I work in a region where research is grossly underfunded, and gender biases lurk in many corners. I once dreamt of winning a Nobel prize in chemistry — but that’s no longer the case. Instead, I want to help young scientists in Egypt and the Arab region to overcome challenges, and maybe to achieve what has become an impossible goal for me.
In my opinion, part of the problem in science, technology, engineering and maths research in this region and elsewhere is that scientists are too focused on their disciplines — to the point of isolation.
Chasing deadlines and research results while fitting in teaching and administrative work means that we don’t talk to each other enough, and sometimes we don’t know how to work with scientists in different fields or at other institutions.
The culture and environment in which many of us work mean that issues such as the inclusion of women and the mentoring of young minds become secondary or unimportant compared with the responsibilities we shoulder every day.
To help tackle this, I mentored some young scientist members of the Global Young Academy, an international society of young scientists that I co-founded in Berlin in 2010. In 2017, I launched Women in Science Without Borders (WISWB) as a networking and coaching platform for men and women, early-career and seasoned scientists to collaborate and support each other, and to help them to achieve what I and many members of my generation could not. Its members are drawn from 48 countries.
The idea behind WISWB came about over many years. It started in 1999–2001, during my PhD programme at Ulm University, Germany, and took shape during long hours spent in the lab and visits to the United States and France in 2008 and 2010, and while I was as an associate professor in Egypt. The idea also developed as I networked at conferences in more than 35 countries.
But the seeds for action were truly sown when I mentored my daughters after they chose to pursue science careers, and looked to me for answers. My eldest is now studying medicine, and her sister specializes in biological sciences in high school.
My aims for WISWB were six-fold:
• To empower young scientists and turn them into future leaders.
• To increase public awareness of science.
• To boost science literacy and education among the public.
• To help scientists to shape science policy.
• To help to reverse the ‘brain drain’ that Egypt and other countries are experiencing.
• To encourage collaboration and multidisciplinary work at the intersection of science, society and industry.
The launch of WISWB in 2017 was mostly received favourably by scientists in Egypt and the general public. But I did detect some resistance to granting a ‘bigger space’ in the field for girls and women.
Egypt’s educational system, media and society — like those in many developing countries — do not empower women to chase their dreams, leadership roles or coveted grants, or to choose challenging fields of study. Many women are barred from joining effective professional networks to further their research endeavours. And they’re often expected to prioritize forming a family over building a career.
So one major challenge was lifting some of the limitations placed on female scientists, without alienating male colleagues who are deeply immersed in their own fields, chasing promotions and accolades.
I reached out to peers all over the world to grow a platform that transcends gender issues, cultural misunderstandings and age differences.
Although “women” is part of the name, WISWB is not about separating genders, but helping an otherwise-marginalized group to advance, side-by-side with supportive male colleagues.
I didn’t want it to be an advocacy group, or to create female-exclusive science programmes. The platform’s slogan, “science for sustainable development”, is about supporting and empowering the relationships between all genders.
The first WISWB conference took place in Cairo, and the following year the event was in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2019, it returned to Cairo with a new name, World Forum for Women in Science. At this meeting, despite tensions between India and Pakistan, female scientists from the two countries forged what could possibly be lifelong alliances in the lab, as well as friendships. In February 2020, the event was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and was supported by the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.
Our other supporters include pharmaceutical company Sanofi, cosmetics firm L’Oréal, research-funding charity Wellcome, science publisher Elsevier, the Egyptian academy of science and technology, the International Science Council and the Arab Science and Technology Foundation. Our events include public-engagement sessions at which scientists simplify science for a lay audience, and a student competition with a sustainable-development focus.
Later this year, we hope to organize a youth science forum in Egypt aimed at secondary-school students and early-career scientists. And we’re planning an event for refugees in Duhok, in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, at the end of the year.
I have spent most of my life trying to achieve as much as possible before turning 40 — the apex of a scientific career, after which opportunities in science in many countries narrow. That was another personal reason behind my founding of WISWB: I wanted to mentor and guide others during the golden years of their careers — a privilege I didn’t have — and to allow them a safe space to exchange expertise and success stories. I wanted to create a place where scientists of all genders, ages, nationalities and backgrounds could work together for a better shared future.
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