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Women Changing the Face of Science in the Middle East and North Africa
Morocco's first humanoid robot, called "Shama." Prof. Hajar Mousannif led the team of researchers responsible for the robot's creation. (Courtesy)

Women Changing the Face of Science in the Middle East and North Africa

For International Day of Women and Girls in Science, four inspiring women scientists tell their stories

Despite making up a little more than half of the globe’s population, women remain underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In fact, a 2017 UNESCO report found that only 35 percent of STEM higher education students globally are women.

However, those numbers are significantly better in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where women account for nearly 50% of the STEM student population.

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, held annually on February 11, The Media Line reached out to four inspiring women who are changing the face of science in the region.

Making Morocco’s First Humanoid Robot

Prof. Hajar Mousannif has the distinction of having helped build the first Moroccan-made humanoid robot.

Mousannif, 39, is a professor and coordinator of the Data Science Master’s Program at Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, Morocco. On the forefront of artificial intelligence (AI), Mousannif’s team of researchers last year unveiled Morocco’s first robot, called “Shama.”

Hajar Mousannif is a professor of computer science and data science at Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco. (Courtesy)

In 2020, Mousannif won the WomanTech Global AI Inclusion Award, which honors women around the world who are leaders in AI innovation.

“In developing countries especially, it’s not common to see women excelling in such fields because it’s usually a male world so [the award] meant a lot to me,” Mousannif told The Media Line. “It opened the door to fruitful collaborations.”

For example, last month the US-based company FotaHub announced that it would invest $100,000 to help with the creation of a more advanced version of Shama.

In addition to her groundbreaking work in robotics, Mousannif is involved in a number of other significant initiatives, including using AI to help health officials craft efficient measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, as well as a project in collaboration with the Moroccan government aimed at improving road safety.

“Our team of researchers succeeded in developing algorithms that predict road crashes before they occur just by analyzing driver behavior,” she said.

In recent years, a growing number of Moroccan women have entered STEM university programs. In Mousannif’s data science master’s program, for instance, roughly half of all the students are women.

“In Ph.D.s the story is different,” Mousannif said. Ph.D. students, she added, “are 23 or 24 years old and women prefer to get married and have kids.”

Still, Mousannif has taken it upon herself to set an example for female students and encourage them to pursue scientific careers.

“I’m married and have three kids,” she said. “I keep inspiring them and telling them that they can be good mothers, organize their time and achieve whatever they want.”

Solving the Mystery of Diabetes Prevalence in the UAE

The United Arab Emirates has one of the world’s highest rates of diabetes, according to 2019 data from the International Diabetes Federation, affecting 16.3% of the country’s adult population.

A few years ago, Dr. Habiba Alsafar, director of the Center for Biotechnology at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, led research that found that types of genes commonly found in Emiratis make them more susceptible to the disease.

Dr. Habiba Alsafar, director of Khalifa University Center for Biotechnology in Abu Dhabi, UAE. (Courtesy)

Born in Dubai, Alsafar showed promise in science at a young age and received numerous scholarships to study in the United States. An expert in genetics and molecular biology, her research into the genetic risk factors for Type 2 diabetes was the first of its kind to delve into the genetic makeup of an Arab population in connection to diabetes.

“It was one of a kind in the Middle East,” Alsafar told The Media Line of the research.

In her role at Khalifa University, Alsafar teaches students biochemistry, chemistry, forensic science and genetics.

“I mentor a lot of science and Ph.D. students,” she said. “We also work on COVID-19: We sequenced the virus and we looked at the different profiles of severity in patients.”

Alsafar has helped the UAE government design a response plan to the coronavirus pandemic. For all of her game-changing work, in 2016 she was awarded the International L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship for Women in Science, which is presented annually to five outstanding women scientists.

“These awards empower women as there are a lot of awards out there for both genders,” she said. “Women are always doing a lot of multitasking: they are mothers, sisters and daughters. But they can also be very successful scientists that contribute to the development of the economy or the country.”

In order to attract women and girls to the STEM field, Alsafar believes that it is very important to have role models. The leadership in the UAE, she added, has encouraged women to pursue scientific careers as well.

“In my lab and technology center, 90% are women,” Alsafar said. “It’s not an issue now compared to the past.”

Understanding Cancer Genetics in Saudi Arabia

It may come as somewhat of a surprise, but Saudi women outnumber men in graduating with science degrees, a new report by the kingdom’s education ministry revealed.

Dr. Malak Abed AlThagafi is one of the many female scientists in Saudi Arabia leading this charge.

