When Niveen Abu-Rmeileh began her job in 2005, her superiors told her that she should be seen and not heard.
“You are too young for your opinion to matter,” she recalled. “You do not have enough experience.”
At the time, Abu-Rmeileh, then 27 and newly armed with a doctorate from abroad, was the sole statistical epidemiologist in Palestine and was about to begin teaching at Birzeit University.
Today, she is among the top 2 percent of professors worldwide in a field of 100,000, according to a study by Stanford University in 2020. She is a member of a team of Palestinian public health officials and doctors examining Covid-19 and is working on a scientific paper describing the epidemiological characteristics of the disease in Palestine. (See a related article, “Public Health Experts Are Often Missing From Arab World’s Coronavirus Battle.”)
She is also cooperating with several agencies, including the Palestinian Ministry of Health, to set standards for health care in Palestine and ensure that it conforms to the latest in public health research.
‘A Strong Voice in the Region and the World’
Colleagues praise her drive, professionalism and ability both in the lab and outside of it.
“She has exceptionally good leadership skills,” said Martin O’Flaherty, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, who was one of her professors at the University of Glasgow, where she earned her Ph.D.
She is “making the case to improve health in her country, acknowledging the stark health inequalities but always looking for positive actions based on the best evidence available or she can produce,” O’Flaherty added. “This research into action ethos makes her a strong voice in the region and the world.”
Abu-Rmeileh says that it was knowledge but also sheer determination that enabled her to make it in a male-dominated field and in a society where women are seen as home-makers and mothers, not as professionals, scientists or professors.
“Women’s opinions are rarely considered in our society,” she said. “But women in Palestine are capable and component, we have the knowledge and wisdom to sit at the same table with men despite our age and experience.”
Abdullatif Hussein, director of the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University and her boss, concurred.
“Despite facing challenges in terms of being a woman in a very competitive field, her determination and hard work enabled her to become one of the leading researchers in public health in Palestine,” he said.
“Despite facing challenges in terms of being a woman in a very competitive field, her determination and hard work enabled her to become one of the leading researchers in public health in Palestine.”Abdullatif Hussein
Director of the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University
She is also a member of several international institutions, including the Global Implementation Society and two advisory bodies of the World Health Organization, the Eastern Mediterranean Advisory Committee for Health Research and the Eastern Mediterranean Research Ethics Review Committee.
Family Support and Encouragement
Abu-Rmeileh was born and raised in East Jerusalem and finished secondary school and a degree program in medical laboratory sciences at Al-Quds University. After graduation, she worked as a medical tech at the Peace Medical Center in Al-Ram, northeast of Jerusalem, before becoming an assistant researcher studying obesity in Palestine at Birzeit’s Institute of Community and Public Health, where she also earned her master’s degree in public health. In 2000, she moved to Scotland to pursue a Ph.D. in statistical epidemiology at the University of Glasgow.
Although her mother dropped out of university, she pushed Abu-Rmeileh to finish her degree and enter the health sector. “My family were always very supportive—they supported me when I wanted to travel and complete my Ph.D. abroad at a time when traveling as a woman (alone) was restricted in our society,” she said. “But I learned what passion and determination are from my strong mother.”
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Abu-Rmeileh says her experience in Scotland was a turning point, showing her how critical it was to develop the public health sector in Palestine, especially regarding research. As a result, she returned to Palestine in 2004, where she worked in laboratories and also taught.
Lack of Funds for Research in Palestine
Fifteen years later, she established the Evidence Synthesis Center at Birzeit because she says she saw how necessary it was to shore up research and provide capacity-building and mentorship for young researchers and doctors. Still, she adds, lack of funding is the main obstacle to research in Palestine.
“The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has a very limited budget to fund research,” she said. “Palestinians researchers are smart and hard workers. The only thing we need is the environment to continue and develop our work.”
“The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has a very limited budget to fund research. Palestinians researchers are smart and hard workers. The only thing we need is the environment to continue and develop our work.”Niveen Abu-Rmeileh
The center focuses on providing researchers and students with the guidance they need to perform systematic reviews of the public health sector. It also investigates the social, political, and economic perspectives of particular diseases to help decision-makers. Its work is centered on non-communicable diseases (mainly diabetes), reproductive health and information systems for health.
“Systematic reviews are a new form of research that we started to implement in Palestine … a way to create a collaboration between researchers and implementers to integrate research into policy and the decision-making processes,” Abu-Rmeileh said.
Another challenge is that Palestinian universities are more focused on teaching, to the near exclusion of research. “Within Birzeit University, we have the space to travel and do research,” she said. “But, in general, we still need to change the teaching system to be research-oriented.”
That need—to improve the health and research sectors in Palestine from the supply side, the researchers themselves—led Abu-Rmeileh to become a full-time professor at Birzeit University in 2019, where she teaches today.
Her goal, she says, is to expose her students to a world of new possibilities. And she says the key to success in one’s field is establishing a strong network and surrounding oneself with positive support and a solid team. “Having a good team will always encourage you to keep going and never stop achieving your dreams,” she said.
Meanwhile, she wants to firmly instill in her students that one never stops being a student—and that is the secret ingredient. “I never say that I am an expert in my field,” she said. “Continuous learning is the key to success.”