Updated on 5 February 2013
Prof Yuthavong, who has a keen interest in broad issues of public policies, especially concerning application of science and technology, says much of his experience at Biotec and the NSTDA qualified him for the ministerial role. He was offered the job of Thailand's science and technology minister by the Prime Minister soon after the political upheaval of 2006 that led to a military coup and overthrowing of the Thaksin Shinawatra-led government. "My previous records in helping to promote science and technology, right from the efforts to form the Ministry of Science, Technology and Energy in 1979 to the formation of Biotec and the NSTDA, probably helped in his decision of choosing me as the minister of science and technology," he says.
He believes his background as a scientist and an administrator helped him understand the requirements of government policies related to science and technology and allowed him to assist in translating the technical details into policy. "In my work as the minister, I focused on building strategic collaborations with other ministries such as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (which I served concurrently as acting minister for four months), Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Ministry of Public Health, and the private sector," he says. He was instrumental in bringing about a number of policy changes in the field science and technology, including policies regarding GM crop trials and a National S&T Innovation Law.
The fight against malaria
Prof Yuthavong and his team have successfully developed the country's first indigenous drug to combat malaria. Talking about the inspiration behind the work, Prof Yuthavong says it was a combination of both wanting to solve an important problem of Thailand and of the world and "showing the society that basic science works for human benefit in the concrete sense". The team started with basic biochemistry of malaria in 1974 and went on to study drug targets, including dihydrofolate reductase, in the 1980s, and got the X-ray structure of the wild-type and mutant enzymes in 2003.
They synthesized a number of compounds of which P218 was the most promising one. "The team has got support from Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) for development of P218 and is now moving into pre-clinical and clinical trials," he says.
Dedicated to a life of research
Prof Yuthavong, who loves music, says he tries to play violin and cello in his free time. "These pastimes convince me that not every one can do well in all areas. You have to have some gifts, and nurture them," he says, which somewhat explains his zeal for research.
His role model is his uncle, late Dr Puey Ungphakorn, who was the Governor of the Bank of Thailand and also the president of Thammasat University. His major contributions to the Thai society were in shaping the country's economic success during the 1960s and in helping the country move towards democracy in the 1970s. Dr Yuthavong says he draws inspiration from late Prof Stang Mongkolsuk who convinced him to become a science scholar rather than a physician, in his professional life and looks up to Nobel Laureate Prof Paul Boyer, with whom he has worked, and whose style of research he appreciates a lot.