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Roundtable Examines Middle Eastern Research Opportunities for Women
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Bill Branson
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Imagine yourself as a teenager in science class, fascinated by a lecture describing the wonders of chemistry and biology. As various disciplines unfold before you, your mind races with possibilities: What if science is it? Might this be what I was born to do? If you are growing up in Lebanon, Iran or Iraq, however, your enthusiasm for further exploration is most likely tempered by realities: What job opportunities in science exist in my country? How far would I have to travel from home to study? And, if you're a girl in a culture that sees your potential solely as a wife and mother, the prospects for pursuing a career in science are more daunting still. Professional research seems improbable and unlikely. It should not seem impossible, though, according to the five NIH researchers all women and all born in countries in the Middle East or North Africa who gathered on Mar. 17 to discuss such issues in celebration of Women's History Month.
"The tremendous challenge in our countries is for parents who have not been educated themselves to realize that there are other paths for daughters besides marriage and children," said Iran native Dr. Helen Sabzevari, who left Tehran just months before the revolution at age 15 and who now works as a staff scientist and head of the molecular immunology section in NCI's Laboratory of Tumor Immunology and Biology under lab chief Dr. Jeffrey Schlom. "It is very important for those who have achieved in science to give young girls these kinds of dreams and to make them believe in themselves."
The benefit of role models cannot be overemphasized, agreed Dr. Senda Beltaifa, originally from North Africa. "I was very impressed with some of my female professors," she said, "but I was not given much opportunity to see much research at home. I had thought of doing research, being a professor, teaching and being a medical doctor, but then my life circumstances didn't allow me to pursue that. When we came to the United States and lived here in Bethesda close to NIH, it was like a golden opportunity I never dreamt about."
Hosted at the Stone House by the Fogarty International Center, the program, "Remembering the Journey: A Middle Eastern Roundtable Discussion on Women and Science," was one of several March events planned by a trans-NIH committee under the theme "Women's Work and Women's Health: A Celebration of Knowledge and Achievement."
"NIH is a remarkably diverse place in many ways," acknowledged NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington, in introductory remarks. "We have 18,000 employees covering an extraordinary range of scientific disciplines, ethnicities, countries of origin and racial subgroups spread across 27 institutes and centers. I can assure you that throughout the leadership of NIH, we feel that it's one of our most distinguishing features and one of our greatest strengths."
A true commitment to diversity is when an organization's leaders believe that "without ensuring a diverse workforce, the agency won't survive," he continued. "We believe that. We can't do what we do best, we can't be the leading biomedical research agency in the country in many ways, the world without providing opportunities for the best minds to come here and excel, wherever they may begin."
Acting FIC director Dr. Sharon Hrynkow championed the event as part of Fogarty's ongoing effort with the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health to examine career issues facing women in science in the developing world. "We must look at ways to enhance career options in the life sciences for women from all parts of the world," said Hrynkow. "Events such as this roundtable are rich opportunities for us to hear and to learn about where the needs and challenges are greatest as we work to strengthen partnerships globally." The discussion, moderated by FIC Acting Deputy Director Richard Millstein, covered a wide range of issues, focusing on the researchers' personal pathways to NIH.
Born and educated in Tunisia, Beltaifa worked as a primary physician for three oil companies in the United Arab Emirates before moving to the U.S. in 1999 with her husband and two children.
"I think it's important to exchange information in order to get to know each other better," she said. "We live here in your country and we have a chance to see you on a daily basis and interact with you, but given the distance of our places, I don't think many people have the opportunity to get close to people in our region and get to know them."
Beltaifa began her career in research after realizing that the rigorous schedule of a medical residency program in the U.S. "would be incompatible with my family life," she said. She volunteered in NIMH's Neuropathology Lab for 2 years before winning a postdoctoral fellowship there in June 2003.
Conversely, Dr. Aida Cremesti, born in Lebanon, dreamed of conducting research as a child. A former research assistant at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Columbia University who earned undergraduate and master's degrees at the American University of Beirut, she works as a postdoctoral fellow in NCI's Laboratory of Cellular Oncology.
