A scientist’s journey from sickbed to Harvard

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Updated 17 August 2016
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A scientist’s journey from sickbed to Harvard

She was diagnosed with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia before she even took her first steps and they didn’t expected her to live long. However, the determined Saudi managed to fight the disease and is now a scientist and a scholar at Harvard Medical School.
Despite her busy schedule during her stay in Riyadh, Dr Malak Abedalthagafi took time to welcome Arab News into her office at King Fahad Medical City to talk about her research and scientific career in one of the most prestigious universities in the world. She also talks about how her rare gene disease, which affects 4 out of 10,000 new born children in the Arab region, helped propel her prestigious career.
You lived a hard childhood because of your illness. How did it affect you?
Childhood for most children is a time for playing, having fun and having wild fantasies. Mine was neither perfect nor normal. I was diagnosed with a rare disease that exhausted me during my childhood. My health condition coincided with hard social conditions since my early childhood. But, Allah’s will was that these circumstances would be the reason for my strength and ambition.
What is the hardest time you remember from that period?
That was my frequent trips for medical treatment, whether at home or abroad during my preschool age and the primary school phase. I lived in London for a year to get medical and surgical treatment, after that I continued to travel between Riyadh and Boston for following up, which affected me psychologically and academically. I used to feel I was different from my peers, whether they were relatives or at school. I was always angry and refused medication and was always sad when I got low grades in any subject because of my repeated absences.
How did that affect your career choice to study medicine?
Of course, it had a major impact, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor and I wanted to specialise in genetics. My monthly trips, from Mecca to the genetic diseases clinic at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, were a fountain of hope and determination in my imagination, which pushed me to reach my goal to study medicine and to specialise in genetics.
Does the child in you still exist?
The child inside me always exists; it is my source of strength and inspiration. Additionally, up till now, when I get tired or frustrated, I sit with children and learn from them. They are a source of dynamism, optimism, and inexhaustible imagination.
How did you feel when you became a doctor?
Thank God, it was a great moment of triumph and a huge challenge to navigate in the best universities in the world and to learn from the best professors in the field of diseases and genetics.
Did you ever think of quitting?
Not at all, for this was the dream I chased over the years during school and university. I was waiting impatiently for graduation in order to travel and learn. The hard circumstances I went through during my childhood were my real motive to challenge any difficulties and hardships. When I joined the scholarship programme and during my first flight from Jeddah to Boston, I said to myself: Malak, there is no time for excuses, it is time for hard work and unleashing.
Were you revenging your tough childhood by doing that?
This is somewhat true. Although, I was thinking of focusing on genetic diseases for children before studying medicine, I somehow altered that during the years of study to move towards molecular genetics pathology. This is because the field is very close to the research I began to get familiar with through studying medicine and travelling to America.
Today, you are a scholar and a researcher who is highly respected in this specialty. Do you feel you have won your battle?
The battle is still at the start. It is not between Malak and her disease anymore, it is between Malak and tumours and genetics that concern the whole world. All I want is Allah to help us harness science to reach valuable scientific studies.
Where are you in your war against genetic diseases?
My research involves the genome of tumours in general, and in brain tumours in particular. My clinical genetic specialisation involved diagnosis of diseases using the latest genetic technologies available, especially in the field of cancer.
You met King Abdullah, the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques and also received a letter from US President Barack Obama for your scientific efforts. How do you feel being in a position to meet and have contact with Important figures?
It is a great feeling, as well as a great sense of responsibility to give my best. I hope I can meet my father King Salman bin Abdulaziz soon to thank him and dedicate some of our research and local and international prizes to him.
Do you expect to have the opportunity to do that one day?
I always trust God Almighty and I know that He will not disappoint me. And, with my deep faith in God, I worked and still work hard and with optimism, thank God for everything.
To whom do you dedicate your success?
I dedicate it to several people First, my dear mum and the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, may Allah rest his soul in peace. He gave me the chance to continue my dream abroad. I also dedicate it to our father King Salman, may God protect him. And, I ask God to grant him success in his difficult task. And, I tell him that we, [the] young men and women of this country, will do our best to honour our beloved country in all ways. I also dedicate it to every ambitious Saudi girl, who dedicated her life to science to overcome her circumstances, whatever her challenges were, to build a better future for her and her society and to all mankind.
Throughout your journey, what do you think was the real turning point in your life and career?
I think attending Harvard as a postdoctoral fellowship first and lately as a member of the faculty were actual turning points in my career.
What’s new in your research?
We are conducting several studies concerning meningioma brain tumours in adults and children, as well as studies concerning the spread of tumours in other members in the body like breasts and lungs in new intervened techniques. We are also in the process of establishing a research group interested in studying females [with] tumours in Saudi Arabia using the latest genetic techniques, with the cooperation of a number of Saudi scientists and doctors.
How do you see the advance of science in Saudi Arabia?
Lately, we have seen a great tendency towards supporting scientific research in Saudi Arabia from our government. Plus, a leaning towards making our society a cognitive one, but, we still lack a lot. I am optimistic of the future under the leadership of our government.
What do you think about female Saudi scientists today? Are their names still rare in this field?
There are prominent names in different areas, and the presence of women in the scientific and technical fields is considered a challenge to women in the world, not only in Saudi Arabia. The journey is long [and] full of difficulties. Women are also governed by family circumstances, which make it harder to continue in such fields. So, sometimes, we need ‘positive discrimination’ to enable girls to engage in various scientific fields taking into account their social and physiological circumstances.
What do you wish for and which footprint do you hope to leave?
We are working on the creation of infrastructure for genome [research] at the King Fahd Medical City Research Center, under the umbrella of the Saudi King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology project. Our vision will be concentrated in genetic medical diagnostics for common tumours affecting Saudi patients. In these projects we have a number of specialised scientists and surgeons. We are looking to partner the existing research projects at Harvard Medical School and the new research in Saudi Arabia to benefit from the experiences. Since I am a faculty member at Harvard, this will make it relatively easy, with the will of Allah.
Are there any limits to your ambition?
The sky is my limit and all I am asking God for is to grant me the strength and health to accomplish my ambitions.
Are you satisfied with what you have achieved so far?
Thankfully, we have been able to provide many valuable scientific papers and to get many clinical subspecialties in a relatively short period… I still have so many objectives I would like to achieve.
So when do scientists feel fulfilled with what they have accomplished?
Real scientist won’t ever be satisfied of their accomplishments because the thrill of science is unmatched.
Is there anything you wish you could have changed?
When I was a child, I wished I had good health like my brothers and my friends. Today, I thank God I had this illness, which made me different from others, and it was the catalyst, after the will of Allah, for my ambition and my determination. I am satisfied with everything in my life, Allah’s justice and fate.
Are you thinking of coming back home for good to practice what you have learned or do you prefer to stay in the US to satisfy the scientist inside you?
Thankfully, I recently moved back home to stay, while keeping a part-time job in Boston. I was granted a Makkah Excellence Award for technical and scientific excellence, the first one I have received after returning home. This reflects officials’ interests, headed by the Emir of Development and Innovation, Khaled Al-Faisal, in the young men and woman of the country even when they are abroad.


