Two women put Saudi Arabia’s science talent in the spotlight

Time: 12 January 2021

These file photos show Lama Al-Abdi, left, and Asrar Damdam. (Supplied)

  • Asrar Damdam and Lama Al-Abdi honored by L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Middle East Regional Young Talents Program

  • In spite of recent progress, women remain a minority in the STEM professions worldwide, and especially in the MENA region

DUBAI: Saudi women are earning global recognition for their achievements in medical science and research. Two of them recently won awards from the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Middle East Regional Young Talents Program for their work.

One of the women, Asrar Damdam, 27, was honored in the Ph.D. students’ category for her role in the development of a pump meant to revolutionize the way a healthy heartbeat is regulated — combining medicine, electrical engineering and electro-physics.

“There are some diseases and heart-related behavioral activities, like heart failure, that can happen suddenly, and researchers are developing new solutions to this problem,” Damdam told Arab News.

“We were investigating the possibility of building a soft-sleeve device with a built-in actuator to support the heart muscle and aid the pumping functionality.”

The project was not without its challenges. The only platform available on the market was rectangular, which did not conform to the heart’s natural shape. When Damdam began her research, she turned to nature’s geometries for inspiration, from spirals to spiderwebs, before settling on the honeycomb.

“The beehive structure, which is an array of honeycombs, is the nearest to the heart shape,” she said. “Building a flexible and stretchable array of honeycombs was a very interesting idea to me, although it included lots of challenges. I liked it and presented it to my professor, who liked it too and approved it.”

Damdam then had to consider materials. Silicon was her first choice, owing to its favorable electrical properties, its abundance and cheapness. However, with her initial design, it was found to be too delicate.

After graduating from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in August 2018, it took Damdam a year to make her breakthrough, following countless experiments at a highly sophisticated nano-facility.

“The structure must withstand the heart’s expansion and contraction behavior without breakage,” she said.

“To overcome the silicon fragility issue, I used the regular honeycomb shape with serpentine sides. I designed the platform with a serpentine-shaped interconnect to form the sides of every honeycomb cell and also to connect the cells with circular islands, which are located in the middle of each cell, to be used as a host for electronic components,” she said.

“The serpentine interconnects introduced the stretchability feature, so when the heart expands, the platform doesn’t break.”

Damdam says all bio-compatible devices must be flexible so that they can adapt to the natural movement of the body and skin. “To achieve this, I made it very thin — around 15 micrometres,” or 0.015 millimeters.

Although her project marks only the first step, aimed at proving the viability of the concept, its reconfigurability means the wider scientific community can build on the idea and explore the tremendous technological possibilities it opens up.

“The successful demonstration of the reconfigurability concept using silicon also enables a lot of applications in bio-medical electronics,” she said. “This was my main motivation. If this research is improved, then it can really help in the early detection of cardiovascular diseases, in multi-sensory platforms and in the development of artificial hearts for transplantation.”

INNUMBER

  • 28.8% – Proportion of the world’s researchers who are women (UNESCO).

With the platform now fabricated and her research published in Applied Physics Letters Journal, Damdam’s attention shifted to the world of start-ups, helped along by an entrepreneurial training program in California sponsored by the MiSK Foundation.

While there, she won a competition and received funding for her start-up idea of using ultraviolet light to extend the shelf life of food. She says young Saudis have enormous potential in the world of business.

“We are very capable, educated and supported,” Damdam said. “We should give back to our community and country, and actively participate and support the development process.”

Another Saudi woman honored, this time in the L’Oréal-UNESCO program’s postdoctoral researchers’ category, is Lama Al-Abdi in recognition of her research on chromatin — a substance within chromosomes consisting of DNA and protein — and the regulation of genes in relation to vision loss.

Al-Abdi, who is in her early 30s, began her project a few years earlier as an extension of her Ph.D. research at Purdue University, Indiana, examining how certain chemical modifications impact DNA.

After hearing a talk on DNA modification, Lama Al-Abdi was inspired to develop projects on eye-development diseases. (Supplied)
After hearing a talk on DNA modification, Lama Al-Abdi was inspired to develop projects on eye-development diseases, pictured. (Supplied)

“It does not change the DNA per se, but it changes the shape of the DNA itself and how it interacts with its surroundings,” Al-Abdi told Arab News. “These changes can be inherited from one generation to another and they play a very important role in development, embryogenesis, cancer, obesity, diabetes, complex diseases as well as very simple diseases, such as any eye abnormalities that we may see.”

Al-Abdi, who began examining the theme of vision loss as an undergraduate at King Saud University, now works at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh. She has made significant contributions to medical understanding of mutations affecting the eye.

Al-Abdi and her team have recruited test subjects with eye abnormalities to determine whether their vision loss is the result of a mutation or a change in the DNA — or on top of the DNA — that may have contributed to the onset of disease.

