SMART, focused, determined and enterprising are words that describe Dr Jezamine Lim to a tee.
A medical doctor by training, the 33-year-old beauty has wowed the nation by being the first female doctorate candidate in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) to be awarded a PhD in stem cells and tissue engineering.
What makes the feat more admirable is that along the 6½-year process, she was managing the career of her husband — actor, host and comedian Harith Iskander — and had also given birth to their three children: Zander Xayne Iskander, 5; Alessandrea Jayne Iskander, 4; and Zydane Xayne Iskander, 2.
Not one to do anything by halves, Jezamine said her doctoral journey would not have been a successful one if not for the unwavering support of her husband and family as well as the drive and discipline instilled into her since young.
“I went to Methodist Girls’ School in Klang, Selangor. At 14, I joined the national junior taekwondo team and I was juggling professional sparring and school. I had limited time for studies so my parents drafted a study schedule that I had to follow — what and when to study, with emphasis on mathematics. My father is Chinese so he was very particular about me doing well in math,” said Jezamine who is of Chinese-Indian parentage.
“After I injured both my ankles, he made me stop participating in taekwondo and it was then I concentrated 100 per cent on my studies.”
Her father also emphasised the importance of getting into science stream in upper secondary school.
“My dad instilled this mentality into me: study hard, aim high and get into science stream if you don’t know what to do about your future. If you want to fall back on the arts, you can do that any time. But the science stream has more options.”
Though she floundered a bit at the beginning, with interest and determination, Jezamine said learning science subjects became easy for her.
“The resources are all there in school — even public schools. You just have to use them,” she said, adding that it is up to oneself to go that extra mile. You can’t wait to be spoon-fed. To learn, you must take it upon yourself to seek extra knowledge.”
And this dictum resonated again when she went to medical school for four years in India as part of her MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery) programme at the Melaka Manipal Medical College.
“There the competition was so fierce and resources scarce. In a not-so-conducive environment, everybody fought to succeed. It was my mother’s wish that I pursued medicine and my parents sacrificed a lot to fund my degree — my mother is a dental technician and my father is in the import-export industry. I realised then I better get serious and pull through,” said the eldest of two siblings.
And pulled through she did.
By following her mother’s wish for her to pursue medicine, Jezamine said she was playing it safe as she viewed a medical degree as a launching pad to explore the various facets of the medical science industry.
“I did well in college and I came back to serve at a public hospital. But there came a point where I wondered about other options which the medical degree offers. I talked to veteran doctors and medical directors, and researched the medical industry. I found out that stem cells and tissue engineering are up-and-coming fields, but mostly overseas. The nearest place with clinical facilities that researched into stem cells and tissue engineering was in Singapore. I was already married then and I didn’t want to leave the country,” said Jezamine.
So, she sought the opinion of Monash University Malaysia’s Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Khalid Abdul Kadir, the former director of UKM Medical Centre, and also consulted Tan Sri Dr Ridzwan Bakar, the cardiologist attending to Harith’s late mother.
“I had this vision of growing organs in a lab but I was newly married and I didn’t want to leave my family. And I was trying to find my voice professionally in the medical field.”
Jezamine then met UKM Tissue Engineering Centre (TEC) founder Professor Datuk Dr Ruszymah Idrus. TEC is devoted to exploring the capability of translating tissue engineering and regenerative medicine into new medical therapies. And as luck would have it, the centre had just started the stem cells and tissue engineering master’s and doctoral programmes.
So, Jezamine applied to join the master’s programme and was accepted with Dr Ruszymah and TEC head Associate Professor Dr Angela Ng Min Hwei as co-supervisors. But it was not an easy start for Jezamine.
“I knew I wanted to research stem cells but I didn’t know which. I cultivated all the stem cells that I could find in the first nine months. Then I realised that I wanted to focus on Wharton’s jelly, a gelatinous substance within the umbilical cord from which stem cells can be extracted.”
Dr Ng then offered a conversion of her master’s programme into a PhD course. “I had no intention of pursuing a doctoral course when I joined the programme. But as I only had one child then, I agreed to the conversion,” she said with a grin.
