L'Oreal-UNESCO recognises exceptional Arab women scientists

Published online 9 February 2013

Female scientists with a range of expertise ranging from agriculture to mobile technology were honoured at an awards ceremony in Cairo this week.

Louise Sarant

Eight Arab women researchers were honoured for their exceptional work.
Eight Arab women researchers were honoured for their exceptional work.

Eight researchers from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria and Tunisia were selected in this year's L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science Pan-Arab Regional Fellowships Program. Each received a US$20,000 grant to further their careers.

Heba Salama, the Egyptian fellow, is an agronomist with a PhD in Agricultural Sciences from the University of Agricultural and Nutritional Science in Kiel, Germany. Now a professor of crop sciences at the University of Alexandria, Salama is researching yield performance and nutritional value of forage crops in a bid to provide higher quality feed for livestock which would improve the nutrition of milk and meat.

Salama is concerned by the lack of food security in Egypt and said she would use her grant to study the possibility of introducing non-native forage crops to the country and to experiment with hybrids. "Egypt does not lack brilliant minds and researchers," she stresses, "but the facilities to conduct proper science are terrible."

Since its inception, the programme has awarded 22 female postgraduate fellows from 17 Arab countries across all branches of science. This year, the fellowship received 180 applications – about twice as many as the previous two years.

Role models

"Female scientists' perseverance during this difficult political period across the region sends a clear message and should be applauded," says Bechir Lamine, director of UNESCO Cairo office.

Lina Al Kanj, 30, the fellow from Lebanon, is working towards a post-doctorate at the American University of Beirut (AUB), researching ways to reduce the energy consumption of mobile devices.

"Not only would the battery last much longer, but it would also lower the contribution of the telecommunication sector to global warming," says Al Kanji, who hopes to be an example to aspiring female scientists.

Lamine said that the fellowship hopes to promote women in science and is integral to UNESCO's gender policies. "It sends a clear message that women can spearhead amazing discoveries that will have a strong impact on the community." He said the awards also improve international visibility for scientists.

Sumaya Abbas, from Bahrain, is an environmental engineer working on waste management and the conversion of waste to energy. "Because oil and gas resources are depleting [in Bahrain], we are looking at alternatives sources of energy, and waste is one of them," she says.

The Iraqi fellow Reyam Naji Ajmi is also working on environmental pollution, focusing on the exposure of Iraqi women to mercury from contaminated fish.

Noura Bougacha-Elleuch from Tunisia, Alia Shatanawi from Jordan and Hiba Al Helou from Syria all research health-related issues, ranging from cancer to dentistry.

Rounding up the list of fellows is computer scientist Rasha Osman from Sudan, who is working to enhance the performance of computer software.

"Some of the researchers who were honoured tonight are married and have a family. To me, they are the true role models as they prove that an exceptional career in science can be coupled with a family life," says Al Kanj.