“When I first started pursuing chromatin, I was just starting my Ph.D. and my professor invited a speaker,” she said. “The speaker started talking about modifications on the DNA, which, to me, was shocking because I had never heard of it before.

“I was just in awe because I thought I was quite well immersed in the field of genetics, but that was a whole new discovery, and I found that I knew nothing. That was the start and I was hooked.”

Al-Abdi is involved with several ongoing projects related to eye-development diseases and why more than one genetic abnormality can appear within the same family and what can be done to prevent suffering.

In spite of recent progress, women remain a minority in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

According to 2018 figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, just 28.8 percent of the world’s researchers are women. Female enrolment in engineering, manufacturing and construction courses stands at just 8 percent worldwide, while in natural sciences, mathematics and statistics it is 5 percent. For information and communications technology (ICT), the figure drops to a paltry 3 percent.

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As of 2018, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (Shutterstock)

With female doctors, nurses and researchers playing a crucial role in the battle against COVID-19, experts have repeated their calls on schools, governments and employers in the region to do more to fix the imbalance.

Since announcing its goals for the Vision 2030 reform agenda, Saudi Arabia has been laying the groundwork for women’s empowerment.

Al-Abdi says she is thrilled to see young Saudi women benefiting from more encouragement and support to develop their interests and skills.

“I do see quite a lot of young talented women expanding their knowledge in all areas,” Al-Abdi said.

“I wish I had the tools and opportunities when I was younger, but now our government is putting a lot of effort into motivating, teaching and opening up opportunities that were not always available for us back then.

“It’s my dream to motivate and inspire people to do more.”

• Twitter: @CalineMalek 

This article was first published in Arab News

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Dr. Manal Al-Malki, dean at Jazan University

Time: 01 January 2021

Dr. Manal Al-Malki

Dr. Manal Al-Malki was recently appointed dean of the Faculty of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Jazan University. She has been its vice dean since December 2017.

She worked at the university as a lecturer between August 2014 and January 2017, and has been working as an assistant professor since February 2017.

Al-Malki holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Taif University, a master’s degree in information technology from Melbourne University, and a Ph.D. in health informatics from the same university in 2016.

She was a researcher at Melbourne University between April 2012 and July 2016.

At the Saudi Commission for Health Specialties, she was the leader of the health informatics competencies framework working group between March 2018 and December 2018.

The goal of the project is to expand the field of health informatics in the Kingdom through the creation of a competency framework that defines the core knowledge and skills underpinning this specialty.

Al-Malki is recognized by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society as an innovation leader and selected to be one of the anticipated 50 future leaders in healthcare IT.

She is interested in the use of wearables and applications for health self-management within clinical settings, lifestyle medicine informatics, health self-quantification, health population, consumer health informatics and related behavioral change concepts and principals, healthcare information technology and mobile health.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Turfah Al-Mutairi, first Saudi woman to obtain a license from GAMI

Time: 18 November 2020

Turfah Al-Mutairi

Turfah Al-Mutairi is the first Saudi woman to obtain a license from the General Authority for Military Industries (GAMI) for a military outfit factory.
Al-Mutairi has a bachelor’s degree in arts and design from Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, where she majored in textile design. She has also attended training programs on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) at Leipzig University, Germany, and on promoting industrial innovation and technological facilities from the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). She has also received qualifications from UNIDO in industrial policies and planning strategy.
From 1999 to 2009, she worked as an educationalist at Al-Riyadh Schools.  She is now the founder and CEO of the Sondos Al-Dibaj Trading Co., the Sondos Advanced Manufacturing Co. and the Sondos Al-Dibaja Factory for Civil and Military Textile Industries. She also has a factory producing medical products and equipment.
Al-Mutairi’s military outfit factory is among the first of five companies to receive licenses from GAMI. The factory works with international companies specialized in localizing production of military equipment.
Al-Mutairi, who is the deputy head of the businesswomen’s committee at the Riyadh Chamber, is planning to build partnerships with more international companies to develop the field, quoting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who said: “The sky is the limit.” She has had meetings with Chinese and Greek industrial companies, and said she will work with any company that wishes to enter the Saudi market.
According to Al-Mutairi, she employs some 170 workers in her factory, most of whom are women, and will hire a further 213 new employees as part of its expansion strategy.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Women, youth major beneficiaries of Saudi G20 leadership: Experts

Time: 17 November 2020

Saudi women, wearing protective face masks, walk into the Taiba gold market in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)
  • Summit a chance to reiterate why KSA has been the West’s most enduring regional partner: Ex-US diplomat
  • Pandemic means Nov. 21-22 meeting, meant to take place in Riyadh, will instead be online

LONDON: Saudi women and youth have been heavily involved in the lead up to their country’s G20 Summit, and have thus been major beneficiaries of the chance for open dialogue and inclusive policymaking, according to experts.

