Dr Elizabeth Lee: Navigating from uncertainty to clarity during the pandemic

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The Petri Dish team spoke to Dr Elizabeth Lee, CEO of Sunway Education Group on how Sunway University is navigating the pandemic and turning the tide against the pandemic. The CEO shares her visionary thoughts with MAHALETCHUMY ARUJANAN.

As the impact of the pandemic is felt extensively by higher learning institutions, one leader remains upbeat and motivated more than ever to transform the hurdles into futuristic opportunities. Dr Elizabeth Lee, CEO of Sunway Education Group with 17 institutions under her leadership has turned on her panic and uncertainty buttons to action and clarity. Lee is a well-known figure in the higher education circles in Malaysia for her non-traditional impact driven approaches. Sunway University is not only fully geared to face the pandemic but also embrace the disruptive changes in the future too.

Futuristic skill

“Entrepreneurial skills” is what a beaming Lee mentions first when asked how Sunway University plans to prepare its graduates to face any uncertainty brought by crises such as the current pandemic.

“I believe entrepreneurial skills are what will make our graduates resilient and agile. With these skills they can quickly transition from a salaried position to owning businesses, or help pivot the business models for the companies they work,” says Lee.

Sunway University was farsighted and had taken entrepreneurial skills very seriously way before the pandemic. International partnerships were built with Alibaba and Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology (SCET) in University of Berkeley, California. SCET’s partnership with Sunway University marks UC Berkeley’s first collaboration with a Malaysian entity.

“With this partnership, Sunway University’s faculty and staff will have tremendous networking opportunities in Silicon Valley”, says Lee about SCET support in developing the university’s entrepreneurial programmes.

The university also offers the Alibaba Business School’s Global e-Commerce Talent (GET) Programme where students who complete Part 1 are recognised as part of the GET Network that gives access to a global community of digitally minded people. The University’s Innovation Labs (Sunway iLabs) is heavily involved in both the SCET and GET programmes.

It looks like Sunway University is buzzing with entrepreneurial courses as well as other short courses where participants come funded by Ministry of Finance. Sunway iLabs’ initiative, the Sunway FutureX Farm is a testament to the University’s entrepreneurial approach to finding solutions to global challenges. As Malaysia’s first urban farm innovation hub, it hopes to serve local communities through the farm to table concept. Prior to this, 20 acres of land in Sunway Banjaran, Ipoh have been repurposed into an urban farming innovation hub for organic food production in 2019.

Lee believes these initiatives will develop game-changing entrepreneurs and innovators, especially in preparing them for any disruptive changes in the future.

 Teaching and learning in the New Normal

In the rapidly changing global environment, Lee believes academic curriculum alone is not enough to face the disruptive changes. She is a strong believer of empathy, creativity, communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence and ability to work across demographic lines.

“We need to tell people that it is alright to be uncertain. The world is full of uncertainties. We are like new-borns finding our way, moving ahead with new knowledge, learning new steps along the way”, says Lee about students upskilling and reskilling.

Lee also affirms that e-learning has its advantages as students have direct access to the lecturers from their own homes. The e-space also creates more opportunities to interact especially for the more introverted students. Sunway University laboratories are open for research activities but to limited number of students and strict SOPs so that important research for the solutions of tomorrow are not affected.

Lee sees the challenges as opportunities where graduates could venture into fields outside their training, explore more and think differently as long as they learn to manage their expectations.

Sunway University also takes mental health and emotional challenges seriously. It has a team of trained counsellors and a 24/7 hotline.

Asked if the e-learning platforms are here to stay even after the pandemic, Lee says, “the new education models are revolutionary but what is important is to have real-time interaction and this can be F2F or online.”

In this aspect too, Sunway University has been exemplary and farsighted. The first tuition-free coding school, 42KL was launched in July this year. The 42 campus will break the norms by not having classrooms, teachers, and tuition-fees. The model is based on peer-to-peer learning where students will focus on current industrial challenges to make the digital leap as tech entrepreneurs and developers.

42KL is modelled after 42 Ěcole in Paris and another in Silicon Valley.

The vaccine race

The interview is not complete without knowing if Sunway University is eyeing the current hotbed of COVID-19 vaccine development given its collaboration with world class medical players. One centrepiece is the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre at University of Cambridge. This centre is home to the Cambridge Medical Research Council Stem Cell Institute, the Cambridge Institute for Immuno-therapeutics and the Milner Institute of Therapeutics. The centre has the largest Level 3 containment facility in the UK and is a critical platform that bridges between clinicians and scientists.

Closer to home, the Centre for Virus and Vaccine Research under the School of Medical and Life Sciences focuses on pathogenic viruses and vaccine and antiviral development. Sunway Medical Centre is also the home to a Sunway Clinical Research Centre that was established in partnership with University of Cambridge and the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation. This is a buzzing research centre where scientists from University of Cambridge and Sunway University conduct clinical research.

Lee also touched on an area that has been underestimated or ignored for long – the involvement of social scientists in scientific research.

“Mental science is one area we need both scientists and social scientists working together very closely. We have strong research in this area through our Department of Psychology at Sunway University. Priority on COVID-19 research should not neglect other key areas in healthcare,” beams Lee.

With all these developments, Lee ends with a positive note saying there are plenty of opportunities for young Malaysians who wish to get into a research career either at Sunway institutions here or Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah’s initiatives around the world.