Dr. Malak Abed AlThagafi is an American Board-certified physician-scientist specializing in molecular and cancer genetics. (Courtesy)

An American board-certified molecular neuropathologist and a physician-scientist, AlThagafi is the director of the General Directorate for National RDI Coordination at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) Research Center in Riyadh. She is also the director of Satellite Research Administration at King Fahd Medical City, where she oversees several departments, including genomics, neuroscience research and research collaboration.

With these numerous achievements under her belt, AlThagafi, 39, considers herself a strong advocate of women in science.

She first became interested in becoming a scientist as a young girl in the 1980s, when her parents took her to see a leading genetics specialist in the kingdom after she was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease. The specialist who treated her was a woman named Nadia Awni Sakati. In Sakati, AlThagafi found a strong role model, she told The Media Line.

“We always hear about Western women who did great things but [they’re from] a different background and culture,” AlThagafi said. “But when you see someone from your own culture it’s very inspiring and motivating.”

Much of AlThagafi’s research has focused on decoding genetic mutations in tumors. She spent many years in the US completing her clinical training and working at several prestigious universities, among them Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Georgetown. Nevertheless, while the promise of a successful career in America was undoubtedly enticing, five years ago AlThagafi decided to leave it all behind and return to Riyadh. This is where she felt she could make a difference.

“It’s very enjoyable when you do something for your community,” she said. “When I came back it was a difficult decision because I was in Harvard and was appointed as junior faculty there. Everybody said: ‘Why did you leave Harvard and come to Riyadh?’”

Aside from her clinical practice, AlThagafi is also part of the Saudi Human Genome Program, an ambitious national initiative that aims to build a genetic database of the Saudi population in the hope of better understanding and preventing certain genetic diseases.

According to AlThagafi, Saudi society was much more conservative in the late 80s and 90s but the situation for women has improved in recent years.

“In terms of undergraduates, up to 60% of medical and health care students are women now,” she said, adding that, as in other countries, most leadership and senior positions are still mainly held by men.

“In my time [women] only went into biology and health care; now many go into physics and engineering and IT,” AlThagafi said. These career options just became available a few years ago in Saudi Arabia for women, she added.

Investing in the Leaders of Tomorrow in Israel

In the world of venture capital firms looking to change the face of health care innovation and entrepreneurship, Dr. Irit Yaniv undoubtedly stands out.

Together with her two business partners — Amir Blatt and Tzahi Sultan — Yaniv recently founded Almeda Ventures, an equity partnership fund that first went public last October. Almeda Ventures is the first R&D partnership of its kind to focus on life sciences, specifically on medical devices and digital health.

Dr. Irit Yaniv, founding partner and CEO of Almeda Ventures and the co-founder of WE@HealthTech. (Courtesy)

Yaniv, 56, studied medicine at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in southern Israel and served as a medical doctor in the army for four years. After her initial foray into medicine, she decided to pursue a career path in the private sector, working in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries along the way.

“Eight years ago, I decided that I would like to look at the industry from a different angle,” Yaniv told The Media Line. “I had this feeling that in order to be able to make an impact you also have to understand investments.”

So far, Almeda Ventures has invested in five Israeli companies. The most recent is Virility Medical, which is in the process of developing a single-use patch that can help with premature ejaculation.

As a woman in the VC arena, Yaniv is very much in the minority. Last year, Tel Aviv-based firm Qumra Capital found that women make up only 8% of partners in Israeli VC firms.

“Being in the VC and upper management side, I find myself most of the time being the only woman in the room,” Yaniv said. “It became an issue and I wanted to do something about it.”

With this in mind, she joined together with other female industry leaders — Dorit Sokolov, Yael Gruenbaum-Cohen and Ronit Harpaz—to establish WE@HealthTech, a program geared toward helping junior female managers get the tools they need to reach more senior positions.

“When you look at the life sciences [field], you see many women in junior positions: junior researchers, biology and chemistry graduates, laboratory technicians, clinical managers and so on,” Yaniv said. “But when you look at the other end — management, investors and CEOs — you see very few. So somewhere in the middle we are losing them.”

The WE@HealthTech program teaches women how to speak, conduct negotiations and improve their business profiles online. It also helps them build up their professional networks and connect to other influential women in Israel and abroad.

Out of 21 participants who recently completed the pilot initiative, five have received promotions at work, Yaniv said. Yaniv, who has two children, believes that many women in STEM simply need a gentle push in the right direction.

“Sometimes you need someone else that did it to tell you that this is right and that it is ok to do it,” she said. “It is ok to split yourself between career and home. You can find a balance between the two without giving up on one of them.”

From left, Dorit Sokolov, Yael Gruenbaum-Cohen, Ronit Harpaz and Irit Yaniv, the founders of WE@HeathTech. (Courtesy)

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