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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Female participation in sports up 150% in Saudi Arabia

Time: 01 January 2021

  • 12 Saudi women now in prominent international sporting positions

JEDDAH:  Female participation in sport in Saudi Arabia has shot up by almost 150 percent since 2015, the Kingdom’s sports minister revealed.
Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal said far-reaching changes as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan and the influence of Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan have been major factors in contributing to the success.
The minister hailed the princess as a great role model who had inspired her peers and country
through her sporting achieve- ments, playing a crucial part in promoting mass participation in sports and carrying out important work on the board and as a member of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) women and sports committee.
Princess Reema recently took part in the first Gender Equity and Women Leadership Forum, organized by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee (SAOC) and the International Taekwondo Federation, that targeted women’s welfare in sports.
Following her lead, many female achievers have been elected as members of international sports organizations.

These have included Princess Haifa bint Mohammed, who became chair of the women’s committee of the Arab Union, and Princess Reham bint Saif Al-Islam who was appointed as a member of the Arab Swimming Federa- tion’s women’s committee.
The Kingdom’s first female boxing coach, Rasha Al-Khamis, became a member of the women’s committee for the Asian boxing organization, Abrar Bukhari sat on the women’s committee of the Asian Taekwondo Federation, and Sarah Al-Fayez was elected a member of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) media committee.
Asma Al-Yamani, meanwhile, became a member of the World Tennis Tour Committee, Aseel Al-Hamad was nominated a member of the Women in Motor- sports Committee at the Interna- tional Motorsports Federation, and Haya Al-Dossary took on the role as a marketing committee member for West Asia of the International Table Tennis Federation.
In addition, Adwaa Al-Arifi became a member of the AFC and Arab Football Confederation, and Dr. Razan Baker was appointed chairperson of the International Bowling Federation’s women in sports committee.

Saudi sportswomen have also notched up around 100 medals in events at regional and interna- tional levels.
Fencing topped the list for Saudi female sporting achievements. The sport’s federation has been one of the leaders in investing in the training of women of all ages, with academies in Jeddah, Riyadh, and the Eastern Province.
Fencing has delivered around 29 medals including four bronzes in the epee event at the 2016 Arab Games held in Riyadh. In 2018, Saudi fencers bagged one silver and three bronze medals at the Juniors Arab Fencing Champion- ship in Jordan, and in the same year they brought home a bronze from the Arab Fencing Championship in Tunisia.
In Kuwait’s 2019 junior fencing championship, they scooped one gold, one silver, and five bronzes, and collected a gold and two bronzes in the Asian Qualifying Round of Fencing Champion- ship in the same year in Riyadh.
In 2020, they won two silver medals at the Arab Women Sports Tournament in Sharjah, and one silver and two bronze medals in Manama’s Junior and Youth Fencing Championship.
At the Virtual Confederation Championship, the women’s fencing team secured single gold, silver, and bronze medals.
Second place went to the judokas with 15 medals, all won in 2019. Two golds, two silvers, and eight bronzes were from the Estonia International Judo Championship; a gold, silver, and bronze came in the West Asian Judo Championship.
Not to be outdone in third place were the taekwondo ladies with one gold, two silvers, and four bronzes from the 2019 and 2020 GCC and Arab Taekwondo championships.
Tied at fourth place with four medals each were the female equestrians and weightlifters.
Equestrienne Dalma Malhas gave Saudi Arabia its first bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore. Riders also collected two more bronzes and one silver at the Sharjah tournament in 2020.
The women weightlifters snatched their two golds, one silver, and one bronze in Gulf tournaments and the West Asian Championship.
Other sports where Saudi women broke into the medal column were: Rowing, through Kariman Abujadail, who won a gold medal at the Gulf Rowing tournament in Sharjah in 2020; boxing courtesy of Najd Fahad with a gold at the virtual Univer- sity World Cup in 2020 and Dona Alghamdi with another gold at the International Leaders Champi- onship in 2018 in Jordan; kick boxing through Zahra Alqurashi, who claimed first place at the International Clubs Champion- ship in mixed martial arts in 2019 in Jordan; and archery, from its women’s team that clinched bronze during the Sharjah Arab Women Sports tournament in 2020.
Elsewhere, the Saudi women football leagues were inaugurated, and saw participation of 10 teams last November in three cities. The football federation, in collaboration with the Leaders Development Institute, offered coaching courses to create oppor- tunities for Saudi women who were keen to become professional football coaches without the need to travel abroad.
The Saudi Archery Federation also launched a tournament featuring more than 25 women archers.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Mai AlSokair, assistant director of corporate development at Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Humanitarian City

Time: 24 December 2020

Mai AlSokair

Mai AlSokair, the recently appointed assistant director of corporate development at Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz Humanitarian City (SBAHC), has held prominent positions in several leading organizations. She began her career as a quality consultant at a hospital in Washington.
In 2015, AlSokair joined the quality department at Johns Hopkins Aramco Healthcare and, within a few months, was tasked with managing the operations of the primary healthcare clinics as clinical administrator. Her performance qualified her to join the strategy department in 2018 where she set up the Enterprise Risk Management Unit.
During that time, she was asked to be the public relations and communications manager at the Saudi Society for Family and Community Medicine.
AlSokair has also hosted multiple conferences, lectured in different courses, and written articles for journals such as Okaz, Anaween and Quality Magazine.
She said: “Healthcare has always been a complex field to work in, and with the increasing demands and challenges, managing healthcare services is just as complex. The limitation in resources, the increased level of public awareness on their right for safe and quality services, in addition to the improvements in the healthcare structure and legislation, all create the everlasting sense of urgency for healthcare leaders to continuously be knowledgeable, alert, flexible and able to take critical decisions in a timely fashion.”
AlSokair gained a master’s degree with honors in healthcare systems administration at Georgetown University in the US. She was among the first graduates in Imam Abdulrahman University’s Health Information Management and Technology program.

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