Around the world, more women are working in previously male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Meet the Arab women working in science for the advancement of humanity.
There is a chronic shortage of professional women working in sciences the world over. The traditionally male-dominated fields have long proven resistant to women’s participation. According to Dr Maha Al Mozaini, director of immunocompromised host research at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh, there are a number of factors that limit the number of women participating in scientific fields, including “biases, social norms, and expectations.” With women’s traditional societal obligations to their family and children, not to mention the conventional male-centric nature of the sciences, it is perhaps no surprise that women in general, and especially Arab ones, given the primacy of the family in Middle Eastern cultures, are underrepresented in the sciences. However, according to Dr Lama Moussawi, associate dean for research and faculty development at the American University of Beirut, “more and more women in the Arab MENA region are equipped with knowledge, skills, and abilities.” Throughout the Arab world, women are increasingly embracing science, choosing to study and work within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industries or at academic institutions.
Currently, the limited number of women working in STEM fields lines up with the fact that women are less likely to participate in regional economies. Dr Moussawi says, “Arab women’s participation in the economy is 33.3%, compared to the world average of 55.6%. In STEM workplaces, those numbers are extremely low, ranging between 10% and 20%, the lowest in the world.” That said, with the increasing number of women studying STEM subjects – 30% of female students worldwide choose STEM-related fields of study, according to a 2017 Unesco report – intiatives like the American University of Beirut Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership for Women are helping to drive change by focusing on sectors such as the sciences, healthcare, banking, and higher education – as these trailblazers across the region show.
Dr Najat Saliba
The 2019 Laureate of the L’Oréal-Unesco for Women in Science Awards for Africa and the Arab states is a professor of atmospheric and analytical chemistry at the American University of Beirut. Dr Najat Saliba’s work focuses on assessing the levels and transformations of pollutants in the air and on developing new chemical analysis methods. She has overcome various challenges working in Lebanon, including funding issues and a lack of regional recognition. “We have witnessed individual and isolated efforts to promote and support women in science and other fields of research, but we have not seen a change in governmental strategies to promote the work of women in the various research fields,” she shares. Her grit and determination are clear when she comments, “Science is a way of life. Women entering the field need to own what they choose to investigate and the subject matter needs to become an integral part of the person’s life.” Alongside her internationally recognized work, Dr Saliba mentors a large number of young women and hopes to help nourish a love of science among the women of the region.
Dr Rana Dajani
As a professor of molecular biology at Hashemite University in Zarqa, Dr Rana Dajani is “the world expert in the Circassian and Chechan populations; we study these two populations from all aspects: anthropology, epidemiology, and genetics,” says Dr Dajani. She also studies the impact of war on refugees, investigating whether the trauma can be transmitted across generations through the maternal line. “This cutting-edge research will impact how we understand the interaction between environment and genetics,” the Fulbright scholar alumna and former fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University says. Dr Dajani was a lecturer before moving to the US to pursue her PhD studies. Her husband resigned from the Jordanian Air Force and her family moved across the world. To further science in her own country, Dr Dajani developed a mentoring program called Three Circles of Alemat (Tca.jssr.jo), a loose pairing of mid-career scientists who support each other at the personal and professional level. She is also founder of We Love Reading, an NGO that encourages a love of reading in children and which has established hundreds of libraries across Jordan.
Dr Suhad Abdulrahman Yasin
With a PhD in polymer/nanofiber application for use in water treatment and purification from industrial chemicals, organic material, and heavy metals, Dr Suhad Yasin is working towards a cleaner future. “Since 2018, I have been working on a fully funded research program by Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research administered by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as a principal investigator,” she shares. Dr Yasin’s project revolves around the removal of hazardous materials from aqueous solutions using nanofiber membranes. “This project is the first of its kind in Iraqi Kurdistan and the laboratory is also the first in the field of nanotechnology. This project aims to open a door for women to encourage them in the nanotechnology field,” she says. Dr Yasin is a strong advocate for women in science. “I believe that women in science are a priority, specifically within Middle Eastern feminist movements. I hope I can one day become an influencer and an example for younger women and students. I truly see a bright future for science in Iraq; we simply need a push and support.”
Dr Maha Al Mozaini
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
The scientist at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh holds a PhD from Harvard Medical School and specializes in immunosuppressed patients and infectious diseases. Dr Maha Al Mozaini is also the founder of the first HIV/Aids laboratory in Saudi Arabia and a true pioneer who has won a host of awards, including being named a Pioneer in Science at the Arab Health Global Awards in 2019. Her team has worked on various projects regarding HIV and Covid-19, including a low-cost, fast-testing system. Like many women in the region, Dr Al Mozaini has overcome a variety of challenges in the pursuit of her vocation. “There are several factors that might face women in a STEM career, such as biases, social norms and expectations, and that influence their opportunity,”she says. There are challenges ahead, too, but Dr Al Mozaini is optimistic. “We each need to do what we can to quicken the pace and move forward. We must strive to do more than provide the resources women need to succeed; we must create an environment that empowers them to use those resources – without apprehension and fear.”
Dr Saba Al Heialy
United Arab Emirates
Dr Saba Al Heialy is an assistant professor of immunology at Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dubai and an adjunct professor at McGill University in Canada. In 2019, she was honored as an International Rising Talent in Africa and the Arab states at the L’Oréal-Unesco for Women in Science Awards. She focuses on immune responses in obesity as it relates to other respiratory diseases, such as asthma and Covid-19. “When the pandemic started, I was immediately drawn to the data showing that obesity leads to more severe outcomes such as increased mortality rates in Covid-19 patients,” she says. Dr Al Heialy and her team found that obesity is associated with “higher expression of the receptor,” which may explain the increase in severe outcomes in obese patients. “If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that as a scientific community, both men and women are needed. The perfect example is that of one of the leading vaccines against Covid-19 was developed jointly by a man and a woman,” she says. “However, there continues to be many challenges that women still face today, including cultural norms and values and socioeconomic issues that hinder the progress of their careers.”