"The reason I wanted a career in science is probably because I was so affected by my father who is a pharmacist," Cremesti said. "At a very young age I was so impressed by the fact that he could draw the structure of every drug and understand their compositions."
She said students in Lebanon can specialize in a discipline during their last 3 years of high school and she chose "experimental sciences. After I did my bachelor's and master's degrees, I realized that wasn't the end of it for me. I really wanted to learn more and actually do those experiments with my own hands that I was reading about in books."
A physician who did an internship in pediatrics and a fellowship in oncology, Dr. Dilyara Barzani grew increasingly depressed seeing so many of her young leukemia patients suffer and die. "I thought that we would be helping people," she recalled, "but whatever we did never seemed to be helpful and I just thought there's got to be another way. I thought that the concept of prevention was the way to go. I still feel that way." She began pursuing cancer research as an alternative angle from which to tackle the disease.
A native of the Kurdish region of Iraq, Barzani was reared in Central Asia, earning an M.D. from Kyrgyz State Medical Academy in Kyrgystan. Wanting to enhance her research training, she came to the United States as an NCI cancer prevention fellow and earned a master of public health degree at Johns Hopkins as part of the fellowship. Now completing epidemiological studies in the Tobacco Control Research Branch of NCI's Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, Barzani hopes someday to return to Iraq to establish a research infrastructure there and to enhance cancer control efforts.
Dr. Roshanak Tolouei Semnani came to the U.S. to complete her education at age 17, 3 years after revolution closed universities in her native city Tehran. A biology major in high school in Iran, she earned a bachelor's degree in genetics at the University of California, Berkeley. Fascinated by the lab work she was doing after college, she recalled being inspired by her "supervisor. My mentor at that time was a female scientist, an excellent scientist who was very enthusiastic and very encouraging. I was certainly influenced by her."
Tolouei Semnani then earned a Ph.D. in immunology at the University of Chicago and joined Dr. Thomas Nutman's helminth immunology section in NIAID's Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases, where she was recently promoted to staff scientist.
Asked about constraints facing women in the Middle East, Tolouei Semnani described a multilayered problem. First, she said, the educational system "is very strict and very rigid," largely based on social policy. "We have sciences, but it was very much on a theoretical basis. We did not have laboratories, for instance, as a regular way of business maybe once a month or less. We learned science in books, not by having labwork or benchwork. And that's where you get very excited."
Economic factors also enter the equation, she pointed out. Given that there are no professions in research after graduation, most students are steered toward science studies leading to practical jobs in medicine, dentistry or engineering. "Ironically in the last decade a lot more women are entering university," she noted, "but after that, the jobs are more for men. Research is not feasible, either economically or politically."
Beltaifa agreed that social and cultural structures often predetermine the roles of the sexes.
"In the Middle East, women are not supposed to be the primary breadwinners of the family," she explained. "It's men's responsibility. It's a men's society. No matter how hard women work or how educated they get, men would never let [women] take over and pass them."
Besides, she said, the financial resources of most Middle East countries are necessarily focused on building roads, schools, hospitals and other basic services, before scientific research.
"The Middle East places a lot of emphasis on family structure," agreed Cremesti, who said she was lucky to be born in a family where her gender did not matter sons and daughters were reared equally. Many of her friends are not as fortunate. "Girls are raised to believe they should get married and have children. The challenges of pursuing science are well known. It is believed that if women commit to the rigors and demands of a career in science, they will become so smart and so overqualified that it will be hard for them to find a matching husband."
Sabzevari said that's why encouraging dreams, and providing role models is crucial for the future of young girls in the region. "I believe it is so important the role that other women play in your life," she concluded, recalling a female Ph.D. who had been dismissed from a university for political reasons, but ended up teaching high school biology and inspiring at least one young woman to follow her own path to research. "She saw the way it should have been, although it did not work out that way for her. It was the vision she had that she transferred to me."
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