03/11/2020  •  8 mins read

The Leading Ladies of Formula One™

 

Premilla Mohanlall

Two scientists. One engineer. All with illustrious careers in motorsports. Let’s meet three leading ladies of the PETRONAS F1 think tank, who share with us how they race against time in their laboratories for the MercedesAMG PETRONAS team to continue its winning streak on the Formula One™ track. 
​​​​​​​

They are the force behind the research and development (R&D) teams developing the Fluid Technology Solutions™ that have helped propel high performing Mercedes racing cars and drivers to victory for six years in a row, since 2014.

 

Introducing

 

Dr Shahidah M Shariff_0.jpg

Dr Shahidah M Shariff, who studied applied chemistry and joined PETRONAS in 1987. She is now the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of PETRONAS Research Sdn Bhd. She also has the distinction of being the first Malaysian and first Asian woman to be made an International Fellow of the American Chemical Society.

Dr Mahpuzah Abai_0.jpg

Dr Mahpuzah Abai, a chemical engineer who joined PETRONAS in 1995. She is now the CEO of PETRONAS Technology Ventures Sdn Bhd, and is credited for bringing PETRONAS Fluid Technology Solutions™ to the international arena. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry

Dr Mahpuzah Abai_0.jpg

Dr Geetha Srinivasan, a chemist who started working with PETRONAS in 2008, and now leads PETRONAS R&D Programmes. She gained recognition for inventing novel additives for lubricants with her team and transforming from lab to track on a fast-track basis. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and has been recognised by as one of the 175 Faces of Chemistry by the society.

FLOW held a panel with these three women who are pushing boundaries in the male-dominated motorsports community, and emerging as leaders and thinkers that are equal with their male counterparts.

​​​​​​​These are some of the highlights of the discussion.

Question: How did you enter the world of motorsports - by chance or by design?​​​​​


Dr Shahidah: I can trace it back to the time when I started working in fuel and lubricants more than 20 years ago in PETRONAS. So, when PETRONAS partnered with the Mercedes-AMG team in 2010, I had the knowledge to explore further – to fuel up the fluid for F1 races.

I consider my entry to motorsports as not something that occurred by chance or by design. It is about knowledge already embedded in me that needed to be repurposed for another scenario.


​​​​​​​ Dr Mahpuzah: My entry to motorsports was entirely by accident, and I must thank PETRONAS for that. I had no interest in engineering, but PETRONAS offered me a scholarship to do an engineering degree. That is how it all began. What I learned in engineering has enabled me to adapt to the world of motorsports, and support PETRONAS to achieve its many successes on the track.


Dr Geetha: My journey into motorsports is a chemistry journey. I am a chemist by training working with different materials across chemistry until 2017, when it became a different story. Suddenly, I found myself involved in this exciting new project, learning about automobile parts, engine parts and Lewis Hamilton somehow becomes the hero of my life.

 

Q: Growing up, were you interested in cars or motorsports?


Dr Shahidah: I love all kinds of sports, and watched F1 races all the time on TV, even before my adventure with the real thing began. I used to follow Michael Schumacher and celebrated his triumphs. It is exciting now to play a big role in the sport and to see our drivers occupy the same podium space where he once stood.

 

Q: Were there many women working in the industry when you started out?


Dr Mahpuzah: Not really. You see women, but they are not acknowledged for their contributions. In the past five to ten years, however, this is slowly changing.


Dr Shahidah: Ten years ago, the only women at F1 races were mostly tasked with carrying umbrellas on the track. You seldom see them working on the track or off it, in laboratories and with formulations like we are doing now.


Dr Geetha: You could count them with your fingers, whether it is in PETRONAS, Malaysia or other parts of the world. At motorsports shows then, women were showcased for their beauty, to sit in costumes and pose in front of cars. I think that was the representation of women in motorsport for a very long time. But now, we are sitting as women talking about science and engineering.

"It is all about the knowledge you have and the performance you deliver. To excel, you have to forget about this gender business. It is not about being women or men."

DR SHAHIDAH M SHARIFF
Q: Any role models, mentors who led the way for you?


