“The World Needs Science, and Science Needs Women”

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Women in Science
Photo: Courtesy of CBC

What if we told you that 50% or more of the total STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduate students in Arab countries were women – a figure that is impressively higher than across universities in the US or even Europe? You might assume that roughly 50% of the workforce would be female, correct? However, what if you then learned that only 17% of the labor force are women? The numbers would lead anyone to believe that there is no shortage of intelligent, capable female representation in STEM professions today, but for whatever reason, this education is not being put into fiscal practice.

Enter L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Middle East Regional Young Talents Program, a venture that has been recognizing revolutionary Arab female scientists and researchers for the last seven years as part of a global initiative that has recognized over 3,400 extraordinary female researchers since it began a mere 22 years ago. L’Oreal is one of the first companies to create an international initiative to stimulate and support the professional growth of female STEM graduates and is one of a very small number in the Middle East in particular. For the last two years, the program has been endorsed by H.E. Sarah bint Yousef Al Amiri, Minister of State for Advanced Technology, who says, ““The increase in representation of women in science over the past decade is a testament to the changing perspectives of society and remarkable progress for the Arab community.” 

Savoir Flair had the incredible opportunity to speak with two of this year’s six winners, both of whom are from the UAE, who are making significant contributions in their chosen fields and to the greater global community with their research. Dr. Maryam Tariq Khaleel Alhashmi was awarded 20,000 Euros in the Post-doctorate category for her research on engineered catalytic materials for the sustainable production of chemicals, and Dana Zaher was awarded 8,000 Euros for her research on the role of metabolic reprogramming in the sensitivity of breast cancer to Chemo and immunotherapy in the PhD Students category.

Women in Science
Photo: Courtesy of L'Oreal

Dr. Maryam Tariq Khaleel Alhashmi

Can you explain your research in layman’s terms? What will it be used for?
Achieving sustainable development of our societies is a challenge that is faced worldwide. My research focuses on developing novel porous materials for emerging applications in catalysis and separations. I am specifically interested in designing catalytic materials, materials that can speed up a conversion and allow it to happen, for sustainable processes, such as the conversion of harmful emissions (e.g. carbon dioxide) and less valuable materials (e.g. waste and heavy crude oil) into useful chemicals. Together with my team we have developed novel ways based on the growth of several crystal types together, 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. Most sustainable conversions cannot be achieved with a catalyst that has a single functionality. We are now working on modifying these catalysts to be able to perform more than one conversion step.

The idea is to be able to convert waste material into useful products in one pot, which will reduce cost and waste generation, and can even enhance the performance of the process. Eventually, the objective is to be able to design catalysts for any required reaction that can perform better than existing ones, or even carry out functions that current catalysts cannot do.

Can you explain what this would mean for us as a society? Worldwide?
My research has worldwide implications and can help solve the challenge of sustainable development. The chemical industry is central to the modern world economy. However, it relies on fossil fuels for key building blocks. Unstable oil price, depletion of petroleum, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, which causes temperatures to rise, dictates establishing eco-friendly and cost-effective processes for reducing emissions and finding alternative routes to producing useful chemicals. From here comes the idea of capturing carbon dioxide and converting it into useful chemicals.

What stage are you at in your research?
Using catalytic materials for converting carbon dioxide into chemicals is an active area of research, but there is still a long way to go. Current catalysts suffer from low activity, selectivity and stability and therefore they cannot be economically used on large scale.

Do you feel there is adequate funding for your research? Why or why not?
The main funding agencies for my research are Khalifa University and Abu Dhabi Educational Council. I think more funding opportunities should be available especially from companies.

What kind of awareness do you feel you need in your field?
Public should be made aware about the negative consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, and waste generation in general, and about the importance of converting carbon dioxide into useful chemicals. I don’t think there is currently enough awareness about the latter. The government should ensure that the new generation and public is educated about this through schools, media and organized events.

Women in Science
Photo: Courtesy of L'Oreal

Dana Zaher

What were the steps that propelled you down the road in this specific research in the role of metabolic reprogramming?
My passion to science pushed me to start research in the aim of contributing to the knowledge of basic science in molecular biology and to the clinical application in the treatment of cancer. And as a PhD candidate in the molecular medicine program in the college of Medicine of University of Sharjah, I decided to pursue my research in the field of Breast cancer. It is well known that Breast cancer is the most diagnosed cancer in women worldwide and some types of breast cancer are still challenging to treat so a better understanding on how to tailor treatment to each woman would be the ultimate goal. All of this pushed me to explore a less studied mechanism in breast cancer that could be a potential target for treatment which is metabolic reprogramming and identify the most effective players in this mechanism.

What is metabolic programming in layman’s terms? What does it do to the body? How is it done?
One of the special and interesting characteristics of cancer cells in general, and breast cancer cells specifically is metabolic reprogramming, in which these cancer cells consume glucose in very high rates in presence or absence of oxygen to produce high levels of energy supporting their limitless growth, division and metastasis. This is opposite to what happens in normal cells in which their energy production is mainly dependent on oxygen presence. A high percent of breast cancers is highly metabolic, and these cancers typically lack effective targeted therapies, in which they are less responsive to the available treatments and compared with other breast cancer subtypes, are more likely to recur and metastasize due to metabolic reprogramming.

Can you explain what this breakthrough would mean for breast cancer patients?
My long-term aim from this research is to reduce breast cancer patients’ deaths and improve the wellbeing of patients suffering from breast cancer. This breakthrough would provide a deeper understanding of breast cancer, which could unravel the metabolic vulnerabilities between breast cancer subtypes and stratify patients based on their metabolism profile to determine their susceptibility to specific treatment. A better understanding on how to tailor treatment to each
woman would provide a better quality of life, minimize irrelevant physical and financial impact. In more details, it would avoid all caused harmful side effects from unspecific treatments, which will minimize the physical and psychological pain of a woman with breast cancer.

What stage are you in your research?
My research includes exploring these characteristics and apply the newly proposed treatments on human cancer cell lines in the lab and to the generated mice tumor models. In addition to studying the relation of the metabolic reprogramming players expression in breast cancer patients’ tissues. More experimental work is currently conducted for further validation and confirmation.

Do you feel there is adequate funding for your research? Why or why not?
My research is receiving funding from the graduate studies of University of Sharjah, but for further studies and deeper investigations, more funding would be necessary to deliver this research to breast cancer patients.

What kind of awareness do you feel you need in your field? And how can women (or men) who are inspired by your research support you?
The importance of this field of research should be more spotted to be supported for the aim of conducting further studies and discover new therapies. Support can be by offering new researchers fellowships and grants to pursue their research as what is offered yearly by L’Oréal For Women in Science program. This program supports young women researchers and fund their research.

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