Penangite made Professor of Global Health Oxford

Penangite made Professor of Global Health Oxford

Cheah Phaik Yeong refuses to be celebrated as the first Malaysian to be installed as a professor at Oxford University, saying it is probably not true.

The assumption that she is the first is natural if one were to go by an article by Dr Masliza Mahmod, another Malaysian at Oxford. Writing last year, before Cheah became a full professor, Masliza said her colleague was the first Malaysian to be made an associate professor at Oxford.

“No, no, I’m not the first,” Cheah said. “Oxford University is very big and very old. It’s very kind of Dr Masliza, but I don’t believe it.”

She told FMT she was sure other Malaysians had preceded her as professor at the 925-year-old institution.

Masliza is Oxford’s associate professor of cardiovascular medicine. The article she wrote quickly went viral last year.

Cheah, 47, was elevated to professor of global health on Dec 6 as part of Oxford University’s 2021 recognition exercise.

Born and bred in Penang, she is a bioethicist with the university’s Nuffield Department of Medicine.

She currently heads the Bioethics and Engagement department at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) in Bangkok, Thailand. She has been with the unit since 2008.

At MORU, she researches and works with vulnerable members of society like women, children, migrants, the disadvantaged and disenfranchised on ethical issues.

Recalling how she got into Oxford, Cheah said it began with a job as a research support associate with the university’s clinical trials and research governance service.

She applied for the opening in 2006 while working at a private lab in Kuala Lumpur as a clinical research associate after getting her PhD in pharmaceutical sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2002.

Oxford gave Cheah a one-year contract from March 2006. After a year of service, she was given the university’s merit award and her contract as a senior researcher in the same unit was extended for another year.

After two years on Oxford’s campus, she applied to be in MORU, Oxford’s hub in Bangkok, where research on tropical medicine is carried out. She was made head of the clinical trials support group in 2008.

She was at MORU for seven years. In 2015, she was awarded a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in bioethics at the Catholic University of Leuven, Radboud University and University of Padova as part of the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus joint masters scholarship.

In 2016, Cheah returned to MORU in her current role as bioethics and engagement head, focusing on carrying out health research ethically with underserved populations and engaging with communities.

She grew up at Hutton Lane

She grew up at Hutton Lane here. Her father, Cheah Eng Wee, was a British Malayan Tobacco marketing executive. He died in 2015 at 76.

She studied at the Island Girls’ School and St George’s Girls’ School before going to USM.

Cheah said she last came back to Penang in September and her favourite pastime was cycling around the island on her old bicycle. She would often stop for hokkien mee.

Her other favourite food is roti canai. “I miss my time in USM, going out late at night with my course mates to mamak shops to have roti canai,” she said.

Her mother, Anna, a retired journalist, beamed with pride at her eldest daughter’s achievement and wished her husband was around to witness her ascension as an Oxford professor.

“I’m mighty proud,” she said. “I’ve been grinning all night. Phaik Yeong is very driven. Even on Chinese New Year, she would be busy doing her homework before collecting her ang pow.

“I wish my husband were alive to see this.”