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.”

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)




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.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek 


Saudi Food and Drug Authority seizes 412 tons of shrimp, fake food labels in Jazan

Updated 29 July 2021

Saudi Food and Drug Authority seizes 412 tons of shrimp, fake food labels in Jazan

  • Inspectors found modifications of data and expiry dates of the shrimps repackaged in new containers

JAZAN: Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) inspectors seized 412 tons of shrimp stocks after detecting fake food labels and product packages inside an illegal warehouse in Jazan region.

SFDA said that during the inspection and investigation operations, inspectors detected modifications of the data and the expiry dates of the product, which was repackaged in new containers.

The shrimp products, and packages and data labels were seized, in addition to another 500,000 labels bearing food data and cartons ready for packing.

As a result of the inspection, the authority closed the unlicensed warehouse and summoned those responsible for the facility to hear statements and complete the application of penalties and regulations against them.

According to food law and its executive regulations, the penalty for such violations can reach up to SR10 million ($2.6 million), in addition to a ban on the violator from practicing any food business for up to 180 days, as well as license suspensions and/or cancellations.

Violations of establishments under the supervision of the SFDA can be reported by calling the unified number (19999), or through its “Tameni” application available on the iOS and Android operating systems.

 

 


35,000 Saudi families benefit from Sakani housing scheme

Updated 29 July 2021

35,000 Saudi families benefit from Sakani housing scheme

  • Kingdom's Vision 2030 reform plan aims to raise the proportion of residential ownership to 70 percent

RIYADH: A total of 34,891 families benefited from subsidized mortgage loans through the Sakani self-construction program during the first half of this year.

Run by the Ministry of Municipal, Rural Affairs, and Housing and the Real Estate Development Fund (REDF), Sakani offers Saudis access to land and residential housing via financing solutions to help first-time homebuyers.

The Vision 2030 reform plan aims to raise the proportion of residential ownership in the Kingdom to 70 percent.

Sakani provided various residential products and financial solutions for 111,568 families in the first six months of the year, including 87,896 families that have already moved into new homes and its website and app are designed to simplify and speed up the purchasing process for readymade, off-plan, self-construction, and land products.

To qualify for a subsidized loan for self-construction, applicants must be entitled to residential support, own a residential land plot and have a valid building permit, have a fixed income, and must not have previously claimed housing support. Details are available at https://sakani.housing.sa/product/SC.

The scheme also provides an engineering design service with a range of high-quality, competitively priced options in partnership with experienced engineering offices. More than 36 distinctive and modern self-construction designs are available along with an approved contractor service.

The REDF offers more than 43 e-services for citizens as well as a real-estate adviser app and its online team provides around-the-clock support for those seeking subsidized funding.

Beneficiaries can call 199088 or contact the REDF on social media for information on housing and financial solutions, programs, and initiatives.


Saudi aviation authority issues update for citizens’ travel procedures abroad 

Updated 29 July 2021

Saudi aviation authority issues update for citizens’ travel procedures abroad 

  • New procedures will come into effect on Aug. 9

RIYADH: The Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) has issued a new circular to all airlines, both public and private, operating from the Kingdom’s airports updating the procedures for citizens’ travel outside Saudi Arabia.

The circular stipulates that airlines can carry citizens on international flights, provided that they have received all doses of one of the anti-coronavirus vaccines approved in the Kingdom, with the exception of passengers under the age of 12.

Travelers under the age of 12 are required to present an insurance document approved by the Saudi Central Bank that covers the risks of COVID-19 infection outside the Kingdom.

In addition, citizens who recovered from the virus less than 6 months ago and those who contracted corona more than 6 months ago and received a single dose of one of the approved vaccines in the Kingdom can travel abroad.

GACA said that these procedures will come into effect on Aug. 9.

The GACA continues to apply all preventive measures at the Kingdom’s airports, with the aim of providing an integrated health environment for travelers at Saudi airports.

The procedures also include obliging all concerned authorities and air transport companies operating at the Kingdom’s airports to comply with health safety requirements and preventive measures.