Stop it! Japan anti-groper app becomes smash hit

Updated 21 May 2019
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Stop it! Japan anti-groper app becomes smash hit

  • The app has been downloaded more than 237,000 times
  • There were nearly 900 groping and other harassment cases on Tokyo trains and subways reported in 2017

TOKYO: A Tokyo police smartphone app to scare off molesters has become a smash hit in Japan, where women have long run the gauntlet of groping on packed rush-hour trains.
Victims of groping can activate the Digi Police app, which either blasts out a voice shouting “stop it” at top volume, or produces a full-screen SOS message — which victims can show other passengers — reading: “There is a molester. Please help.”
The app has been downloaded more than 237,000 times, an “unusually high figure” for a public service app, said police official Keiko Toyamine.
“Thanks to its popularity, the number is increasing by some 10,000 every month,” Toyamine said.
Victims are often too scared to call out for help, she said. But by using the SOS message mode, “they can notify other passengers about groping while remaining silent.”
There were nearly 900 groping and other harassment cases on Tokyo trains and subways reported in 2017, according to the latest available data from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
“But it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Toyamine said, with victims often hesitant to come forward.
Offenders face up to six months in jail or fines of up to ¥500,000 ($5,500 dollars). The potential jail sentence is increased to 10 years if violence or threats are used.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department quietly launched the free Digi Police app three years ago.
It initially aimed to provide information for elderly people, as well as parents and their children about scams or prowlers.
But the function to “repel molesters” was added a few months after the launch.
And an online conversation about the app — caused by a female pop idol being assaulted late last year — resulted in its sudden popularity.
Yui Kimura, a 27-year-old beer shop employee on the nation’s northern island of Hokkaido, says she is always worried about groping whenever she visits the capital. “I tend to be vigilant on Tokyo trains as dodgy men can happen to be in front of me at any time,” Kimura said.
Reina Oishi, a 21-year-old university student in Tokyo, also said: “I want to download the app as I have been groped so many times.”
Experts agree that the app could be a boon for “silent” victims.
“Molesters tend to target those who appear shy and reluctant to lodge a police complaint,” said Akiyoshi Saito, a certified social worker who supported some 800 former molesters during a rehabilitation program.
Groping on trains can occur in any country where trains are frequently crowded, Saito said.
“But the idea that men are superior to women, which is Japan’s traditional bias, may help sustain” sexual harassment on trains in the country, he added.
Awareness of the issue has risen in Japan in recent years, with women exchanging tips on how to avoid the unwanted attention online.
East Japan Railway runs women-only carriages during rush hours and has set up security cameras on some lines notorious for a high rate of groping.