And two months after the conversion, Jezamine found herself pregnant with her second child.
For her doctoral programme, Jezamine had to do everything from scratch — from finding her way around the lab to locating specimens for research, taking samples and making the medium for growing the cells.
“The programme is designed to train the student to scientifically study and report findings in a research topic in the tissue engineering field. While my supervisors guided me, I had to find out things for myself.
“I worked on my doctoral course full-time but felt that I did not have enough time. It was so much work. I started as early as 7am at the labour wards at UKMMC and asked patients to donate umbilical cords. I had to explain to each donor what I wanted to do with the specimens.”
And lab work is nothing like medical school.
“I divided the umbilical cord, which is about 30cm, into three segments: maternal, middle and fetal. In the lab I tried to differentiate the stem cells to bone. I wanted to find out the best segment to be differentiated to bone. With the results, if you have a hairline or displaced fracture, you can implant the cell and it will grow. But it is allogeneic meaning another person’s umbilical cord stem cell can be implanted into another individual. Our goal is to make umbilical cord stem cells off the shelf like blood.”
But lab work is unpredictable.
“You never know whether the cells are going to survive. The next thing you know, when you come back to the lab the next day, they could have all died. I repeated my experiment 20 to 30 times. Some of them never survived, some got contaminated. Even the first batch of my lab animals died. So when that happens, you start from scratch.”
Jezamine had medical students under her, who were required to do research and publish in journals as part of their bachelor’s degree requirement.
“I myself had to publish papers in at least two journals. My articles were published in four journals.”
Jezamine drew up a tight schedule for studies and lab work, and yet have time for business, and not compromise family.
“I never took a day off in the 6½ years of the doctoral journey, not even the three times I went through confinement. I breastfed my three children for at least a year each. And on weekends, I bulk-cooked meals for them. I kept tabs on them throughout the day through phone calls and have people who took care of them jot down their activities in a journal. I have a journal for each of my children.
“Harith was instrumental in helping me keep things together by being with the children when I was working at the lab or writing my thesis. He also listened to every problem and issue pertaining to the course even though he might not have understood everything.
“Sundays were especially important during the period as it was the day dedicated to the family. After a breakfast together, we took the children out for two hours or so. Then I would write for four hours straight, after which I took a break to exercise. My kids would join me.
“And then after dinner, when the children had gone to sleep. I continued with my writing.”
Jezamine passed her viva for her thesis Wharton’s Jelly Stem Cell as an Allogenic Cell Source for Bone Tissue Engineering for Pre-Clinical Proof of Concept earlier this year and received her doctoral degree last month at UKM’s 45th convocation ceremony.
She wants to translate the research into clinical work and start on commercialisation.
“It is important this happens as research should always be skewed towards contributing to society. I hope to play my role in contributing towards the growth and development of TEC.”
She intends to apply her knowledge of stem cells and tissue engineering to skincare in her role as Yakin Medic chief executive officer and co-founder.
“I plan to expand on stem cells-related items or rather secreto protein-based formulae. The medium in the labs has a lot of nutrition which is beneficial. I plan to extract the nutrition, apply it to skincare at the
A model since she was 16, Jezamine knows the ins and outs of the world of business. And she is not new to marketing skincare products as she has had the experience in college of selling facial serums and masks online through forums to places as far as Dubai.
“There is so much to science. A medical degree is worth a lot. If there are too many general practitioners now, it is our job to do something else. You can’t just sit there and wait for your turn for housemanship to happen.
“Medical science is a huge field. Start something new in medical business. Doctors are the best people to do this. We should know better than businessmen.
“Medical students should go outside campus and get in touch with people to gain experience and insights.”
And for doctoral candidates, Jezamine has this to share: “My doctoral journey was not all about studies but also the people who helped me along the way — from my supervisors, hospital security guards who helped me with parking and nurses at the labour ward who gave me the heads-up on available umbilical cords to the woman who cleared up my workstation and had coffee ready for me every day.
“Don’t keep to yourself. The people around you will help you grow during the journey and push you towards success. Show your commitment and they will help you.”