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Rana Dajani: Underrepresentation of Women in Science is a Global Issue

Reflecting on her own academic journey, the Jordanian molecular biologist Rana Dajani observes that the underrepresentation of women in science is a “global phenomenon” and not an issue for Arabs alone.

In an interview Al-Fanar Media, Dajani said that Arabs do not have a problem with female education, as “more than 80 percent of girls enrol in science and mathematics.” The real problem, she said, begins with the labour market, where women’s representation significantly lags behind that of men. This gap applies to both the East and the West.

“The problem is that we are not asking the right question,” Dajani said. Instead of, “Do women really want to enter the labour market?” she would change the emphasis: “We must respect women’s choice. Society should not dictate its conditions to them.”

Hurdles on the Path to a Ph.D.

In 2005, Dajani received her Ph.D. degree in molecular biology from the University of Iowa, in the United States. She returned to her homeland in 2006 to work as an assistant professor in the Hashemite University’s Faculty of Science.

Her journey to achieving her doctorate came a decade and a half after her graduation from the University of Jordan’s Faculty of Science with a Bachelor of Science in biology in 1989. She went on to earn a master’s degree in 1992.

“The problem is that we are not asking the right question.” Instead of, “Do women really want to enter the labour market?” Dajani would change the emphasis: “We must respect women’s choice. Society should not dictate its conditions to them.”

Continuing her academic achievements was not easy, however. After her master’s degree, she kept corresponding with several universities until she was accepted for doctoral study in molecular biology at the University of Cambridge.

Lack of money for travel and study, however, blocked her from taking up that offer, which was postponed time after time. She still has the admission letter, she says.

Meanwhile, Dajani taught science and biology at a school, got married, and started a family. But she never gave up her dream of continuing her scientific career in molecular biology.

Family Support

After Dajani became a mother of three, her husband, who was a colonel in the Jordanian Air Force, urged her in 1999 to apply for a Fulbright scholarship for doctoral studies at the University of Iowa. She immediately applied for the scholarship and took her exams. On the interview day, she gave birth to her youngest daughter.

The challenges weren’t over. After her admission, she struggled with her four children and a husband with a military job. She did not know how she would travel without her children or her husband.

At that point, her husband offered her a unique solution by quitting his prestigious job so her dream could come true. The family moved to the United States. There, with her husband looking after the children, Dajani was busy with her studies to obtain a doctorate.

Early Love of Science and Reading

Dajani was born in Jordan to a Palestinian father from Jerusalem and a Syrian mother from Aleppo.

One of eight sisters, who have also achieved scientific prowess in various fields, Dajani grew up in a family fond of reading and science, led by a father who was a professor in the University of Jordan’s Faculty of Medicine.

There was no television at home, Dajani said, but the family had subscriptions to several Arabic and English journals, such as Al-Araby Magazine, Scientific American and National Geographic.

Dajani’s dream of pursuing a Ph.D. came true after her husband offered a unique solution: He quit his job as an officer in the Jordanian Air Force so the family could move to the United States. He looked after the children while she was busy with her studies.

Her father encouraged her and her sisters to read, she said, and every evening they discussed with him what they had read.

Studies of Ethnic Communities

After returning to Jordan in 2006, Dajani focused her research on studying diseases among the kingdom’s Chechen and Circassian communities. With initial funding that amounted to $250,000, she set up laboratories, collected samples, and created databases on the DNA of these groups.

“We now have databases on Circassians and Chechens,” she said. “Scientists from all over the world come to take samples for study.”

Given the difficulty of analysing samples in Jordan, Dajani signed research partnerships with international universities, such as Philadelphia University (now part of Thomas Jefferson University). Hakon Hakonarson, who now directs the Center for Applied Genomics at the Joseph Stokes Jr. Research Institute of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, joined her team.

Dajani has been an active leader of several scientific associations. She has served as chair of the Jordan National Chapter of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) for three years.

Since 2019, she has also been the president of the Society for the Advancement of Science and Technology in the Arab World (SASTA), a U.S.-based non-profit network founded by expatriate Arab scholars.

She was also director of the Center for Studies at the Hashemite University in 2011 and 2012.

‘We Love Reading’

In 2006, Dajani developed an initiative called We Love Reading, in which she read aloud to neighbourhood children at her local mosque in Amman. The initiative spread to more than 60 countries around the world and has trained more than 7,000 volunteers to become “reading ambassadors”.

The project aims to train children to read for pleasure and to make books and reading accessible to children in every community, including refugee camps. It has had an especially positive impact in refugee settings, Dajani said.

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In 2020, Dajani was honoured by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, as the Nansen Refugee Award winner for the Middle East and North Africa region. The award recognises her humanitarian efforts through We Love Reading.

Currently, Dajani is studying whether initiatives like We Love Reading can affect DNA. “This is the first time that the effect of an educational program on DNA has been studied,” she said.

Related Reading

Rana Dajani has written several commentaries for Al-Fanar Media:

Additional related articles from Al-Fanar Media:


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