Two women put Saudi Arabia's science talent in the spotlight

These file photos show Lama Al-Abdi, left, and Asrar Damdam. (Supplied)
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Updated 11 January 2021

Two women put Saudi Arabia's science talent in the spotlight

  • 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.”


  • 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.

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 

The ancient caravan route between Taif and Makkah

Updated 07 May 2021

The ancient caravan route between Taif and Makkah

  • Hussein bin Salameh ordered the construction of two paths — one for camels and one for pedestrians — to facilitate the exchange and trade of goods in the Kingdom.

JEDDAH: The ancient stone road known as the “caravan route” linking Taif and Makkah is a cultural legacy of great historical value. It was constructed more than 1,000 years ago and was used regularly by pedestrians up to the 1960s.

At the time the road was built, movement between Taif and Makkah was restricted by Al-Qarah Mountain, researcher Hammad Al-Salimi explained. So Hussein bin Salameh ordered the construction of two paths — one for camels and one for pedestrians — to facilitate the exchange and trade of goods in the Kingdom.

The winding road made it possible to cross the mountain and was a remarkable feat of engineering, considering the limited technology available at the time of its creation.

“The roads were paved with stones, which made them resemble staircases winding between the top of the mountain in Al-Hada, the Karr below Al-Qarah Mountain, Shaddad and then Wadi Noman,” Al-Salimi said, adding that a third road, for cars, was built in the mid-1960s, during the reign of King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud.

Al-Salimi said that the two original paths are “important monuments, which should be preserved and maintained because they are part of the Al-Qarah Mountain system and complement the beautiful image of this mountain.”

Historian and writer Saleh Al-Judi explained that — before cars were common in the Kingdom — people would use the route to travel between the two cities, a journey taking around three days. The passage through the mountain, he said, is around six kilometers. In the middle of the route, he added, is a well-known site called Al-Rukb.

He said the route is mentioned in histories from the fifth Hijri century (1009-1106 CE), which say that it had room for pedestrians and animals alike. Al-Qathami stressed the importance of preserving the road as an historical landmark, as it is an important artery linking Taif and Makkah.

KSrelief chief meets Beninese envoy to Saudi Arabia

Updated 06 May 2021

KSrelief chief meets Beninese envoy to Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: The general supervisor of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief), Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, met the ambassador of Benin to the Kingdom, Mataero Fadel, in Riyadh on Thursday.

The meeting discussed the development of projects implemented in Benin, and ways to enhance them.

Fadel praised the professional excellence of KSrelief and its service to the needy around the world, especially to groups in Benin, pointing out that the center is a milestone in the field of humanitarian work.

This Ramadan, KSrelief distributed 164 tons of food baskets to thousands of families in Benin, as part of the humanitarian aid provided by the Kingdom, through KSrelief, to friendly countries during the holy month.


Who’s Who: Maram A. Kokandi, general manager of Jeddah’s Park Inn Hotel

Updated 06 May 2021

Who’s Who: Maram A. Kokandi, general manager of Jeddah’s Park Inn Hotel

Maram A. Kokandi has been the general manager of the Jeddah’s Park Inn Hotel since its construction work began in 2017.

The hotel, by Radisson, started operating in Saudi Arabia’s coastal city in September 2020. Kokandi managed the hotel from its construction phase until the time it opened. 

Kokandi obtained a bachelor’s degree in international hospitality management from the Cardiff Metropolitan University in 2015.

Three years earlier, she received a high diploma in international hospitality and international tourism management from the London Metropolitan University, London, UK. In 2010, she attended foundation courses on the same specialties at the Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK.

From August 2015 to February 2017, she served as a senior property consultant at Emaar Middle East, where she provided consultations to clients on property selection based on their needs and budgets. She led a sales team to leverage opportunities and generate new leads. 

For nearly three years and 8 months beginning in April 2011, Kokandi worked as a public relations and marketing manager for the Middle East at the London-based Baha Mar, where she worked on analyzing all sales reports and developing sales strategies to achieve targets.

From April 2008 to September 2010, she was a sales manager at Park Hyatt Hotel, Jeddah, where she was in charge of welcoming and hosting VIP guests.

From March 2007 to March 2008, she served as an area sales manager at Raffles Hotel, Dubai, UAE. For over a year, she worked in Jeddah for the Rosewood Hotels and Resorts as a sales manager.

Two Holy Mosques chief receives Sudanese culture minister

Updated 06 May 2021

Two Holy Mosques chief receives Sudanese culture minister

MAKKAH: Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Sudais, the president of the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, on Wednesday received the Sudanese minister of culture and information, Hamzah Balloul, in Makkah.

During the meeting, Al-Sudais highlighted the determination of the Saudi leadership to provide a safe environment and well-organized service system for worshippers and visitors to the Two Holy Mosques, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

He also noted the strength of relations between Saudi Arabia and Sudan based on common religious and cultural values, as well as similar stances on regional and international issues.

As part of his trip, Balloul went to the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah where he performed prayers, and on Tuesday toured the King Abdul Aziz Complex for Holy Kaaba Kiswa in Makkah to witness the various stages of manufacturing the kiswa. He also visited an exhibition on the architecture of the Two Holy Mosques.

Saudi team competes in world’s largest pre-college science fair

Updated 06 May 2021

Saudi team competes in world’s largest pre-college science fair

JEDDAH: Some of Saudi Arabia’s most talented students are taking part in one of the world’s biggest scientific competitions, the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF 2021).
Backed in the remotely held US-based competition by the King Abdul Aziz and his Companions Foundation for Giftedness and Creativity (Mawhiba), 30 Saudi students are competing alongside 1,800 others from more than 75 countries.
To prepare and hone their skills ahead of the competition, the Saudi students took part in a training camp in Riyadh, where they are now competing in the event, which ends on Thursday.
The team is taking part in research projects in the fields of energy, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, viruses, environmental security, aquaculture and desert farming.
Several students previously took part in the 11th National Olympics for Scientific Creativity, one of 19 different programs provided by Mawhiba each year to talented students across the Kingdom.
Training was delivered by a selection of Saudi and US experts from various disciplines.
The six-day camp included a training workshop on delivery skills in partnership with the Al-Elqa Training Center in Riyadh, to prepare members of the Saudi team for ISEF 2021 and hone their presentation abilities.
During ISEF 2021, the Saudi students are presenting their scientific projects to members of a jury committee for judging.
Members of the scientific committee and jury hold a series of individual interviews with students to review and provide scientific support to projects.
Within the Saudi student group, 21 male and nine female students went through training before reaching the competition.
They were selected as part of a larger group from 51,000 students across the Kingdom after their work was reviewed. About 150 of the students then took part in the Ibdaa 2021 fair. The 35 winners were honored by Makkah Gov. Prince Khalid Al-Faisal last March, after which the top 30 projects were selected to represent the Kingdom at ISEF.
Saudi Arabia, represented by Mawhiba, is taking part in ISEF 2021 as a major sponsor and will also present a special award for the best projects involved in the field of energy. It is the 15th year in a row that outstanding Saudi students are taking part in the international science fair.
Saudi students have so far won a total of 48 grand prizes and 27 special prizes in the competition. These included eight awards in 2020, including five grand prizes and three special prizes. Mawhiba also provides special international awards in the competition. So far, 79 prizes have been awarded by Mawhiba to 97 students from 20 countries. ISEF is the world’s largest pre-college science fair, first taking place in 1950.