“Research is research, but I also want to develop students”

Photo: Vibeke Hempler

In March 2019 water pollution was discovered in the river Sungai Kim Kim in the city Johor Bahru, Southern Malaysia. The source was identified as 20-40 tonnes of oil waste illegally dumped into different parts of the river. Most likely, a nearby marine engineering or petrochemical factory wanted to save money and dumped waste that was supposed to be handed and disposed safely.

The incident provokes chemical engineer Dr. Mohd. Kamaruddin Abd. Hamid, researcher and lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).

“I don’t want chemical engineers that have this kind of mentality. So, a big task for me as a lecturer here, is not only to produce the best and most talented academic students, but also students with good ethics. We need to talk about ethics, and we need to consider the environment and have a human touch on whatever we do,” he says.

Dr. Kamaruddin is a specialist in process design of chemical plants. In short, how to organize the production of chemical compounds, so the output can have the optimal balance between output, environmental requirements and economy. If the production is economically feasible, the factories will not be tempted to bypass the law, as in the case of the Sungai Kim Kim river.

Why Denmark

In 2007 to 2011, Dr. Kamaruddin and his wife, who is also a chemical engineer, both went to Denmark to do their PhD project at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). It had been quite a process to find the right place.

Both were eager to continue a career in research, and therefore, needed to find research projects that made sense for them academically. That did not turn out to be the biggest challenge. The most difficult part was to find a place where they could attend the same university and same campus, and that was their main criteria.

“When you have a family, the family needs to be close. We had a kid, so we had to consider this kind of constraint,” Dr. Kamaruddin explains.

Even though they had chemical engineering in common, their fields were quite different. Dr. Kamaruddin works with theoretical problems and develop computer-aided models for chemical process design. His wife, Dr. Norozana Ibrahim, specializes in production of renewable energy from biological waste, which requires facilities for physical experiments. Read more about Norazana Ibrahim and her research Bio-oil from Flash Pyrolysis of Agricultural Residues.

“We tried several universities around the world. First we got an offer from the university in Western Australia. But they didn’t have a supervisor for my wife. Then we tried the UK. None of the universities in UK could provide a programme for both of us,” Dr. Kamaruddin tells.

By chance, a professor at DTU (Prof. Rafiqul Gani) visited the UTM. He was a friend of Dr. Kamaruddin’s former supervisor (Prof. Arshad Ahmad) and this opened up for a discussion of the possibility of doing his research PhD in DTU. As it turned out, the department also had high expertise on renewable energy, and contact was made to the professor in charge of this area, who turned out to have a project the fitted perfectly to Dr. Norazana Ibrahim. And by that, they were bound for Denmark.

Read more about the challenges for Malaysian students when studying in Denmark in this article.

Finding the best process design

In order to manufacture a chemical product on big scale, a factory needs to design and develop a production process that is robust and makes sense both environmentally and financially.

“It is basically about how we design a system – a chemical process, that is controllable. In order for us to design it, we need to simulate a chemical process which reflect or mimic the real plant,” Dr. Kamaruddin explains.

First stop to do this is to create a computer-based simulation model.

Chemical reactions that are influenced by many parameters as pressure, heat and damp, and in a chemical production plants these parameters influence each other. So the purpose of Dr. Kamaruddin’s research was to develop a methodology for uniting many chemical reactions and integrate this methodology into a software program. The software he developed – called ICAS-IPDC, can support the engineers who are in charge of designing a chemical plant in finding the optimal system for the specific plant.

By experimenting with the figures for input and output, the simulation can predict different scenarios, so the balance between profit, use of energy and waste can be found.

“We need to consider these criteria to find a balanced trade-off. If the process we want to design is not satisfying for several of these criteria, then there is no need for us to develop and install this kind of process,” Dr. Kamaruddin explains.

Sometimes the criteria work together. Waste can be reduced by recycling, so unreacted material can be send back to the reactor, and will reduce cost. Also the heat and other forms of energy can be used in other parts of the process and make the system more profitable.

However, the most important factor is that the system is robust, so it has to be tested for unexpected disturbances, for example, if the reactor suddenly gets very hot or a slightly different raw material is added.

“You don’t want to have a process where you have the highest energy saving, but it is not operational.”

The importance of supervising

In Dr. Kamaruddin’s office has a big whiteboard. It has a schedule of every hour of the week. The name of several PhD students are written into the schedule. The whiteboard is a visible result of his time at DTU.

“In Denmark, they have a system that monitor the students and their progress. I had a weekly meeting with the supervisor, and it was obligatory. It didn’t matter whether I had a problem or not. A meeting was a meeting,” he says.

This, Dr. Kamaruddin thinks, helps keeping students on track, so they don’t get lost, and so they will finish on time. Even when there is not really anything academic to discuss, it is important to meet to secure that everything is progressing as planned. Or maybe the planning needs adjustments.

This is why he brought this supervising system back to his own university. Now, as a professor and a lecturer he supervises several PhD students. Every student must meet him once a week to discuss their work.

What does his Malaysian students think of that?

“Well. Students are students. They want to make it easy. Sometimes they don’t see this kind of benefit until at the end. But this is the one thing I experienced in Denmark and DTU that I implemented here. Because this work. That is why most of the DTU students have graduated within three years with the PhD, because of this kind of culture with weekly meetings,” he says.

The majority of his own students graduate on time in contrast to the typical Malaysian PhD students who might linger on for quite a while before they turn in their final thesis.

“If they are sponsored by my research grant, then three years is three years. But if they have their own sponsor, I can give them some flexibility. Some of the scholarship may have extended four or five years.”

Fell in love with teaching

Not only supervision was an eye opener during his stay in Denmark. Also, the teaching methods and the general trust in the students was quite new experiences, which Dr. Kamarrudin brought back home. Especially, how teaching can be done, so students do not only deliver content, but also get a deeper understanding of the society they act within.

Looking specifically at teaching methods is something quite new at UTM. Since 2010, the Center for Engineering Education (CEE) has offered courses in engineering education and generally try to encourage young lecturers in UTM to implement teaching methods as for example Problem Based Learning (PBL), Active Learning and Cooperative Learning. The Center is led by Dr. Khairiyah Mohd-Yusof. Read more about the establishment of the center in this article.

Dr. Kamaruddin has been heavily involved in the courses called Student Centered Learning.

“I’m not an expert in these kind of teaching method, but I fell in love with this. So I studied a lot of types of methods in teaching. These days knowledge is easy. You can google and find anything. So the content is not a problem. The problem is how we nurture our students, the younger generation. That has become the major challenge now. That’s why our teaching method is not only about teaching content. We need to develop professional working skills like team working, cooperation and critical thinking,”

It is all part of being a lecturer and a supervisor. To educate the young generation to have a more holistic approach, so disasters as the pollution of the Sungai Kim Kim river can be prevented. And it all begins with the teaching methods and the supervision.

“The most important thing for a supervisor, is not just keeping the progress of the student. You also need to motivate them and try to look at their social life and show that you care. Sometimes, I use my own my money to treat lunch for them. As a supervisor you don’t only need to take care of the research. Also the human. You need research with a human touch.”

Berit Viuf is a Danish science journalist; the interview was conducted during a reporting trip to Malaysia and Thailand