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Beirut Conference Awards Arab Women in Science

posted on: Oct 19, 2011

A fellowship program recognized and awarded nine Arab women US$20,000 to continue their research as part of an effort to encourage women in scientific pursuits under the slogan “World needs science. Science needs women.”

The L’Oreal-UNESCO Pan-Arab Regional Fellowship for Women in Science, managed by the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, accepts fellows from 17 Arab countries. It presented this year’s awards at a conference in Beirut on 4 October.

Dr. Nabil Saleh, head of the jury that chose the winners, spoke about the importance of the competition.

“Women in the Arab world are generally underprivileged,” Saleh said. “The fields of science and technology are often the pulse of development, and in the Arab world, women are obviously missing in the forefront of these fields.”

Saleh said he believes women are held down by social expectations.

“Women are expected to be mothers and wives first and foremost, and yet 50 percent of science professors in Egypt are women,” Saleh said, explaining that women need to prove more than men to get funding for their research.

Shahenda Mahmoud al-Naggar, the Egyptian fellow from the group, researches at the “57” Children’s Cancer Hospital on Qasr al-Aini Street. Her progress in brain tumor cancer stem cell differentiation led her to seek funding and apply for the fellowship. With her research, Naggar is working on a way to keep brain tumor cells from replicating and spreading cancer to other areas of the brain and body. She plans to use the fellowship money for equipment for her lab.

Jordanian winner Lubna Tahtamouni is also working on cancer treatment. With breast cancer the cause of 35 percent of cancer fatalities in Jordan, Tahtamouni felt her research was best spent on finding a cure or a way to slow down the spread of this disease.

Tahtamouni chose to look more closely at the drugs used in cancer therapy, which not only kill cancer cells but also adversely affect the digestive system, kill hair cells and deplete bone marrow. By investigating the effects of lower dosages, Tahtamouni hopes to find the perfect formula to slow breast cancer cells and keep them from migrating out of the breast.

“If the dosage change works and the cancer remains solely in the breast, we can target the cell in charge of migration,” Tahtamouni explained.

Tahtamouni returned to Jordan because she wanted to inspire women.

“Of the 80 students in my undergraduate class, 71 were women,” Tahtamouni said. “But only three of those 71 went on to do a master’s and only one went on to do a PhD.”

Hind Mohamed Abu Shama also looked locally for her research. The winning fellow from Sudan, Abu Shama researches diseases like schistosomiasis (bilharzia), a potentially fatal waterborn disease that affects people in rural areas.

“Bilharzia is a threat to Sudan’s most productive group in society, which in turn is a huge blow to the economy and the welfare of Sudan’s citizens,” Abu Shama explained. “Twenty-four million are at risk.”

Abu Shama is looking at the disease from a genetic perspective, as some people seem to be resistant and even immune to the disease.

“Genes are flexible and yet rigid,” she said. “As we get closer to finding out which genes in the Sudanese population are responsible for this immunity, we should be able, through gene therapy, to immunize others as well.”

Lebanese fellow Zeina Hobaika took a more global approach with her research on a cure for AIDS. Hobaika is looking more closely at Raltegravir, a drug used to stop a molecule in the virus called integrase that is responsible for the virus’s ability to integrate into the body.

“AIDS therapy is very expensive, and making Raltegravir more efficient, we can bring down the cost and make the therapy more accessible to those who need it,” Hobaika said.

Her biggest challenge: keeping up to date.

“Developments in AIDS research are in constant motion, and if I don’t read and research what is going on in the rest of the world, it is very easy to fall behind.”

For some fellows, the struggle hasn’t only been scientific – being female has added obstacles to their paths.

“We are built to withstand different roles,” Abu Shama said. “I have to be able to take care of my responsibilities as a wife and a mother along with the responsibilities of my research.”

Naggar agreed, noting that family was a major factor in her decision to return to Egypt. While Hobaika believed that she faces little adversity for her gender and much more in her research itself, Tahtamouni said society and law enforcement in Jordan often question female scientists about their late nights at the lab.

Abu Shama concluded: “Women are able to adapt easily and they don’t like to fail; if you have discipline and stay organized, you will be able to give time and energy to every important part of your life.”

Salwa Baasiri, secretary general of UNESCO Lebanon, pointed out that women make up more than 50 percent of the educated potential of the Middle East. She believes the Middle East will flourish with scientists like those emerging now.

“Women are an essential part of development,” Baasiri told Al-Masry Al-Youm, “and science is a key to peace and strategic strength.”

Dr. Abdullah al-Najjar was optimistic as well.

“This is a true ‘Arab Spring’ of women,” he told the audience during the ceremony, “and we need companies like L’Oreal and organizations like UNESCO to support these women.”

Najjar said that fellowships like this and support for women in science will set new standards in the region.

“Women are now finding their ‘place’ in society,” he added.

Alexandre Popoff, managing director of L’Oréal Africa, Middle East and Latin America, spoke about the bond between France and Lebanon and about the importance L’Oréal sees in women and science.

“Women remain underrepresented in higher scientific research,” Popoff said.

At the end of the event, Dr. Lelia Fayad, president of the Educational Center for Research and Development, representing Dr. Hassan Diab, said during the event: “Every woman here has earned this reward as a result of the hard work she has done and her perseverance and determination to succeed in presenting useful research for society. You are a beacon for other women, an inspiration for men, and it is with individuals like you that our society can rise to higher levels.”

Nevine El Shabrawy
Al Masry Al Youm