Kanyawim Kirtikara

color = "#B693B5"; Profile: Kanyawim Kirtikara A young scientist leads Thailand’s premier biotechnology organization with a mix of passion and practicality. By Klomjit Chandrapanya © Tatree Saengme-Anuparb Friends and family members tell Kanyawim Kirtikara, the head of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), that she has changed since she became the leader of the country’s premier

Klomjit Chandrapanya
Jan 12, 2010

Profile: Kanyawim Kirtikara

A young scientist leads Thailand’s premier biotechnology organization with a mix of passion and practicality.

© Tatree Saengme-Anuparb

Friends and family members tell Kanyawim Kirtikara, the head of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), that she has changed since she became the leader of the country’s premier biotech research institute in mid-2008. “They all say I’m much more willing to negotiate than I was before,” the 46-year-old geneticist-turned-policymaker says wryly.

Kanyawim joined BIOTEC in 1998 after receiving a PhD in genetics from the University of Connecticut and spending post-doctoral stints studying oxidative stress in a fungus and complex regulations of genes involved in prostaglandin synthesis. After only seven years on the research bench at BIOTEC, she was promoted to director of the group’s Central Research Unit in 2005. A few short years later, she rose up to head the entire organization.

For someone who...

© Tatree Saengme-Anuparb

Friends and family members tell Kanyawim Kirtikara, the head of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC), that she has changed since she became the leader of the country’s premier biotech research institute in mid-2008. “They all say I’m much more willing to negotiate than I was before,” the 46-year-old geneticist-turned-policymaker says wryly.

Kanyawim joined BIOTEC in 1998 after receiving a PhD in genetics from the University of Connecticut and spending post-doctoral stints studying oxidative stress in a fungus and complex regulations of genes involved in prostaglandin synthesis. After only seven years on the research bench at BIOTEC, she was promoted to director of the group’s Central Research Unit in 2005. A few short years later, she rose up to head the entire organization.

For someone who once loved nothing more than being in the lab and left alone to concentrate on her projects, Kanyawim now finds her days filled with meetings and balancing the needs of her scientists, collaborating with other institutions, and leading an organization quite different than the one she grew up in as a researcher.

BIOTEC was established in 1983 under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Energy. It later became one of the scientific centers under the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), operating outside the normal framework of civil service and state enterprises and acting as a funding agency as well as an implementing agency with its own labs. In 2006, NSTDA introduced a cluster-based approach to its operations to foster closer cooperation among government, academia, and the private sector.

“I feel like sometimes people don’t even think about biotechnology as a possible solution to problems they’re working on,” Kanyawim notes, adding that government line ministries, in particular, are too constrained by their year-to-year annual budgets to fully utilize their assets for science. Even with their treasure trove of accumulated knowledge gathered from country-wide branches and young staff sent abroad to learn new technology, they might not be able to invest enough on infrastructures to support these people when they return. “That fire they have can just die out pretty quickly,” says the young and energetic Kanyawim.

Being the head of BIOTEC means Kanyawim has to spend a good amount of time dealing with not terribly science-savvy politicians, but she has developed a positive approach. “I just try to see them as who they are: literally representatives of the wider population that are not science-literate, and it is my duty to interact with them and educate them that science is valuable,” she says.

Despite the challenges, Kanyawim believes Thailand’s reputation as an up-and-coming biotechnology player is well earned. The country might not be able to invest in scientific equipment and other infrastructures as lavishly as other countries, but its wealth lies in its accumulated knowledge, she maintains

“In addition to our rich biodiversity, we have so much knowledge from long years of research in the country. Our breeders and researchers in government agencies or universities have collected so many different breeds of animals and types of plants. So, when we work together and apply new technology into these resources, we can really speed up the learning process,” she says with conviction.

Being so young in a position with term limits, Kanyawim is looking forward to a long career back in her lab at the end of her tenure. She says administrators of research centers like BIOTEC need to have done scientific work of their own to understand the researcher’s spirit, which she believes is like an artist’s. “Without creativity, there won’t be anything new in science.”

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