Dr Mahpuzah: Throughout my years in PETRONAS, my mentors have been predominantly male leaders. My current boss, Dr Nasir Darman, Chief Technology Officer at PETRONAS Group Research and Technology, has been a good mentor to me and has helped me a lot in my current responsibilities. Dr Shahidah has also been one of the woman mentors that I have had throughout my career.

​​​​​​​

Q: You have entered a male bastion. Was it difficult to break through? Any challenges along the way?


Dr Geetha: I don’t think we need to think of men as opponents. We should work with them. It is all about empathy, and to understand that there is a biological difference between how people function in terms of the male and female brain.

I suppose it is about looking within ourselves and applying it directly to what we do. It is up to us to overcome challenges that come our way. No one can really stop you. Of course, you need to navigate policies, guidelines and rules. Women, in general, have to work with themselves to break barriers.


Dr Shahidah: It is all about the knowledge you have and the performance you deliver. To excel, you have to forget about this gender business. It is not about being women or men. When we are under pressure, all of us have to work late. There are no boundaries about staying back late. After 30 years of marriage, my husband knows this is my norm, and it does not change anything.


Dr Mahpuzah: I would like to add that it is about complementing each other. You should not be thinking whether the person is male or female when you need to get work done. It is about talent. But there have been times when some men used to think that when a woman goes home, she has other things to handle. For me, such challenges can be overcome by showing them that we can do it all, just like they can.


Dr Geetha: There can be challenges though. It is like in a family, where you need to get along with your father, brother, husband or son. We need to understand how to get our message across to them. There can be some challenges to face in this regard. It is not always nice and tidy.

In my experience, I think women do a lot but how we express ourselves becomes restricted. For example, we do this much, but we do not express it as much. Men, on the other hand, have been expressing themselves without restrictions since forever

​​​​​​​

Q: To whom or what do you attribute the success you have achieved so far?


Dr Shahidah: I think it is working for PETRONAS for many, many years. I also think my success is the result of the great team effort at PETRONAS. You cannot achieve anything spectacular when you work alone or in silo. I have a great team that works on formulations. We don’t see boundaries between chemists, chemical engineers, production chemists from upstream, men or women. When we work together and combine our brain power, I believe nothing is impossible.


Dr Geetha: Chemistry with engineering solutions together can come up with a good product. It is not just chemistry alone. Even with the F1 car, there is synergy between what we do and the engineering parts that Mercedes provides. It is about synergy and teamwork. We cannot stand alone. ​​​​​​​

"I would think that motorsports are the best way to test our green technologies, green fuels and green lubricants before we go on a big scale. The F1 race track is our best testing ground. If our technologies work under such high performance and high pressure conditions, it then can be applied to a wider range of uses."

DR MAHPUZAH ABAI
Q: In your job, do you get to meet the Who’s Who of motorsports?


Dr Shahidah: Yes, if you mean Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Nico Rosberg. We need to work with these celebrity race drivers, to find out what kind of performance they want to achieve. We also go onto the field to see how our products perform. We attend some races, but are selective about it. Initially, it was exciting, but now it's just part of the job. And no, we don’t attend the after parties. We get back to work immediately after a race.


Dr Geetha: I am not as experienced in motorsports yet, and have not met any of them. Then again, is it necessary to meet these people in person to get the chemistry done? I don’t think so. I get inspired just to know our chemistry works, functions, rides and wins.

​​​​​​​

Q: What are some of your most exciting moments?


Dr Shahidah: I take every day as an experience. I love meeting people, and over the years, I have formed lots of friendships and engaged with many of my peers, not just in PETRONAS Research but also outside in Mercedes and other collaboration partners. We collaborate with many international and Malaysian universities. These are opportunities to go out to meet people and enjoy different experiences. This way, I find myself learning all the time. For me, this is very interesting and exciting.


Dr Mahpuzah: My most exciting moment is to have our fluid technology used in a race, and also to finish the race safely. Winning is even better. Moving forward, it is about how we are going to use this technology for the rest of the world, that is, commercialise it for passenger cars. We are already looking at this, and that is going to be the next excitement for me.


