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NIH Hosts Women Instructors from Afghanistan

By Cynthia Delgado

On the Front Page...

Most NIH employees are well educated. Our daughters, as well as our sons, attend some of the best schools in the nation. Women who are federal employees enjoy equal opportunity, quality health benefits and more. Indeed, of the roughly 19,000 current full-time NIH employees, 11,025 are women, according to the Office of Human Resources. But the women of Afghanistan have not been as fortunate as their American counterparts.

Under Taliban repression, Afghan women were not allowed to obtain an education or work outside the home. They were denied access to health care and their daughters could not attend school. Year 2000 statistics (UNICEF) reveal that a mere 21 percent of women age 15 or over were literate; and, that one in every four children did not survive past the age of 5. Since liberation from the Taliban, the women of Afghanistan are struggling to rebuild their professional lives and educate their daughters. NIH and others are trying to help.


At a recent event, NIH, through its Office of Science Education (OSE), joined with other organizations to offer assistance and resources to some of these Afghan women. Nine science and math instructors from major universities in Afghanistan visited the NIH campus in July. A language interpreter and representatives from the Stevens Institute of Technology (SIT), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Montgomery County public school system accompanied them.

As recipients of a J. William Fulbright grant, the women arrived in the United States in June for an intensive summer training program at the SIT in New Jersey. The program focused on professional development and also provided a series of cultural events and tours, including the one at NIH.

Nine science and math instructors from major universities in Afghanistan visited the NIH campus in July.

OSE hosted the NIH event, and welcomed the visitors at the Cloister. They were given a brief overview of NIH and a summary of its resources for teachers. The Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul identified the women as being lead-teachers, whose professional development could positively influence other instructors in their country. With that in mind, every effort was made to demonstrate NIH's successful model science education programs and resources that the women could duplicate back at their own universities.

Following the morning presentation, the group toured the Clinical Center to view first-hand how laboratory research is translated into clinical therapies for human disease. Dr. Jeff Chyatte, a biology teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and an HHMI teacher intern, is spending his summer learning the latest laboratory techniques and more in the NIDDK laboratory led by Dr. Connie Noguchi. He talked to the group about his stem cell research, and emphasized how his NIH experiences could be shared with his students in the classroom.

Dr. Pam Stratton discussed her work on the NICHD clinical study for patients with endometriosis. Her associates — Nancy Kim (high school senior and HHMI student intern), Ninet Sinaii (working toward Ph.D. in epidemiology and biostatistics), Sujata Kelkar (post-doc immunologist/researcher) and Heidi Godoy (medical student) — also addressed the group, and exemplified the various training levels available for people at NIH. Stratton's staff agreed with Kim, who said of the visit, "It made us realize how lucky we are and how many opportunities we have here as women."

That realization is even more striking when one considers the daunting circumstances women face as educators in Afghanistan. Unlike many of their peers, these women were fortunate in that they either completed their educations before the Taliban rule, or were educated outside the country. Conversely, the group reported that most of the girls beginning school are illiterate, and that students at the age of 12 are entering the equivalent of the U.S. first grade. The Afghan universities have only a few textbooks and no lab equipment or facilities, making it next to impossible to train young scientists and teachers. They have no graduate-level programs and no medical schools. At present, physicians receive their training by shadowing practicing doctors. Currently, only one of the nine universities the women represent has a connection to the Internet.

Following the NIH tour, HHMI hosted a luncheon, where the instructors learned how HHMI supports international biomedical research and science education. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) sponsored a reception at the U.S. Capitol building that evening. Advocates were present from the United States Agency for International Development, Schools Online and Relief International to discuss aid planned for Afghanistan, which includes rebuilding schools, teacher training and establishing Internet connectivity in schools and universities.

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