The annual summit gives the Kingdom a chance to reaffirm the ties that have made it the West’s key partner in the Middle East for 75 years, experts said at an online event on Tuesday hosted by British think tank Chatham House and attended by Arab News.

Saudi leadership of the G20 has had a major impact on the Kingdom’s civil society, said Dr. Hanaa Almoaibed, research fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

Despite the challenges of holding the summit online, the G20 is “definitely a capacity-building process for a lot of young Saudis,” she added.

“Being involved in the political process, in the policymaking process for the first time for a lot of young professionals, is a huge insight into the way international relations works.”

In addition to the flagship summit of world leaders, Saudi Arabia has also hosted over 100 smaller meetings and events addressing a range of topics including the coronavirus pandemic, digital access in the workplace and climate change.

One of the major areas that the Saudi G20 secretariat has focused on, Almoaibed said, is women’s empowerment and providing a space for Saudi women and others to voice their hopes for their country’s future.

Instrumental in this was the W20, a specific group of the G20 focused on fostering gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

“The W20 was exciting because it really involved women from all over the country,” said Almoaibed. “It was led by a local organization that was able to bring women from all over the country to open a national dialogue, discussing the things they’d faced that had prevented them from achieving what they wanted to achieve or their own personal goals.”

The value here, she said, is that “there was a lot of trust in that format — they were able to develop an action plan for women in the country based on the challenges they face.”

The G20 has also given Saudi Arabia a platform to reiterate why it has been the West’s key regional partner for 75 years, said David Rundell, former chief of mission at the US Embassy in Riyadh.

He added that in the face of hostility from some American politicians, the Kingdom can use the G20 Summit as an opportunity to refocus global attention on what has made the US-Saudi partnership so enduring.

“Saudi Arabia has been a strong partner of both Britain and the US for 75 years. In counterterrorism cooperation, Saudi Arabia has saved American lives. In global energy markets, Saudi Arabia has frequently stabilized supply and demand when political or natural disasters disrupt things.” Rundell said.

“I think it’s fair to say in the recent past Saudi Arabia has promoted a moderate form of Islam. But most importantly for Britain and the US is that Saudi Arabia remains a power that values and promotes regional stability. Those are reasons for continued engagement.”

The flagship G20 Summit, hosted by King Salman, will take place online on Nov. 21-22.

This article was first published in Arab News

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SRMG appoints new chief executive

Time: 16 October 2020  

The board of directors of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) announced, on Thursday, the appointment of Ms. Joumana Rashed Al-Rashed as the new chief executive officer of the group. (Supplied)
  • Ms. Joumana Al-Rashed holds a Master’s degree in International Journalism from City University in London

RIYADH: The board of directors of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) announced, on Thursday, the appointment of Ms. Joumana Rashed Al-Rashed as the new chief executive officer of the group, replacing Mr. Saleh Bin Hussain Al-Dowais.

Ms. Joumana Al-Rashed holds a Master’s degree in International Journalism from City University in London in 2013.

She graduated from SOAS University in London in 2011 with a Bachelor of Political Science.

She previously served as media advisor and media communications director.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Tala Al-Jahlan, executive director of legal affairs at the G20 Saudi Secretariat

31/08/20

Tala Al-Jahlan
  • Al-Jahlan studied for a law degree at the university between 2006 and 2011 and, prior to her current position, was a senior legal adviser at the G20 Saudi Secretariat from last October until August this year

Tala Al-Jahlan has been the acting executive director of legal affairs at the G20 Saudi Secretariat and heading the legal affairs and compliance department since this August.
She spoke about her role at the secretariat in an interview recently, saying that her team had an essential role as it supported other departments to facilitate daily tasks, organize relations locally and internationally and frame these relations on clear legal grounds.
“We are the result of our country’s and leadership investments in the youth, we are an example of such support and empowerment,” she added. “I’m proud to be a product of my country. I have been educated in Saudi Arabia and had my career in Saudi. I have been taught and trained by Saudis.”
In addition to her job at the G20 Saudi Secretariat, she has been pursuing an education in commercial law at Prince Sultan University since 2019.
She studied for a law degree at the university between 2006 and 2011 and, prior to her current position, was a senior legal adviser at the G20 Saudi Secretariat from last October until August this year.
She started her career as an internship trainee at Al-Sulaim Al-Awaji and Partners Law Firm between Sept. 2010 and April 2011, becoming a senior legal adviser at the same firm between May 2011 and Oct. 2019.
Al-Jahlan has represented international and Saudi Arabian corporations and families in transactions connected to corporate restructuring, mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures, shareholder agreements, foreign direct investment, facility agreements, agency, and distributorship matters.

This article was first published in Arab News

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