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Palestinian Researcher Wins L’Oréal-Unesco Award for Arab Women in Science

The Palestinian researcher Nirmeen Elmadany, who earned her Ph.D. in Germany and is now a postdoctoral researcher there, has won a L’Oréal-Unesco prize for her brain cancer research.

Early in her academic career, Elmadany wanted to study medicine at Cairo University, but the closing of the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 forced her instead to study pharmacy at Al-Azhar University inside the Strip. Yet she never gave up her ambition.

Recently, Elmadany was honored by the Fondation L’Oréal and Unesco at the first For Women in Science Young Talents Awards Ceremony for MENA. She was among 14 Arab female scientists who received the award.

Research Career

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy at Al-Azhar, Elmadany worked there as a teaching assistant before becoming an assistant researcher at the University of Jordan. With the help of a grant from the German government she obtained a master’s degree in clinical pharmacology there in 2015.

“I was disappointed not to study medicine at university, but I knew I needed to strive in research where there are few women from Arab societies.”

She moved to Germany two years later to study for a Ph.D. Two years ago she was awarded her doctorate for her research on controlling microglia, the first immune defence in the central nervous system, which are meant to destroy foreign bodies and tumorous cells in the brain.

Elmadany has received fellowships and research grants throughout her career from institutions including Italy’s International Centre for Theoretical Physics and Harvard Medical School in the United States. In the Harvard fellowship, she ranked first a programme that involved 84 researchers and physicians from 33 countries.

Frustration and Perseverance

Elmadany, who is now a researcher at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, told Al-Fanar Media: “I was disappointed not to study medicine at university, but I knew I needed to strive in research where there are few women from Arab societies.”

“Life requires courage, and success requires risk and perseverance,” she said. “I learnt this from living in Palestine.” Elmadany is continuing her cancer research now investigating a protein that inhibits immune cells in cancerous tissue in the brain.

Rana Abu Dahab, dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Jordan, was Elmadany’s supervisor during her master’s degree studies. She told Al-Fanar Media that Elmadany’s excellence in science was not a coincidence.

“She is known for her ambition, confidence, and not being satisfied with little,” Abu Dahab said. “Nirmeen is serious and distinguished in her search for creative ideas. There is no room for the word ‘impossible’ in her life.”

Abu Dahab also spoke about the effect of the siege of Gaza on Elmadany. “That added a lot to her character because she had to withstand the hardship of alienation from her family and homeland.”

Elmadany said the experience made her realise one needed to be influential in life as one of God’s successors on earth, and that that idea had always encouraged her to continue working and face any difficulties.

Difficulties Studying in Europe

“Scientific research requires … long years of academic and educational attainment, which makes many women choose to have a family instead.”

After moving to Germany, she said, she faced difficulties related to her being a veiled Arab woman. It made cultural integration into Europe “very difficult” such that she “could not overcome it” even after more than six years in Germany. Some people addressed her as if she were from a developing country although she ranked first in her university. “No level of education from home qualified me to work or study in Germany,” she said.

Elmadany said such experiences limited her interactions and made her focus only on research and scientific discussions.

The difficulties did not stop there, however. “I faced a lot of travel restrictions … because of my Palestinian nationality,” which hindered her ability to attend conferences around the world, she said. In addition, it was difficult to meet her family in Gaza for about nine years.

Elmadany added that the death and bloodshed she had witnessed in Gaza left her with constant fear and anxiety to this day.

Few Arab Women Scientific Researchers

Elmadany thinks the reason there are so few female researchers in science in the Arab region can be attributed to the way Arab women are brought up, taught that taking care of their home, husband, and children are their main duties.

“Scientific research requires the acquisition of a high academic degree and arduous work. This requires long years of academic and educational attainment, which makes many women choose to have a family instead,” she said.

Elmadany is grateful to her family for supporting her career. “My mother constantly advised me to continue striving to the fullest extent in my studies, without worrying about the result. That advice was the key to any closed door I encountered on my research journey.”

Elmadany hopes to inspire change in the Palestinian education systems to be geared more towards research. “Palestine has a young and promising research energy, but we always need more scholarships and ways to encourage researchers to complete their projects.”

The L’Oréal-Unesco Young Talents awards were presented last month at Expo 2020 Dubai. The awards are part of the For Women in Science initiative.


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