Malaysia’s first astrophysicist, Othman has a history of working in the advancement of science and a distinguished career which includes Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs from 2010-2014, and founding Director General of ANGKASA, the Malaysian National Space Agency from 2002-2007. She took up the ICSU ROAP Director role in September this year.
“Having had a fulfilling career in the space sector, I was looking for an opportunity to serve in the larger context of science,” Othman said after her appointment. “ICSU’s compelling vision and mission are in line with this aspiration.” She added, “I am particularly excited by the prospect of ICSU’s merger with the International Social Sciences Council as everything I have done in the past in a leadership role necessitated the integration of the natural and social sciences to solve global challenges.”
When discussing her ambitions for ROAP, Othman spoke highly of existing programmes like supporting regional efforts on natural hazards and disaster risk. “I am keen to put into full force the programme of INGSA Asia,” Othman said. “This is an exciting platform for getting countries in the region to be more aware of the importance of science to inform policy. In this context I will pay special attention to Least Developed Countries, not only in policy matters but to encourage them to be more engaged with ICSU and benefit from its work.”
Born in Malaysia, Othman studied Physics at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand on a Colombo Plan Scholarship where she also later took her Ph.D. in Astrophysics. Othman was the first woman awarded a doctorate from the Physics Department in the nearly 120 years since its founding.
Returning to Malaysia, Othman taught at the national university, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), and established undergraduate and post-graduate courses and laboratories in astronomy and astrophysics. She has secured a reputation for her efforts to build public awareness for astronomy and space issues, and was active in introducing space science into the Malaysian school curriculum; a goal that was realised in 1990.
In 1990 she was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Department to direct and design the construction of the national planetarium, Planetarium Negara, that opened in 1993. She then became Director General of the government’s new Space Science Studies Division where she launched the National Microsatellite Programme that led to TiungSAT-1 – the first Malaysian microsatellite that was completed in 1997 and launched by a Russian rocket in 2000.
From 1999-2002, she was Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in Vienna. Upon returning to Malaysia, she was appointed as the founding Director General of the Malaysian National Space Agency (ANGKASA). The country’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor reached the International Space Station in 2007.
Othman was reappointed as UNOOSA director by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in 2007. During her second term, she established the Basic Space Technology Initiative (BSTI) aimed at instituting capacity for basic space technology in developing countries.
Othman has been actively engaged with the Academy of Sciences in Malaysia (ASM) for several years, becoming a senior fellow in April 2016. Othman has been a visiting professor at the PERMATA Pintar Genome-to-Space Programme in Malaysia since 2017. Among other positions, Othman has served as a member of the COSPAR Scientific Advisory Committee since 2014, and as a member of the Advisory Board for the UN Space Generation Council since 2016.