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A Role Model For Female Arab Scientists

Maha Al-Asmakh wants to understand how the so-called “good” bacteria in the gut of a mother can affect the development of a fetus, specifically the blood-brain barrier, a filter that keeps the blood in the brain free from potentially harmful substances.

A mother herself, Al-Asmakh received her doctorate degree from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden last year, and is now an assistant professor in the biomedical science department at Qatar University.

Last month Al-Asmakh received the 2016 L’Oréal-UNESCO “For Women in Science” Middle East Fellowship Award. The fellowship recognizes women Arab scientists whose research has advanced scientific knowledge that could change the world for the better.

The fellowship grants Al-Asmakh €20,000 (about $25,000) to conduct her next research project. She’s planning to use the support to see if healthy gut bacteria can prevent diabetes.

“I’m very happy to have the award,” she says.

The dean of the college of health sciences and Al-Asmakh’s mentor, Asmaa Al Thani, pushed Al-Asmakh to apply for the fellowship: “She’s a promising scientist, a hard worker and I was trying to secure her some funds for research.”

“We need to support young women scientists as much as possible,” she adds, “It’s not easy. Even if you find girls who like biology, they find it’s a hard career to balance with their social life and family. So they need a life model in front of them.”

Being a biologist adds an extra layer of difficulty. Experiments often run well into the night, so scientists can’t simply hit pause and pick things up again in the morning. After frustration with pay and promotion opportunities, it’s often family-related constraints that cause women to leave science.

Maha Al-Asmakh knows the difficulties of managing this balance better than most. But she manages to make it work. Knowing many women researchers share this concern, she wants other female scientists to know it can be done.

“I’d advise people to follow their dream,” Al-Asmakh says.

“I’d advise people to follow their dream,” she says.

To try to answer the scientific questions she has been pursuing, she experimented with pregnant mice by manipulating their gut bacteria and then examining their offspring.

“The barrier should be closed so bad things can’t pass,” she explains. “We found the level of good bacteria does affect [blood-brain barrier] development.” She believes — though has yet to prove — that the bacteria release chemicals that help the barrier to form.

“Now I’m thinking to move into humans. We have a high rate of diabetes in Doha and I want to see if we could prevent this,” she says. There are already some studies showing that good bacteria can influence insulin levels, but these studies looked at adults, and Al-Asmakh wants to study the effect of a mother’s gut bacteria on her unborn child’s chance of developing diabetes.

She says this won’t be a straightforward study, and exactly how it will be done is yet to be finalized. But those who have worked with her in the past believe she’ll be able to find a way to make it happen.

“When things aren’t working she doesn’t collapse and say it’s the end of the world,” says Al Zadjali, an assistant professor at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman who studied with Al-Asmakh in Sweden.

Al Zadjali says he hopes to collaborate with Al-Asmakh in the future. “Maha is a great person to work with, personality wise. She’s pleasant, smart and enjoys what she does.”

It’s essential for Al-Asmakh to use data from Arab populations when she starts her study on diabetes, says Al Thani. “The influence of gut bacteria on disease is important, and it’s become a hot potato, lots of pharma companies are interested,” she explained. “But Arab people’s bacteria will be different and so it’s important therefore that we have a local Qatari scientist interested in this.”

Her supporters hope the award will help her get the support she needs to move forward in her career and her research.

“These awards are important for Arab women because they provide funding, but they also create an image. We need to show the world and the region that Arab women scientists deserve to be recognized,” says Fahad Al Zadjali.


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