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Saudi medical scientist Nouf Al-Numair hopes success will be contagious after clinching British Council award

Nouf Al-Numair, second from left, received the British Council Alumni Award for Social Impact during a ceremony in Riyadh recently. (AN photo by Iqbal Hossain)
JEDDAH: It is not unusual for young girls to watch their mothers prepare meals, but one girl in Riyadh liked to pretend the kitchen was her laboratory, and the ingredients were the chemicals that intrigued her. For Saudi scientist Nouf Al-Numair that was the start of a fascination that led her to the study of bioinformatics and molecular genetics.
Now she is investigating the future of diseases before they even come into existence through genetic mutation; her job involves predicting diseases’ reactions to personalized medicine and treatment. Besides the biology and genetic knowledge, she uses more than seven programming languages to analyze human genes.
A scientist at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh, Al-Numair is also an assistant professor at Alfaisal University’s College of Medicine and a visiting researcher at the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology.
She was recently awarded the British Council Alumni Award for Social Impact. She spoke to Arab News about her accomplishments and how she hopes to use the recognition to help create a positive image of Saudi women. She also spoke of the importance of overseas study in the accomplishment of her goals.
“I discovered my passion for genetics early on and was determined to study the subject more deeply and from the perspective of merging the science of molecular genetics and computer programming,” Al-Numair said.
“There were no such courses available in Saudi Arabia at that time, and I was told by many people that it was too difficult to merge the two sciences and so they discouraged me. I took the chance, however, and decided to follow my passion and make my dreams come true. Back in 2008 and 2009, this particular field of study was not available in Saudi Arabia, so I had to go to the UK for specialized courses. Even in the UK my field was not common and there was a lot of experimental work, but I stuck to it and was determined to succeed and be the first Saudi with these qualifications. My coursework was often personalized and if I had not been able to do my degrees and training in the UK, I would never have achieved my aim.”
Living in London presented challenges, but those challenges helped her to gain a broader understanding of various perspectives — invaluable for a scientist.
“In my group we had more than seven nationalities. I learnt how to open my eyes and my mind to listen to other people’s thoughts and opinions,” Al-Numair said. “I have always believed that socially and scientifically you must be able to look at other people’s views and their ways of thinking. Of course, different cultures, different background, and different educations all had a great impact on me. I was stepping out of my comfort zone, but I learnt how to do it, and this gave me confidence and the ability to explain myself. I was a kind of ‘opposite’ but not in a bad way, but opposite in a different way. Understanding that and coming to terms with it was a great step forward for me.”
The British Council award is of particular significance to Al-Numair, and she hopes that her story will inspire other young Saudis to consider scientific careers.
“They did not give me the award because I am a Saudi who worked in a certain field. People in Britain realize that I can have some impact in Saudi Arabia, and I think that the impact on the younger generation will be great and that they will see new possibilities for themselves,” Al-Numair said.
“I really want to encourage the younger generation to involve themselves in science. I really want to help in the empowerment of women and show them that they can have both family and a career. We can be scientists; we are bright, smart and can engage ourselves in the community and in our work. From that, we will get confidence and determination to succeed as well as to live and enjoy our lives.”
While Al-Numair investigates future diseases and tries to keep them in check, she hopes her success will be contagious.
“I want to encourage girls who studied in Saudi Arabia, attended Saudi schools, graduated from Saudi universities, to have the same chances I had,” she said. “They can succeed, and they can get what they want because they see me in front of them as an example. I sincerely want to have an impact on them.”

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