Saudi biotechnologist Hayat Sindi is one of Saudi Arabia’s most notable scientific exports. The inventor of a host of technologies designed to make medical diagnostics more accessible, her work has made a difference worldwide.
Marking International Day of Women and Girls in Science at Expo 2020 Dubai, Dr Sindi said women need to be encouraged to choose careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Women in science should never be sidekicks or inferior to their male counterparts,” she said from the Saudi pavilion of the international event. She added that Expo 2020 has provided an opportunity to cast light on the prejudices and stereotypes women face.
“Underrepresentation of women in science is a global issue and it’s not confined to the Arab world,” she said.
Dr Sindi received a degree in pharmacology from King’s College London in 1995 and went on to become the first Arab woman to earn a doctorate in biotechnology from Newnham College, University of Cambridge.
She has also carried out extensive laboratory work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and University of Cambridge.
Dr Sindi recalls how her father always supported her in the face of a society that told her that men are the breadwinners.
Receiving her primary education in public schools in Makkah, Dr Sindi said she grew up seeing men dominating science, from Persian mathematician and astronomer Muhammad Al Khawarazmi to Albert Einstein.
“I used to ask my father, ‘are they really human beings?’” she said. “I just felt I didn’t fit. I always aspired to have female role models.
“This narrative put women off, worldwide. My father was a great man who always encouraged me to think and supported me fully when I told the family about my ambition to travel in 1990s and pursue my dreams in science abroad.”
Dr Sindi said women have outperformed men in several key areas that have benefited humanity.
“For example, Stephanie Kwolek invented the fibre used in bulletproof vests, which saved lives in many forms,” she said, referring to the Polish-American chemist who died in 2014.
In 2007, she served as the director of Diagnostic for All, a non-profit initiative that creates low-cost diagnostic devices designed for use in the developing world.
In 2012, Unesco recognised Dr Sindi for her work in creating an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and social innovation for scientists, technologists and engineers in the Middle East. She was then named a Unesco Goodwill Ambassador.
She has promoted social innovation and scientific progress as a way to create a better quality of life for the most deprived.
In 2018, she was listed as one of BBC’s 100 Women, an annual announcement that celebrates the most inspiring and influential women from around the world.
She said she will soon launch a project in Riyadh to give every young scientist, technologist and engineer in Saudi Arabia and beyond the opportunity to fulfil their potential, regardless of their gender, as well as help countries in the developing world with scientific and educational infrastructure.
Women role models in the Arab world are not in short supply today, Dr Sindi said.
“Today we see women who are leading engineers and technologists, who are not dealing with science as boring stories but they do science to benefit their societies,” she said.
“For instance, when you tell young girls about MRI, this sounds boring, no? But you engage them when you tell them the benefits of this scanning technology, which has enabled doctors to rightly diagnose by screening any part or tissue of the body.
“We see women who want to develop solar systems in the developing world, women who want to be biotechnologists to help farmers. This drive is on the rise compared to the past decades when few women flourished in science.”
Asked whether the Arab world will produce its first woman Nobel laureate anytime soon, Dr Sindi said the prize is not the only recognition of excellence or outstanding achievements and should not be a target in itself.
“This shouldn’t be a target because the selection has many factors around it. So many amazing scientists around the world haven’t got it,” said Dr Sindi.
Her best advice to aspiring young scientists? Never give up.
“We need to eliminate fear in our children and adopt the ‘you can’ culture. Give them a purpose for the science they learn and do. I cried many times. I felt stupid many times. It’s OK,” she said.