29.03.2012 - UNESCO Office in Venice/L'ORÉAL-UNESCO for Women in Science

L'ORÉAL-UNESCO for Women in Science 2006 Laureate for Africa participates in the Venice CBRN Workshop

©Micheline Pelletier/Gamma - Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni observing the characteristics of DNA migration in an electric field

Participating as a key speaker in the International Workshop on "Higher Education and Professional Responsibility in CBRN Applied Sciences and Technology Across the Sub-Mediterranean Region” (3-4 April 2012, Venice) Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni (Human Genetics) from Tunis, 2006 Laureate for Africa will present an updated contribution to the analysis and prevention of hereditary disorders.

Since 2006, the “Women in Science” program annually rewards outstanding female scientists in recognition of their exceptional achievements, and one Laureate is awarded from each of five continents: Africa, Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America.

Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni is a Professor of Medical Genetics, at the University of Tunis. She has devoted her medical and research career to improving conditions for children and families affected by genetic disorders in Tunisia. A pioneer in her country, she has fought for over 20 years to get medical genetics recognized as an essential discipline, in terms of both research and medical training.

As a medical student in a paediatrics ward she became aware of the difficulties faced by families with children suffering from genetic diseases such as β-thalassemia and the poor quality of care they received. This experience was to define the rest of her career path.

The problem of appropriate medical care for patients with genetic disorders is particularly relevant in Tunisia. The country has one of the world’s highest rates of consanguineous marriage, often between first cousins and as a result, a high prevalence of genetic disorders. A recessive genetic disorder in a child born of a consanguineous marriage raises the possibility that other members of the family are unaffected carriers of the mutation and risk having affected children.

Early in her career, Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni realized the importance of genetic counseling as the best way to manage hereditary disease in Tunisia. For over a decade she worked to put in place the infrastructure necessary to make this a reality - training clinicians in diagnostic techniques for genetic disorders, developing genetic counselling facilities and establishing modern laboratory equipment to ensure accurate diagnoses, despite the difficulties of the social and economic context. In 1981, genetic counselling was offered for the first time to Tunisian patients and their families, and in 1993, thanks to her persistence and hard work, the first medical genetics department in Tunisia was inaugurated. Since then, over 40,000 people have been referred there for genetic counseling or prenatal diagnosis.

Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni has made significant contributions to medical genetics research by defining the molecular basis of genetic disorders in Tunisia and in gathering information on the genetic characteristics of the Tunisian population through the study of DNA polymorphism. In addition to contributing to the development of medical education in Tunis, she has been active in a number of international initiatives related to hereditary disease, including UNESCO’s universal declaration on the human genome and human rights.

In her own words: “I fulfilled a childhood dream of understanding how life started and how all human beings are eternal.”

As a child, Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni was intrigued about the evolution of the cosmos and the end of the world. ‘My early desire to understand life and the universe and my curiosity were probably at the origin of my choice of a scientific career,” she says. “I think that by following a career in the area of genetics, I fulfilled a childhood dream of understanding how life started and how all human beings are eternal. Their basic material, DNA, can last eternally on Earth.”

Although she enjoyed literature and language, Professor Bouhamed Chaabouni had no hesitation in taking up scientific studies. “Brought up in a family where discipline was ‘de rigueur’ I found it easy to follow scientific logic and mathematical reasoning. Scientific subjects corresponded well to my hopes and brought me a certain satisfaction of spirit.”

“My generation benefited from a policy of education. Both boys and girls were encouraged to go to school and all university students had a study grant. My father, although he had no academic diploma, was a great defender of knowledge, culture and the education of his children. He told us that study and gaining a qualification were the best guarantees of independence and liberty.  As Tunis opened up to Europe, the access to higher education and the availability of the scientific press, however partial, meant that science was quite highly valued. All these elements had a favourable impact on my scientific career.”

But Professor Bouhamed Chaabouni’s career path was not always a smooth one. “A woman was not supposed to evolve in a masculine world. At the time, thirty-five years ago, science was a male domain. Medical studies were not for women and a woman was not supposed to have an ambitious career. She was supposed to leave a security margin with respect to men in her professional life. These cultural beliefs sometimes penalized my career, especially later on. I was once refused a post of responsibility in favour of a male colleague, the only argument being that I was a happily married mother!”

In spite of these difficulties, her deep desire to develop a medical and scientific specialty and to put in place a different approach to medicine in Tunisia pushed her to continue her scientific career. “I enjoy the area I work in; I learn, I produce, I train scientists and doctors from the next generation and I communicate with the public to demystify genetic disease.”

Above all Habiba Bouhamed Chaabouni values the knowledge that her research could be exploited to help patients and their families, and the population in general. “Not only is it important but it is my professional raison d’être,” she says, “to help affected families and ill patients to understand what has happened to them and, above all, to help them to have healthy descendants.”

Source : UNESCO-l’Oreal Palmares of the Year Laureates 2006

<- Back to: UNESCO Office in Venice
Back to top