Wan Iryani Wan Ismail
Universiti Malaysia Terengganu
AsianScientist (May. 18, 2022)– Our love of honey spans as far back as the start of ancient human civilization. From finding unspoiled jars of honey in Egyptian tombs to ancient Greek recipes for honey cakes and mead (also known as honey wine or ambrosia), honey has been one of nature’s most well-known sweeteners. It has also been used medicinally by the ancient Egyptians as a wound dressing and ointment.
The versatility of honey has been a fascinating topic for many scientists, and Professor Wan Iryani Wan Ismail from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) is looking into the many health benefits of honey. Her current research looks at the benefits of consuming pure honey in regulating blood glucose levels and maintaining a healthy body weight. At the same time, Wan Iryani is also delving into the murky underbelly of counterfeit honey producers and their economic impact on local beekeepers in Malaysia.
Her work on discovering the anti-obesity benefits of honey has won her the 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship for Women in Science National Award. Speaking to Asian Scientist Magazine, Wan Iryani reveals her research achievements and shares her advice for future scientists.
1.How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
Discover and understand the medicinal effects of natural products (e.g. honey) using holistic research approach.
2. Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
My research about honey and beekeeping has opened many opportunities for me to do various types of research using a holistic approach.
I have studied the medical effects of local honey. Our study found that the authenticity of honey is crucial in displaying its medical effects, especially as an anti-obesity agent. Using honey analysis, we differentiated pure and fake honey in our study. We discovered that pure honey significantly reduced excessive weight gain, and levels of glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides. In contrast, fake honey significantly increased all these parameters. We also found that the long-term consumption of fake honey can induce toxicity effects to the liver and kidneys.
I have also tried to understand why fake honey is available in the market. One of the main reasons, as my survey showed, is that the supply of pure honey is not enough to cater to the market demand. Moreover, fake honey is cheap and easy to produce compared to pure honey. In order to solve the problem, I’ve collaborated with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry (MAFI), the Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) to increase the supply of pure honey by enhancing beekeeping activity in Malaysia. We conducted many workshops, trainings, and talks to train as many beekeepers as possible. Since 2014, the initiative has produced about 1000 beekeepers across Malaysia. That has not only increased the production of honey but also improved the income of beekeepers, who mainly come from low income background, and are single mothers.
In order to maintain the authenticity of honey, I have been involved as a chairman of a national working group under the Department of Standards, and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) to produce the first Malaysian Standard (MS2683:2017) and guidelines to check the authenticity of honey.
I was appointed by MAFI to produce a 10-year strategic plan for the beekeeping industry from 2020 – 2030. In addition to the research, I have managed to commercialize one of the bee products known as bee bread as an energy bar. The bee bread is neglected by beekeepers because they think it has no commercial value. But our research showed that the bee bread contains high nutritional value and could be formulated as an energy bar product. We managed to patent the product and commercialize it under the name of Bee Ready.
3. What do you hope your research will accomplish in the next decade?
I hope that our local bee products, especially honey can be recognized worldwide with high medicinal effects and supported by scientific evidence.
4. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
My husband, Dr. Izwandy Idris. He is also a lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. I felt like giving up so many times because I received many challenges. People, even scientist colleagues, didn’t believe in my research and sometimes even laughed at it. It was very difficult to convince authorities, and I received threats from the fake honey producers.
5. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
Receiving threats from fake honey traders. I never thought that as a researcher, I would experience something like that.
6. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I received a few offers to become a teacher and even as a firefighter!
7. What do you do outside of work to relax?
I love listening to music, watching a movie, reading, drawing, taking photos and doing outdoor activities such as cycling, hiking, enjoying nature and travelling.
8. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Do research beyond the laboratory and the academic world. Help people and create a better world. In research, anything is possible. Be open-minded, humble and stay positive. Never give up. There is no shortcut to success. Do the right thing using your expertise to help other people. One day, your efforts will pay off, even bigger than your expectation.
This article is from a regular series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Wan Iryani Wan Ismail.