malaysia

People & Culture

A former international student to New Zealand, astrophysicist Dr Mazlan Othman, has received a top honour from the Malaysian king in recognition of her lifetime service to the space industry. 

She was awarded the prestigious Commander of the Order of Loyalty to the Crown of Malaysia, by Sultan Abdullah at his annual Honours ceremony. It carries the title of Tan Sri, one of the highest federal titles, and is only held concurrently by 250 living recipients. 

Dr Othman studied physics at the University of Otago in the 1970s and returned for post-graduate study in the 1980s, becoming the first woman to graduate from the university with a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics. She then went on to forge a remarkable career in the male-dominated space industry.  

Colombo Plan Scholar 

Dr Othman came to New Zealand on a Colombo Plan scholarship. The Plan, a forerunner to our modern development assistance programmes, aimed to promote economic and social development in Asia through education and training.  

Having fallen in love with physics as a teenager in the 1960s, Dr Othman didn’t discover astronomy or astrophysics until she arrived in Dunedin to study for her PhD in 1974.   

“There were very few books available at that time and there was not much interest here in Malaysia, but it was very different in New Zealand,” she says. “Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon in 1969 was a very significant event, but I didn’t think at that time that I would have space as a career. Not in a million years.” 

Studying in New Zealand opened a world of opportunity for the young, Muslim scholar. Not only did she make a career in the space industry, but she became a leading authority, being appointed the Director of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs in 1999, and the founding director of Malaysia’s National Space Agency in 2002. 

She acknowledges it has been challenging at times. “It’s been a hard road because I’ve had to start everything from scratch. There was no set path to get to where I am today.” 

Working to promote science and technology 

She says her role at the UN was less about science, and more about diplomacy and politics. “How to balance one country’s requirements against another’s. Bringing people to the table together, even if they don’t agree, to try and agree on how to proceed. The other aspect of the job was to see how we could use space to enhance the development of developing countries, especially in science and technology.” 

It is mostly her work at home for which she has been recognised by the King. As Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, Dr Othman was instrumental in introducing astronomy and space sciences into school and university curricula, advised the Government on space matters, was the driving force behind the National Planetarium in Kuala Lumpur, initiated the country’s National Microsatellite Programme, and headed Mega Science 3.0, the ambitious project to transform Malaysia into leading global player in science and innovation by 2050. 

Justice and fairness in New Zealand education  

But it all started as an international student in New Zealand, a time Dr Othman remembers as being both liberating and rewarding. “I particularly loved the egalitarian environment of the university, and that reflected wider New Zealand society.”  

“There will always be a role for New Zealand in supporting education internationally through its cultural perspective on science,” she says. “There is no hierarchy in New Zealand science – professors treat their students as equals and encourage them to challenge and ask questions. That approach has stayed with me through my career.  

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