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Middle East’s Women in Science

Five women from the GCC honoured for their groundbreaking research in the fields of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Computer Science.

Five women from the Middle East became recipients of a prestigious award that recognizes the contributions of female scientists to the field. The LOréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program is empowering women to make a difference in society, focusing on three areas: scientific research, inclusive beauty, and climate action.

Since 1998, the program has encouraged women to participate in solving the challenges of the present times. Nearly 4,000 women researchers from over 110 countries and regions have benefitted while the younger generation of women has been inspired to pursue science as a career.

In its ninth year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Middle East Regional Young Talents Program, in partnership with the Khalifa University of Science and Technology, has honoured five women from the GCC for their groundbreaking research in the fields of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Computer Science.

The award-winning researchers received a grant of EUR 8,000 and EUR 20,000 towards furthering their scientific work to address critical global issues. Since its inception in the region, the program has recognized 45 researchers from the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Hessa Ebrahim Ali Alfalahi (UAE)

What is the focus of your research and the purpose behind it?

I am more than honoured that my research on the early detection of depression and Parkinson’s disease using novel deep-learning methods has received the L’Oréal-UNESCO for women in science grant. In this endeavour, I aim to develop a platform for detecting neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression and Parkinson’s disease using smartphone data collected in the wild. I am genuinely very hopeful, that by representing data from middle-east ethnicity groups, collected in the UAE, we will be able to design an unobtrusive diagnosis platform for neuropsychiatric diseases that have a significant negative impact on patient’s quality of life and we will also overcome the social stigma associated with being diagnosed with disorders affecting brain function, reflecting mainly on emotional and cognitive aspects of patients’ function.”

What advice would you give to encourage women in the Middle East to consider a career in science?

“I would like to deliver my vision to the next generation of young great-mind women about the importance of undertaking an active role in scientific development in the Middle East and the UAE. This is key for the development of our nation. I am very faithful that we have the capability to reach world-level scientific discoveries, which is already reflected now by the Middle East-affiliated publications and patents we come across in the literature.”   

Dr. Raefa Abou Khouzam (UAE)

What is the focus of your research and the purpose behind it?

“The focus of my research is enhancing treatment strategies in pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer is among the deadliest types of solid tumours. As per the GLOBOCAN 2020 cancer statistics, even in the Arab world, pancreatic cancer is responsible for nearly 9’000 deaths. New treatment modalities are desperately needed for the better management of this disease. In the work at Thumbay Research Institute for Precision Medicine, GMU, we are trying to tackle two drivers of pancreatic cancer aggressiveness. The first is a mutant KRAS protein which gives cancer cells the ability to divide uncontrollably and is affected in more than 90% of pancreatic cancer patients. The second is a condition of low oxygen or hypoxia that is a feature of the tumour microenvironment. Hypoxia contributes to tumour adaptation and evasion of cell death, as well as resistance to therapy. By simultaneously targeting mutant KRAS and hypoxia, the aim is to reverse their cancer-promoting effects and eliminate pancreatic tumour growth.”

What advice would you give to encourage women in the Middle East to consider a career in science?

“I would advise anyone with even an inkling of scientific curiosity to give this field a chance, for as much as it is challenging, it is rewarding, and in no way impossible. Find your passion for science, grow, and nurture it, and know that by putting in the time and effort, success will surely follow. Even with the smallest discovery, you get to positively contribute to the knowledge and well-being of humanity. There are few careers that can give such triumphs, and by being in one you would be committing to a lifelong pursuit that never gets boring and that is rooted in teamwork, and in sharing of ideas and discoveries. There are so many amazing scientists working in the region who can give you the help and support that you might need on the way to finding your inner scientist and establishing a successful career.”

Dr. Maha Zakariya Yahya Al-Riyami (Oman)

What is the focus of your research and the purpose behind it?

“In my research, I study different aspects of diabetes in general, but one of my main interests is Type 1 diabetes. This form of diabetes is an autoimmune disease caused by the immune system attacking the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, resulting in their destruction. Type 1 diabetes is a serious disease. It can develop at any age, but it mainly affects children. For these kids, an exogenous insulin supply is necessary for their survival and is usually in the form of multiple daily injections or an insulin pump. Although intensively studied, type 1 diabetes’s underlying mechanisms are still not fully understood, and the known genetic and environmental factors do not explain it all. All of this makes research aiming to understand the causes of this disease highly important. In one of my projects, I am continuing my Ph.D. Project in investigating the potential contribution of somatic (spontaneous, non-inherited) mutations in causing Type 1 diabetes.”

What advice would you give to encourage women in the Middle East to consider a career in science?

“A lot of women in the Middle East are already pursuing a career in science. But my message would be to emphasise on the importance of scientific research on the development of humanity and the progress of societies. Moreover, it has a great benefit for an individual as it increases the researcher’s knowledge and fills his or her curiosity and creativity. My message for young women is to be ambitious, and hungry for knowledge. And to enjoy their passion for science and to always believe they have something to contribute to the field.”

Dr. Fatiha M. Benslimane (Qatar)

What is the focus of your research and the purpose behind it?

The research is a project that aims to develop a fast, reliable, and cost-effective protocol for microbial analysis that will allow for real-time diagnosis. A key objective is an accessibility; any biomedical laboratory should be able to implement the protocol. The inception of the project was motivated primarily by recent global health events, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Monkeypox outbreaks. The burdens and challenges that were experienced by the health sector and diagnostic laboratories highlighted that methods for rapid detection of infectious agents are critical for better patient prognosis. Currently, in clinical settings, a traditional microbiology laboratory can take anywhere from three to seven days to produce results, with false negatives common when antibiotics are used. This has prompted us to devise a low-cost protocol that has the potential to reduce detection time to 5 hours.

 What advice would you give to encourage women in the Middle East to consider a career in science?

“It might be a rough path with a few obstacles here and there, but good things never come easy. My advice to any woman aiming for a career in science is that your hard work will pay off, so chase after what you are passionate about with all of the power that you have.”

Ayesha Abdulla Alkhoori (UAE)

What is the focus of your research and the purpose behind it?

“My research is focused on the development of catalysts that convert carbon dioxide (CO2) to useful chemicals and fuels, specifically methane (CH4) gas. Catalysts are substances that speed up a chemical reaction or lower the temperature or pressure required to start one. They are added to the chemical process to facilitate a reaction, without being consumed. The catalysts which I prepare in the lab are green and eco-friendly materials with a high performance-to-cost ratio. The main motivation is converting CO2 as a greenhouse gas to alleviate global warming and provide a solution for the energy depletion crisis. As the world economy needs to keep going, technologies need to be smarter, more efficient and reliable while maintaining the balance between reliability and affordability. In the context of energy decarbonization and diversification of gas supply, the production of methane from captured CO2 using renewable electricity is one essential pillar that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

What advice would you give to encourage women in the Middle East to consider a career in science?

“My advice to any woman is to follow her passion in life. If you want to pursue a career in science, do not hesitate, just go for it. Be persistent, and do not give up on your dreams. Seize the opportunities that come your way. Seek mentorship if you ever feel lost, find someone who listens, coaches and comforts. No matter what you attain in life or how far you reach, always stay humble and remember where you worked your way up from. Share your knowledge, help others, and be an active member of your society. Also, do not forget, you will not do a great job in every situation, especially when you are just starting a new project or job. Failures are nothing but part of success, and through failure, you will only get to know yourself better and discover your limits. Take the lesson, develop it, and aim further. Just give it your best and keep a good attitude and spirit in everything you do.”


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