On the Road to Science Achievement: 'Wherever You
Need to Go to Pursue Your Dream – Go'
Since leaving her native Saudi Arabia to pursue her dream in biotechnology, Hayat Sindi, a nanotechnology researcher and bio tech entrepreneur, has already reached some prodigious milestones in her young career, such as:
--Overcoming formidable cultural and personal obstacles to become the first woman from the Gulf Region to earn a Ph.D. in biotechnology.
--Becoming the first Arab woman in 2009 to win a fellowship in the respected American innovation network PopTech.
-- Being chosen under the White House initiative to be featured with other innovators around the country in "Connect a Million Minds," an online documentary film project to motivate K-12 students toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
-- Receiving the prestigious Prince Khalid Award from her country in 2010 for her innovative approach to the sciences.
As impressive as these achievements are, perhaps the milestone that means the most to her is the current path she is on: combining her lifelong love of science with her skills in biotechnology to improve healthcare in the Gulf Region and other parts of the developing world.
"I'm committed to my principles," says Hayat, a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, "and I believe that a person must leave a mark that benefits the human race, however I want to begin this benefit in the lands where my roots are."
Her dream took a major step forward in 2007 when she co-founded Diagnostics For All, a non-profit company that develops inexpensive, disposable medical tests capable of efficiently diagnosing diseases in remote areas of the world where people often do not receive adequate medical care. Using inexpensive and readily available paper and adhesive tape, the small devices are capable of reliably measuring protein and sugar levels in the blood for signs of illness.
"Through nanotechnology techniques we were able to micro-fabricate tiny diagnostic tools in the paper, says Hayat, "helping to create medical tests that allow healthcare workers to monitor the treatment of the 60 percent of people living beyond the reach of medical infrastructures."
Despite lucrative royalty payment offers from well-known entities in biotechnology for the innovation, Hayat and her co -founders turned down these proposals, preferring instead to make Diagnostics For All a non-profit company -- underscoring Hayat's and co-founders' determination to make this technology available as quickly, and at the least possible cost, to poor developing areas. Hayat and her business team for Diagnostic For All won two prestigious entrepreneurial awards, Harvard and MIT in the same year.
With laboratory tests on the devices having proven successful, Daignostic For All is currently working on producing a smaller version so that doctors anywhere can use it in their clinic. And in other research endeavors at Hayat is collaborating with colleagues using biotechnology tools in genetics and microbiology in projects that stand to also have implications in the Gulf Region and elsewhere. These include employing technology to change the fluidity of oil so that it can be pumped and transported more easily, and using microbes and bacteria to purify sewage water for drinking.
A devout Muslim who wears a hijab (head covering), Hayat, with her notable achievements, is becoming an inspirational role model for many young female students in the Middle East and elsewhere who aspire to pursue science and engineering as college majors and careers. She wears this mantel with pride.
Her message to women in Saudi Arabia and in any country challenged by sexism is "be persistent" and "never take 'no' for an answer." "Men and women are equal," she says, adding that even in the United States and in Europe this is still not fully appreciated.
To get to where she is today, the journey has indeed been tough. After she graduated from high school in Saudi Arabia she pursued enrolled in Medical College in her homeland, but discovered her real love scientific research. "I have loved research since I was a child but in order to make my dream come true I needed to travel abroad," says Hayat, who is number six of eight siblings. "But that was unacceptable socially, and financially difficult. Girls don't get to easily travel alone for education then in Saudi Arabia."
For two years, this restricted her," but when my parents saw how unhappy I was they trusted me and did all that they could to enable me to go."
She was then able to depart for Britain where she entered Kings College, graduating with honors in a Bachelor of Arts degree in pharmacology and soon began research in the science of drugs and its compounds. Later she earned her Ph.D. in biotechnology from Cambridge University in Britain. It was here where she began her early work on her medical diagnostic devices, and she started her diagnostic company called Sonoptix in Cambridge UK.
Today, as a prominent scientist, Hayat travels widely in the U.S. and internationally. But her youth, gender and cultural attire still make her an anomaly in some circles. "When they first see me I see the shock on their faces for I'm young, petite and a Muslim woman who covers (wears the 'hijab' on my head)."
She is regularly stopped and questioned about how she excelled to this point and how she achieved university degrees in such complex fields. " I'm initially taken lightly but by the time I leave there is total respect, appreciation, acknowledgement and pride in my accomplishments."
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