Feats of two Saudis offer glimpse of Arab region’s female science talent

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After hearing a talk on DNA modification, Lama Al-Abdi was inspired to develop projects on eye-development diseases, pictured. (Supplied)
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Updated 11 January 2021

Feats of two Saudis offer glimpse of Arab region’s female science talent

  • 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.




Asrar Damdam fused the natural geometry of honeycomb with medicine and engineering prowess in her development of a pump to regulate heartbeats. (Supplied)

“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)

“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.




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.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek 


Saudi women making their mark in science

Updated 19 January 2021

Saudi women making their mark in science

JEDDAH: Just 30 percent of women worldwide work in science, but Saudis are challenging this long-standing trend.
Women represent 58 percent of university students in Saudi Arabia, with many studying in science, technology and engineering and furthering their careers with studies overseas.
In a report by the Saudi Education Ministry, women outnumbered men in graduating with a bachelor’s in biology, information technology, mathematics, statistics, and physics.
Universities and research centers have adopted measures to support the inclusion of female scientists.
Ambitious, driven and facing challenges along the way to their success, here are the Saudi women scientists who have made a mark in the field for their extraordinary work.
Suha Kayum
Research engineer

With a career spanning 10 years, Kayum — a research engineer with Saudi Aramco’s EXPEC Advanced Research Center — was tasked with accelerating the evolution of software algorithms to enhance Aramco’s reservoir simulator, which helped the company cut costs.
Kayum was a developer for the company’s in-house basin and seismic simulators. In 2016, she designed and received a patent for an algorithm that enabled the first 1-billion cell basin simulation run.

Dr. Elaf Ahmed
Lab scientist

With a keen research interest in nano-organisms, Ahmed’s main focus while conducting postdoctoral work at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology was synthesis of environmental nano materials using electrochemically active biofilms.
She later joined the company’s Oil and Gas Treatment Division at Aramco’s Research and Development Center.
Her main focus at the division is to conduct research projects for water treatment technologies and find new ways to treat water found in oil and gas reservoirs.

Dr. Ilham Abuljadayel
Immunologist

In what could be one of the most profound achievements by a Saudi scientist, Dr. Ilham discovered the process of retrodifferentiation, a method also known as retrograde differentiation that treats blood diseases.
A common process for the maintenance of cell integrity against damaging agents, Dr. Ilham applied her findings in the first preclinical study in 2000 in collaboration with George Washington Medical Center, US, in two animal models of human diseases to study the utility of retrodifferentiated stem cells.
Her research has helped treat 390 patients with diseases ranging from sickle cell anaemia, multiple sclerosis, thalassaemia, and hepatitis C among others.
Dr. Abeer Al-Olayan
Petroleum scientist

With an academic and industrial background in various fields of chemistry spanning over 20 years, Dr. Abeer is a research scientist at Saudi Aramco’s EXPEC Advanced Research Center and is responsible for leading its chemicals development initiative.
As a fellow at MIT, she submitted a fellowship research abstract that focuses on reducing dependency on food-based chemicals to tackle drilling and subsurface challenges. She has 10 registered patents with the US Patent Office for the development of methods, materials and compositions in drilling and fluid transfer.

Dr. Malak Abed Althagafi
Physician-scientist

Diagnosed with a rare genetic disease at a young age, Althagafi got a first glimpse of what her future could be during her treatment. Her educational path started with the study of genetic diseases in children and led to molecular pathology before she focused on surgical oncology, molecular genetics and neuropathology.
Dr. Malak is one of the few American board-certified molecular neuropathologists in the world and has conducted research that focuses on decoding genetic mutations in tumors, specifically brain tumors in children.
She became part of the Saudi Human Genome Program in 2014. Her clinical and research interests are mainly in surgical oncology, pathology, molecular genetics pathology and neuropathology, especially its application for treating brain cancers.

Dr. Hind Al-Johani
Scientist of physical chemistry

Her research interest is in nano-catalysis. In 2017, this Saudi scientist discovered that by using the simple molecule of citrate ions (from citric acid) you could stabilize and control the structure of gold nanoparticles.
Using this new discovery, the findings showed that gold can carry drugs through the body without chemical side effects. Attaching antibodies can guide the nanoparticles to specific cells that need treatment. Her findings have had an impact on environmental chemistry where it may also be used for water purification or methods for capturing CO2 emissions.

Dr. Nouf Al-Numair
Molecular bioinformatics scientist
Dubbed the DNA decoder, her research focuses on predicting the early emergence of diseases through genetic mutations.
She has achieved this by merging molecular genetics and computer programming to predict the effects of mutations and provide patients with a personalized medical approach to treatment.
Using more than seven programming languages to analyze human genes, she has successfully published a number of papers with the findings.
Dr. Nouf pursued her career in STEM and is the first Saudi scientist to major in molecular genetics and programming biological information.