Arab women in Stem: L'Oréal-Unesco fellowship announces winners

Emirati researcher Maryam Tariq Ahmed Khaleel Al Hashmi was one of the recipients this year

Maryam Tariq Ahmed Khaleel Al Hashmi won the 2020 L'Oréal-Unesco Fellowship for Women in Science, for her research on how carbon dioxide can be used in the production of plastics, solvents and cosmetics
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Maryam Tariq Ahmed Khaleel Al Hashmi wakes up every morning to help reverse global warming. On November 24, she awoke as one of three Arab laureates at this year’s International L'Oréal-Unesco Fellowship for Women in Science.

Female Arab fellowship winners

A postdoctorate researcher and assistant professor of chemical engineering at Khalifa University, Al Hashmi is working on demonstrating how carbon dioxide can be turned into building blocks for compounds used in the production of plastics, solvents and cosmetics. “The advantage is twofold: we remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing chemicals that our economies depend on heavily,” the Emirati says.

The two other postdoctorate research winners of the €20,000 annual prize are Lama Al Abdi from Saudi Arabia, for her work on chromatin and its connection to vision loss; and Isra Marei from Qatar, for her research towards the development of 3D vascular drug-screening platforms.

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It's important that we champion our women scientists and that we celebrate our champions. The UAE is on the right track, but we need more advocacy

In addition, three women PhD students received €8,000 each: Dana Zaher (UAE, for the role of metabolic reprogramming in the sensitivity of breast cancer to chemo and immunotherapy), Mina Al Ani (from the UAE, for research on therapeutic modalities for mice with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis) and Asrar Damdam (Saudi Arabia, for work on the heart sleeve, an assistive device).

Now in its seventh year in the region, the programme has recognised 3,400 researchers since its inception 22 years ago. This year, two previous laureates, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in genome editing. Three other L’Oréal-Unesco laureates have won Nobels in physics, chemistry and medicine. However, since the Nobel Prize was instituted in 1901, only 22 winners in these fields have been women – out of a total of 621.

Promoting gender equality in science

The L’Oréal-Unesco awards, then, seek to redress a significant gender imbalance in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively referred to as the Stem subjects. Although women now account for 53 per cent of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s graduates and 43 per cent of PhDs, just 28 per cent go on to research positions in their chosen field, shows data from the Unesco Institute for Statistics. Only in Southeast Europe have female researchers obtained parity.

Encouragingly, the Arab world fares better than the global average, with 37 per cent of research positions filled by women, but much more needs to be done, says Anna Paolini, Unesco’s representative to the GCC and Yemen.

“Across the Mena region, many women scientists are taking leadership positions and inspire younger girls to follow their steps,” she says, citing the example of the UAE’s Minister of State for Advanced Technology, Sarah bint Yousif Al Amiri. “There are women in high-ranking positions, but there are not a large number of them.”

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Most students in my class in forensic science, most of my staff, they're female

Paolini says this is partly due to a shortage of role models. “These jobs are not gender-sensitive, but there is a [gap] in reaching out to the young generation. It’s important that we champion our women scientists and that we celebrate our champions. The UAE is on the right track, but we need more advocacy.”

She adds that schools should develop mentorship programmes such that students can visualise a career path into research and development, that governments should showcase female scientists more, and that scientists themselves should spend more time talking about what they do.

In short, scientists need Instagram accounts. Paolini admits the group would rather spend time in a laboratory than on social media, saying: “We do need influencers to change behaviours and long-standing biases with regard to women pursuing careers in Stem fields.”

Some great science coming out of the UAE in the future: Habiba Al Safar

Geneticist Habiba Al Safar's research identifies how individuals of Emirati and Arab descent are predisposed to disease, particularly type 2 diabetes

Habiba Al Safar, a 2014 winner of the L'Oréal-Unesco fellowship, certainly gets requests to post more about her work on her social media feeds. The geneticist is something of a science superstar for her research on identifying how individuals of Emirati and Arab descent are predisposed to disease, particularly type 2 diabetes. Although her abiding interest is in non-communicable diseases, she has now pivoted to focus on the coronavirus.

The Emirati says her role model as a young girl was her grandmother, who raised six children as a widow but never had the opportunity to go to school. “Looking at [her] strength, it made me think as a girl, everything is possible.”

