Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 March 2018

Women scientists tell of UAE's support 

Anna Zacharias speaks to five women shedding light on the world around us and shaping policy in Abu Dhabi and beyond

Azza Al Raisi is an assistant scientist for the marine water quality section at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi
Azza Al Raisi is an assistant scientist for the marine water quality section at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi

Sunday is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Worldwide male graduates in science greatly outnumber their female counterparts and Unesco reports that just 30 per cent of researchers are women. In December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly declared February 11 a day to promote fair and equal access for women in science and technology.

In the UAE, women have had support since the advent of formal schooling in the mid-20th century. Formal education was new to both men and women and with the introduction of new fields, women did not face the stereotypes that existed elsewhere. Yet some faced other challenges, like convincing extended family of the importance of studying abroad.

Today, female scientists in the UAE are found in laboratories, at sea and in the sky. We speak to five women shedding light on the world around us and shaping policy in Abu Dhabi and beyond.

Azza Al Raisi

Assistant Scientist, marine water quality section, Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi

Ms Al Raisi studied environmental health at Zayed University and completed her masters at the Masdar Institute in water and environmental engineering. There, she studied a cooling material that could reduce electricity consumption.

Every month we collect and analyse samples from around Abu Dhabi. I don’t usually go to the field. I mainly work on analysing data and writing the reports. There’s no day like the other.

We’re currently investigating if sandstorms have an impact on marine water and marine biodiversity in general. This is one of the projects we’ve just initiated. We expect that the sandstorm increases productivity because when it comes it usually brings nutrients and heavy metals. We’re expecting that the nutrient increase would help in the production of harmful algae blooms, algae in general as well as fish eggs and larvae.

A project that I’m really proud of is when the marine water quality team worked on monitoring Abu Dhabi’s territorial waters in 2015. We collected 110 water and sediment samples. From that we analysed all 39 parameters like algae distribution, fish eggs and larvae, nutrients, microbes, heavy metals. We do the regular monitoring at 22 stations but this gives a clear picture of what’s happening in Abu Dhabi waters in general and from different prospectives. It was three months of collection and analysis is ongoing.

I joined university wanting to do accounting because I love dealing with numbers and mathematics. I remember at Zayed University most people would go into business.

I met this girl in a lift who was studying environmental health. I’m like, what do you do with environmental health? I took an introductory class. I saw my future and the future of the country. At that time, I was among only seven graduated from that topic at Zayed University, so when I joined people did not understand. I think it was unusual and not only for women, even for men. People were like, what are you studying in environment? People wouldn’t care much but then with the change in the vision of the country, people say, “now we understand the importance of what you’re doing”.

Hind Al Ameri. Reem Mohammed / The National
Hind Al Ameri. Reem Mohammed / The National

Hind Al Ameri

Marine Threatened Species and Habitats Specialist, Environmental Agency-Abu Dhabi

Ms Al Ameri joined the agency following her graduation from Abu Dhabi University after completing a six-week internship. She holds a masters degree in biodiversity conservation from the University of Leeds, in the United Kingdom.

It’s fun that it’s not a routine job. When I started university I was a marketing major. As interesting as it might be I didn’t feel that was what I wanted to do.

The job requires me to be in the field more than the office. We have different seasons for different species. It starts in mid-March. We start with the aerial survey that concerns dugongs and other marine species, then comes the turtle nesting survey and then comes the turtle hatching survey.

With the day survey, we go out to certain islands where we know nesting occurs. We screen the beaches for any tracks and if we see any we then try to locate the nests and record locations. Our field rangers screen the beaches from eight o’clock in the evening. If they see a turtle coming to shore, they alert us and we go out and wait for the turtle to finish the nesting process. Before she goes back to shore, we take measurements and check if there’s a metallic tag on her flipper. If not, we tag her. A few months later, we go back, dig up all the nests and that’s when we know the percentage of hatching success, because we count the number of hatched eggs.

During incubation, turtles depend on temperature to identify their sex. The hotter it is, the more females there will be. I wanted to see if more of our hatchlings female because of these high temperatures or if they’re adapting. Most research has been done in cooler countries. I’m currently working on a proposal. Some studies have looked at it with other species but mine will pertain to hawksbills in the region.

Both my parents graduated from the US. My mom was more than supportive [with my studying abroad]. Having her on my side made it easier to convince my father. Dentists, doctors, lawyers, all of them are going abroad now to study. The country is more than happy to support them to just go and study outside [abroad], so a lot of women are out there.

Ruqaya Mahmoud. Reem Mohammed / The National
Ruqaya Mahmoud. Reem Mohammed / The National

Ruqaya Mahmoud

Section Manager of Air Quality, Noise and Climate Change, Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi

Ms Mahmoud studied microbiology at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s. After years of working in laboratories, she took certificate in environmental management and assessment.

