02.04.2012 - UNESCO Office in Venice/L'ORÉAL-UNESCO for Women in Science

Venice CBRN Workshop welcomes Rashika El Ridi, an outstanding female scientist

: ©Micheline Pelletier – Prof. Rashika El Ridi in her lab at Cairo University with preparations of Schistosoma male and female worms and a binocular microscope

Rashika El Ridi, L'ORÉAL-UNESCO for Women in Science 2010 Laureate for Africa and the Arab States for her contribution to the development of a vaccine to eradicate the cycle of schistosomiasis, a tropical disease infecting more than 200 million people in the world, will be 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).

Since 2006, the “Women in Science” programme 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. Prof El Ridi is the 2010 Laureate and teaches Immunology at the Faculty of Sciences at the Cairo University in Egypt. She is an expert in the field of reptilian immunity. Her primary research focus has since then been directed to the biology and immunobiology of schistosomiasis (commonly known as bilharzia) and her findings have contributed directly to the development of a candidate vaccine for this seriously debilitating illness.

Sometimes also called "snail fever", schistosomiasis is a chronic parasitic disease that causes severe sickness, especially in children. In humans, the presence of the parasite leads to a pronounced immune response, which results in pain, sores, widespread inflammation, fever, and general fatigue. Schistosomiasis is the second most socio-economically devastating disease in the world after malaria. It is endemic in 74 African, Asian and Latin American countries and infects an estimated 200 million people. In addition, schistosomiasis facilitates co-infection with malaria, tuberculosis, and viruses such as HIV.

Prof El Ridi has spent much of her career trying to uncover the underlying biology of this disease and the ways in which the human immune response can be manipulated to create an effective vaccine. She has helped clarify how the schistosoma parasite survives in the lungs and why the immune system has difficulty killing it there. In addition, she has elucidated several mechanisms by which the host immune system responds to schistosoma infection and prevents re-infection by the parasite. She discovered that the immune system responds strongly to several of the substances the parasite secretes while it is in the host, so vaccination with one or more of these substances has the potential to “prime” a person's immune system to prevent future infection.

Prof El Ridi has mentored dozens of students, working to find ways to fund their research and helping her university achieve prominence in the field of immunology. In addition, she has further contributed to the field of reptilian immunity by documenting the effects of seasonal variations on the immune systems of lizards and snakes. Her devotion to her students, her wide-ranging research interests, and her focus on a disease with such profound implications for the quality of life in the developing world make her a role model for scientists everywhere.

She received her Ph.D. in immunobiology from the Czech Academy of Science in Prague in 1975, and subsequently served five years as a Lecturer of Immunology at Cairo University. She was named Associate Professor in 1981 and full Professor in 1986. During this time, she was responsible for introducing the science of immunology into the undergraduate and graduate curriculum at Cairo University, served as a research director for a vast array of nationally and internationally funded projects, and supervised over 60 master's and 30 doctoral theses.

She has also spent significant time abroad as a visiting scholar, first at Hirosaki University in Japan, and later at the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health. El Ridi has received a number of prestigious awards, including the State Award of Excellence in High-Tech Sciences from the Egyptian government in 2002, the Cairo University Award for Recognition in Applied Sciences, and the D. Sc. degree in immunology from Cairo University in 2004.

When asked: “What does a woman’s perspective bring to science?”, Prof El Ridi replies: “Women have the ability to handle details, and give substantial attention on both major and minor matters, the latter being of importance for good science,” she says. “Because women are less fiercely competitive than men, they focus better on the scientific problem to solve.” She feels that great passion for science is the key prerequisite for women who choose this path: “A woman considering a career in science is expected to have a minimal amount of talent and abilities for this task; dedication and hard work should also be expected. A career in science requires energy spent on excellent work and taking excellent care of one’s children and spouse—for fulfillment, a secure and respectable position, financial independence, happiness and peace.”

Watch Rashika El Ridi video interview 

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