Inspiring youth: Hayat Sindi

Meet Hayat, a Saudi woman like few others. She was the first woman from the Arabian Gulf to earn a PhD in Biotechnology and hopes that many will follow. She is a co-founder of Diagnostics For All, a not-for-profit that aims to save lives and improve health in the developing world through low-cost, innovative, practical diagnostic devices. She is also the founder and president of i2institute, which aims to create an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and social innovation for scientists, technologists and engineers in the Middle East and beyond. Dr Hayat Sindi was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador on 1 October 2012.

Hayat Sindi shared her motivations with us, and explained what she hopes to inspire through her actions.

Photo by Kris Krüg for PopTech
Dr Hayat Sindi at Pop!Tech 2009

Arab women and science: what does that evoke for you?

I am proud to say that I am both an Arab woman and a scientist: I really see potential for women in the field, even though they may feel this future is currently somewhat obscure.

If anything, I would like to think that I have inspired girls to pursue a career in science if that is what interests them. I advocate thinking outside the box, if one’s situation is tough, in favor of their ambitions. For example, if someone’s dream is to help people by being a doctor, he or she cannot give up after facing an obstacle, but should find a way to reach his or her purpose even if it means not necessarily becoming a doctor.

As a teenager, you moved to the United Kingdom and worked against the odds to become the first female from the Gulf to earn a PhD in biotechnology. You took intensive English courses and passed your A-levels in the same year; securing a place in King’s College, which paved the way to Cambridge. What obstacles did you face along the way?

Being the kind of girl that is devoted to her family, I had to adjust to a different way of life in England. Socially, I had difficulties sharing with my new friends. Even when I tried telling anecdotes, it just wasn’t the same: I came from a totally different background. And in classes, I had a professor who knew that the only way to push me to use his methods in problem solving was to be tougher when grading my work. Looking back at the moments that, at times, frustrated me I don’t really remember how I kept going. I just know that finding what interests you, your passion, helps immensely.

In my field, being a woman also meant that I would have to earn the respect of colleagues who thought that, for example, my choice to wear the headscarf was inconsistent with my choice to study a natural science.

© i2 institute.
Dr Hayat Sindi

In practice, do you feel curricula are keeping up with the advancements in the field?

The fundamentals in science never change, so I think a sound introduction to science is what is imperative in schools around the globe. Further on, practical experimentation should be incorporated because it was central to my own learning. Higher education is definitely a step in the right direction and, while initially daunting, is always rewarding. It should help the youth discover exactly what they are good at; what interests them. This step, while new to many, should be taken with commitment because it will help you when overcoming obstacles.

Where have you seen your achievements to be most fruitful?

The advances in diagnostics are particularly promising, I would say. A piece of paper the size of a postage stamp has been developed with the capacities of a diagnostic lab. Just thinking of what could be achieved in African towns far away from big cities is staggering in terms of its simplicity. Thanks to microchemistry, the results obtained from testing a drop of blood, for example, reveal themselves within minutes indicating liver function, with cancer detection and other applications being developed for this invention.

 

Once a visiting scholar at Harvard University, you have specific views on the diffusion of knowledge. The trailblazing path that you followed should be an example to others. Where, geographically, would you like to implement these advances?

Brain drain is a feature of today’s scientific world that amuses me. There is not so much a shortage of education, as much as a concentration of places where it is administered. It makes sense that those who become qualified should spread their contributions where it is needed: to the less privileged. Knowing that 47% of the Arab population is 18 years old or younger, with 70% aiming to leave home in the pursuit of studies and jobs, it’s safe to say that their outlook on the future in the Middle East needs to be stimulated. My contribution is in the form of bridging the gap between two forces: imagination and ingenuity, to realize their owners’ potential.

Through “i2”, the NGO that I launched, I aim to create a world class network of mentors and scientists to bring the youth closer to innovators, to allow them to connect to the many possibilities of science, and most importantly, to unlock their own potential.

Travelling around the world, what message do you spread with your position in the field of science?

For me, it wasn’t easy, but totally worth it. It is crucial to have a passion and set a goal. A target helps you when you aren’t sure how to tackle hardship. Keep working on making it happen even when you find barriers. Don’t restrict yourself and remain open to different solutions. And most of all, since it’s a journey into the unknown, try to enjoy the ups and downs of the ride!

Hayat Sindi's initiatives:

Dr Hayat Sindi was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador on 1 October 2012.

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