The mandate in my section is to compile greenhouse gas emissions in Abu Dhabi, which is passed on to the federal government. The findings are included in the submission to the United Nations as part of the UAE’s commitment. As we speak we’re doing our third cycle.

I studied microbiology and for many years my work was working in a laboratory. Environmental issues were always at the back of my mind from a health perspective. A lot of illnesses are purely environmental. In 2006, I decided to pursue this so I went back to school and I got a graduate certificate in environmental management and assessment.

In those days, there was no internet so whatever you knew was as much as you’d read and spoken to people about. I knew I wanted to be in the lab because that’s where you look for the answers.

To me, the whole germ issue was interesting. I was fortunate because a professor of mine approached me and his lab was a pure microbiology lab. The project was about a disease called elephantiasis and the organism that causes it. All the information required, I had to go and get myself. I was doing field and laboratory work. To me, it was an opportunity in terms of independent thinking.

The history of academic institutions and government education policy here was very uniform. There was no [particular] set of values placed on men and [particular] set of values placed on women in terms of education. The opportunities at high schools and universities are equal. Also, getting married and going to school are not mutually exclusive things. If you decide to get married and then you want to go back to school, there’s no barrier. At work, if the HR policy is there to support you if you’re a mother. That eases the burden of women having to make these drastic choices. I think the opportunities are much broader for women here.

Leena Lulu

College of Information Technology, United Arab Emirates University

Ms Lulu is an instructor and researcher at UAE University in Al Ain. She specialises in web mining and artificial intelligence.

It’s a challenging field and I love to be challenged - that’s why I chose computer science. For men and for women, there was not much interest in artificial intelligence before. However, there is limitless advancement in it and every day you hear about new things and all have been done by AI.

I started working in that field with my bachelor’s degree. My graduate project in 2002 was about motion planning, about an autonomous robot finding a goal. My masters degree was also about robot motion planning and I took several courses in advanced robotics.

For my PhD, I went in a slightly different direction. I did my research on Arabic text reuse on the web, which had not been done for the language. It uses data mining techniques to find copies of text from different files.

Arabic is one of the most complex languages and it has different features than English. People can just reword the sentence and they think that they have not copied it but my system should find these changes. When there is synonym replacement or minor edits the system should be able to detect the changes.

The system uses techniques known as finger printing. Depending on the number of words in that fingerprint - it could be three or four words - it will try and find the similar finger print in other documents. Wherever there is similarity this means that part of the text has been copied.

When I research, I’ll read recent papers, I’ll be programming most of the time, coding, learning new tools, using different tools. When you code, you need to focus.

I believe that in the UAE there is great attention given to computing and to women in computing. They are really paying attention and the results are fruitful. The number of women is rising in science and computer science.

Muriel Gros-Balthazard. Courtesy Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi
Muriel Gros-Balthazard. Courtesy Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi

Muriel Gros Balthazard

Senior research scientist, Centre for Genomics and Systems Biology, New York University-Abu Dhabi

Ms Gros-Balthazard researches the evolutionary genomics of crops. She has researched the wild date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) in Oman and investigated the possibility that is an ancestral species of the domesticated palm. In January, she joined the Centre for Genomics and Systems Biology at NYUAD investigating the origins and evolutionary history of the date palm.

I was first interested in history. I was studying palaeontology but I missed biology and plants so I switched to the topic of domestication. I was interested in biology but also history, so I thought it was a topic that combined these different things.

I was looking for a PhD that combined biology and archaeology and this date palm project showed up and I thought that was great.

Plenty of wild date palm populations are known but is difficult to tell if it istruly wild, an ancestral population, if it is an abandoned oasis, or a neglected population that was once cultivated. We didn’t know how to differentiate these two things.

I started working with the seeds of the date palms. In other crops we know the seeds are affected by domestication. For example, in grapes we know the seeds are much more elongated in cultivated varieties than they are in the wild. Indeed, this was the case with date palms in Oman, they had smaller and more rounded date palms seeds.

We did whole genome sequencing of dates I found in Oman. In a phylogenetic tree [evolutionary tree], we found that that they are at the base of the Middle Eastern cultivator plant. Nobody was expecting such a discovery, I guess. I mean everybody know about those uncultivated populations in Oman but nobody was really looking for the ancestral palm.

This has an implication in terms of studying history. It’s very useful. For instance, when you have these wild populations you can compare them to the cultivars and find the genes that were selected during the cultivation process. In the changing world and because of climate change, it’s very important that we know the genome well.