DGDA, Saudi Botanical Society sign MoU to turn historic Diriyah green

Updated 29 July 2021

DGDA, Saudi Botanical Society sign MoU to turn historic Diriyah green

  • Partnership between Diriyah Gate Development Authority and Saudi Botanical Society reflects both sides’ concern to protect and preserve local plants
  • First phase of the development project covers the restoration of more than 2 square kilometers of Wadi Hanifa and old farms in the region

RIYADH: The historic city of Diriyah is about to get greener.

The Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Saudi Botanical Society (SBS) to cooperate in private projects in the area of plants and trees in Diriyah.

The MoU also includes spreading awareness about the importance of plants and green spaces and developing the first national garden for local plants in Diriyah, within the projects implemented by the DGDA.

The first phase of the development project covers the restoration of more than two square kilometers of Wadi Hanifa and old farms in the region. It will also establish new hiking trails and parks to make the valley an open space so tourists and visitors can enjoy natural sceneries and outdoor space.

Developing the plants and green space in Diriyah was also addressed in the MoU, along with providing scientific and technical research in the field. The project is in line with the Diriyah Gate Project, Wadi Hanifa Project, and Wadi Safar Project as all associated parties will exchange expertise, information, data, and knowledge sources.

The partnership between DGDA and SBS reflects both sides’ concern to protect and preserve local plants in Diriyah.

SBS, the first nonprofit organization specialized in the protection of wild and local plants in the Middle East, was established after Saudi leadership launched a number of initiatives, such as Green Saudi Arabia, Green Middle East, and a scheme to plant 50 billion trees in the Kingdom.


Ignore false COVID-19 claims and get vaccinated, Saudi health authorities urge public

Updated 29 July 2021

Ignore false COVID-19 claims and get vaccinated, Saudi health authorities urge public

  • Health Ministry reports 1,334 new cases, 1,079 recoveries, 11 deaths

JEDDAH: The Saudi Health Ministry has warned residents against false claims about COVID-19 persistently circulating on social media and for the unvaccinated to get out and get inoculated from the disease.

Dr. Abdullah Asiri, Assistant Deputy Minister for Preventive Medicine, also urged the public to continue following health safety protocols to avoid getting hit by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.

In a recent message posted on Twitter, he  said that all medications must be taken in accordance with instructions, including antibiotics, but that most do not interfere with COVID-19 vaccinations.

The timing of vaccinations might need to be adjusted for people taking immunosuppressive drugs, such as rheumatism and cancer medications, to ensure the best response to the vaccines, he explained.

As of Wednesday, more than 25.7 million doses of vaccines have been administered in the Kingdom, at a current rate of 326,727 a day. More than 18.4 million people have received at least one dose and more than 7 million have received two, meaning more than 73.8 percent of the population has had at least one jab.

INNUMBERS

522,108 - Total number of COVID-19 cases in the Kingdom

502,528 - Number of recoveries 8,200 Deaths

8,200 - Number of COVID-related deaths

The Ministry of Health repeated its call for all eligible citizens and residents to register for the vaccine given the continuing spread of variants, and reiterated that people who are fully vaccinated are much less likely to become infected, or to suffer severe symptoms if they are.

Authorities reported 1,334 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the total in the country to 522,108. The number of active cases has risen to 11,380, and 1,409 patients are receiving critical care, 13 fewer than 24 hours earlier.

The Eastern Province recorded the highest number of new cases, with 271, followed by Riyadh with 260, Makkah with 239, Asir with 127, and Jouf with 12.

An additional 1,079 people have recovered from the disease, raising the total number of recoveries to 502,528, a recovery rate in the Kingdom of 96.2 percent.

An additional 11 people died as a result of conditions related to COVID-19, raising the death toll to 8,200.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control (Weqaya) announced that fully vaccinated travelers are exempt from quarantine requirements upon arrival in the Kingdom. Expatriates returning to the Saudi Arabia are also exempt if their health status is recorded as “recovered” on the Ministry of Health’s approved app, Tawakkalna.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development said it conducted 1,689 field inspections in Tabuk, during which it identified 83 violations of precautionary health measures in workplaces.