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"I do not think women leave Stem fields because of a [lack of] interest, but because they look at it from a short-term perspective and want quick solutions

Now director of the Khalifa University Centre for Biotechnology and an associate professor of genetics and molecular biology, Al Safar agrees that women are underrepresented in Stem, but says the UAE does better than many other countries in her experience. As a student – in the US, the UK and Australia – she was often one of only two or three women in a classroom full of men. “But here, it's the opposite. Most students in my class in forensic science, most of my staff, they’re female. There’s a lot of support from the government towards empowering women, but the culture also supports it.”

She also testifies – albeit with anecdotal evidence drawn from her own experience – to a spike in interest in research careers among women since the pandemic, and expects to see an expansion in research with new UAE visa policy prioritising scientists. “I’m getting a lot more requests from women who want to major in genetics and other careers since the coronavirus and the Mars mission,” she says. “With these migrating minds, as they call them, I think we’ll see some great science coming out of the UAE in the future.”

Meet the Emirati women of science

Habiba Al Safar

Director, Khalifa University Centre for Biotechnology and associate professor of genetics and molecular biology.

This summer, geneticist Dr Habiba Al Safar refocused her research on the novel coronavirus and its impact on humans. The 2014 winner of the L'Oréal-Unesco fellowship hopes to soon be able to demonstrate a link among diet, exercise and Covid-19 recovery times. “We find that people who have a high intake of fruit, vegetables and water, and those who exercise shed a high viral load in their stool,” she says.

A contributor to the World Economic Forum’s global agenda, Al Safar’s research so far has focused on the link between type 2 diabetes and the Emirati genome because the condition affects 11.8 per cent of adult UAE residents. “When I started out, there was a huge gap in the literature about diabetes and the Arab genome. Medicine is becoming more precise and personalised. With increasing knowledge, we can make better lifestyle choices, which can help prevent diseases. We do not need to wait until a disease takes hold and treat its consequences. However, we will eventually be able to develop an actionable plan to prevent or delay the consequences of disease and, in doing so, improve our quality of life as our life expectancy increases.”

Maryam Tariq Ahmed Khaleel Al Hashmi

Postdoctorate researcher and assistant professor of chemical engineering at Khalifa University

Al Hashmi’s core idea is to be able to convert waste material such as carbon dioxide into useful products so as to reduce cost and waste generation, while improving process efficiencies. Her research focuses on developing novel porous materials for emerging applications in catalysis and separations. Together with her team, the 2020 winner of the L'Oréal-Unesco Fellowship for Women in Science has developed novel ways based on the growth of several crystal types, instead of using expensive and environmentally harmful additives, to control the pore structure of catalysts to allow molecules to enter them and leave them easily.

The Abu Dhabi resident was drawn to science as a child, and wanted to become a medical doctor before realising she enjoyed physics, chemistry and maths more than biology, and so pursued a career in chemical engineering instead. She says she is motivated by Nobel laureates: “Not only because of their achievements, but also how they balance scientific research with family and motherhood. And yet, they manage to change the way people live. I hope my research will have a similar impact.”

Fatma Taher

Assistant dean for research and outreach at Zayed University, Dubai

Fatma Taher is the first UAE national to graduate with a PhD in engineering

In September, Taher was granted a US patent for her work on processing cerebrovascular medical images using magnetic resonance angiography. Possible applications for her research lie in the use of AI techniques to detect early lung and prostate cancer, in kidney transplants, autism and in the segmentation of the brain vessels.

The first UAE national to graduate with a PhD in engineering, Taher has published more than 90 international research papers. A 2017 L'Oréal-Unesco laureate, she believes the UAE has moved past the issue of gender in research. “I feel there is no gap. The number of female scientists we have is greater than male scientists,” she says, adding that women can be encouraged to stay in Stem careers with better incentives. Her suggestions are to “establish an attractive research centre with all facilities, a salary package and benefits” equivalent to those found at the same level in other fields.

Hanifa Taher Al Blooshi

Assistant professor in chemical engineering at Khalifa University

Hanifa Taher Al Blooshi, winner of the L'Oréal-Unesco Women in Science fellowship in 2016

The Ras Al Khaimah resident won the L'Oréal-Unesco Women in Science fellowship in 2016 for her research in designing a novel system for enzymatic biodiesel production. Green technologies and the valorisation of wastes are the main themes of her research. She has studied the use of bio-based catalysts to produce a fossil fuel alternative from oil-rich material, as well as considering how non-sustainable resources can be replaced with microalgae to cater to our energy needs.

Al Blooshi says female students do not need advice on choosing a career in Stem, but they do need to be encouraged to stick with their choice. “I do not think women leave Stem fields because of their [lack of] interest, but because they look at it from a short-term perspective and want quick solutions. Waiting for job placements can sometimes cause our graduates to lose motivation and look at business careers.”

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