x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Aviation expert who aims high

Nadia Qassem is an Emirati female aviation specialist.

Dr Nadia Qassem is the Etihad Airways chief medical officer after specialising in aviation medicine. Her latest pursuit is obtaining a pilot's licence. She admits it's not "as easy as I anticipated it to be".
Dr Nadia Qassem is the Etihad Airways chief medical officer after specialising in aviation medicine. Her latest pursuit is obtaining a pilot's licence. She admits it's not "as easy as I anticipated it to be".

DUBAI // The most gregarious of four sisters, Nadia Qassem is no stranger to making sure her voice is heard.

While her elder sister Lubna campaigns in a man's world, fighting for legal reform, Nadia has become a rare breed: an Emirati female aviation medicine specialist, working for Etihad Airways.

"I remember telling my mum I wanted to be a doctor and she was surprised," she said. "I was so outgoing, so dramatic and she couldn't believe I wanted to do something which would take so long."

It was not an easy journey. During training for her master's in aviation medicine from King's College London, she endured tasks fit for a soldier on land, sea and in the air, ensuring she went through emergency situations herself - including being stranded at sea - for survival training.

Although she felt intimidated initially, surrounded by much older doctors, she remained focused. "I didn't let anything distract me. I knew what I wanted and knew how to get it," she said.

She admitted she was a "naughty child", both at home and at school.

"I'd always break things and reinvent new things," she said. "I'd always have an excuse not to sit in Arabic class too, like I needed water, I needed to use the library. At parents' evening the teachers would say I was very intelligent but wouldn't sit still and I was loud."

Good job, she said, as it was her tenacity and confidence that has seen her through a challenging path. Her mother provided Ms Qassem with her biggest source of inspiration before her death five years ago.

"She would always tell us she wanted us to be famous and I didn't understand. Now I do. She wanted us to excel in what we do. Now that moment's come, it's a shame I can't share that with her."

Nadia's elder sister Lubna, a legal reform specialist, said: "I have always admired my sister for her sense of adventure, ability to boldly take risks and her leadership qualities. As a child she was always bold to try everything."

She said their parents played a pivotal role in making them the strong women they are today.

"I believe the key factor to her success is our parents' continuous support and encouragement to allow her to release her full potential," she said. "Discipline was an essential ingredient in our upbringing. My father never said no to her, if she wanted to seek a new sport as a hobby or seek new knowledge, and my mother always encouraged her in extra curricular activities to nurture her mind body and soul.

"As sisters we have always given her the support and we learn from each other because we believe life is a continuous development."

Ms Qassem's latest pursuit is obtaining her pilot's licence.

"I wanted to know that feeling a pilot had," she said. "I thought it would be something easy, clicking a button in the air, but it's not. It's all about knowing your instruments, the altitude, just not as easy as I anticipated it to be."

It complements her daily role, at Etihad, as their aviation medicine specialist. The job involves checking the health of pilots and aircrew, anticipating occupational hazards and understanding altitude physiology.

She continuously upgrades her skills. In addition to learning to fly, she is studying occupational medicine from the University of Manchester in Britain as well as trying to encourage more local women to join her and promote the field.

"I want to promote it in the GP community as well," she said. "A lot of the doctors don't understand the complications. We're flying against physiology and need to educate our GPs and the flying population.

"We need to educate the medical community. My own success isn't enough," she said. "Helping others and sharing your success so other people can get motivated, training and advising them is part of success."

Her high energy does not finish at work: cooking is one of her passions.

"I watch BBC Food whenever I can," she laughs.