Dr Geetha: As a chemist, I find it exciting to see a new chemical designed and then slowly moving to commercialisation. It is one of my more fortunate experiences to see our additives functioning within a short period. It took us three years to invent our additives; the industry norm is about 10 years. We did it in one third of the time, that’s exhilarating.


Dr Mahpuzah: We are now going to do it even faster from now on. We are also racing in the lab to achieve this. ​​​​​​​

"Chemistry with engineering solutions together can come up with a good product. It is not just chemistry alone. Even with the F1 car, there is synergy between what we do and the engineering parts that Mercedes provides. It is about synergy and teamwork. We cannot stand alone."

DR GEETHA SRINIVASAN
Q: Nightmare moments, if any?


Dr Mahpuzah: Not so much nightmare moments as trying moments - catching up with deadlines. It is all about the pace – of getting the technology ready for the race we are targeting. That’s also the very spirit of the sport, racing to get the best technology applied safely, racing to win, isn’t it?
 

Q: There is a lot of talk of motorsports going greener. What are your views on this?


Dr Shahidah: This is definitely the way forward for us and the industry. The PETRONAS Statement of Purpose is also rallying us to move into a sustainable future. The company has colour coded our shift towards a sustainable future – from grey (fossil fuels) to blue (low carbon) to green (zero carbon).


Dr Geetha: Chemistry-wise, it means shifting from anything that is carbon containing, to low carbon containing, to no carbon containing (that is hydrogen), to electrons that are the purest form of energy.


Dr Mahpuzah: From the company’s strategic standpoint, I would think that motorsports are the best way to test our green technologies, green fuels and green lubricants before we go on to a big scale. The F1 race track is our best testing ground. If our technologies work under such high performance and high pressure conditions, it then can be applied to a wider range of uses. ​​​​​​​

 

"Moving forward, it is about how we are going to use this technology for the rest of the world, that is, commercialise it for passenger cars. We are already looking at this, and that is going to be the next excitement for me."
Dr Mahpuzah Abai

 

Q: What is your aspiration for motorsports and your professional development in the industry?


Dr Shahidah: For me, it is to know that we are all working towards one goal: to win the race. So, it does not matter whether your work in a lab, in formulation, or with the pit stop crew. There must only be one thing in our mind: winning.


Dr Mahpuzah: I completely agree about working to achieve our shared goal.


Dr Geetha: My aspiration is for the industry in general, and to pin it down to motorsports. I would prefer a future that is called clean rather than green, where sustainable chemicals use renewable energy that is based on natural sources. There is an industrial revolution happening as we speak, that is transforming the way things are made. When we narrow this to our own industry, we are looking to stretch it beyond oil and gas, and become an energy solutions partner. That is our goal. This will then automatically flow into motorsports, which is just one part of the bigger picture.

​​​​​​​

Q: What more can be done in Motorsports?


Dr Shahidah: A woman F1 driver will be nice.


Dr Geetha: I applaud that. There are very few women on the track, and among them is PETRONAS' very own Stephanie Travers who tests all our fluids out there.

​​​​​​​

Q: As a parting shot, what is your advice to young people wishing to enter this industry?


Dr Shahidah: Go for it. Nothing should stop you from achieving your dream. To me, it is about working hard, being passionate and aspiring to be the best.


Dr Geetha: We started from zero – if we can do it, so can you.​​​​​​​

“Three of us are all fellows of international professional bodies. Dr Shahidah is an International Fellow of the American Chemical Society, while Dr Mahpuzah and I are Fellows of the Royal Society of Chemistry. To be elevated from a member to fellow means global recognition of our substantial contributions to our chosen fields of study.

In general, there are not many representations in these societies from Asia, and even fewer women.

I consider Dr Shahidah’s International Fellowship as unprecedented and a source of pride. She is the first Malaysian and first Asian woman to be conferred this award. The American Chemical Society is one of the world's largest scientific societies and for them to elect her as an international fellow means that her contributions are exceptional.”​​​​​​​

Dr Geetha Srinivasan

Other Recommendations
24/06/2021 • 7 mins read

Going Big With Gig Economy

19/12/2019 • 7 mins read

Leading the Way in Cancer Research

10/06/2020 • 8 mins read

Sustainability Taking Centrestage