A scientist’s journey from sickbed to Harvard

1 / 2
2 / 2
Updated 17 August 2016
0

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.


Taiwanese ‘graffiti village’ eases elderly loneliness

Updated 18 July 2019
0

Taiwanese ‘graffiti village’ eases elderly loneliness

  • The paintings have started to bring young visitors — always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location — back
  • The Hakka are linguistically distinct group of people who trace their origins back to southern China

RUAN CHIAO, Taiwan: Nestled in the mist-covered foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, Ruan Chiao village is virtually devoid of young people, but artist Wu Tsun-hsien is coaxing the Instagram generation back by transforming local homes into a canvas of color.
Dipping his brush into a tin of beige emulsion, he carefully applies new layers of paint to his latest production — a vibrant rural scene depicting farmers in traditional weave hats tending to a flock of animals.
Behind him an elderly villager with a walking stick shuffles his way down the main street, which is plastered with Wu’s colorful paintings.
“This village is full of old people,” the 55-year-old laments, explaining how the vast majority of youngsters — including his own children — have moved to the city, leaving elderly residents listless and lonely.
But paintings have started to bring young visitors — always keen for a selfie in a photo-friendly location — back.
“These drawings attracted many tourists to come visit. The old people who were left here are no longer so bored. This was my biggest gain,” he beams.
Wu is not alone in this adopting this strategy.
There is now some half a dozen so-called “graffiti villages” in Taiwan that have been festooned with artwork in a bid to inject some life into rural places that have been emptied of its young.
Like many industrialized places, Taiwan’s remarkable economic transformation over the past few decades has upended rural communities and unleashed huge demographic changes.
“It’s perhaps a more recent phenomenon than it would have been in some other places,” explains Shelley Rigger, an expert on Taiwan at Davidson College in North Carolina, who said much of Taiwan’s industrial manufacturing stayed in the villages.
“People sewed Barbie doll clothing in their houses and then carried it down to a packaging plant in the middle of a village,” she tells AFP, as an example.
Ruan Chiao village, for example, used to churn out paper temple offerings.
But once much of the manufacturing shifted to mainland China in the late 1990s and Taiwan moved up the value chain, many of those jobs left.
“That’s when you see rural areas kind of emptying out,” Rigger adds.
Taiwan’s 23 million population is also rapidly aging. The birth rate has plummeted — only 180,000 children were born last year, an eight-year low.
The Wu family have experienced this flight first hand.
The ancestral home is occupied by his wife’s father, 81, and mother, 72, who still work a few plots of land in the hills above the village growing organic vegetables. But Wu’s own children both went to university and have left, one to Australia, the other to a nearby city.
Wu’s wife Fan Ai-hsiu explains their bid to draw Instagram-happy crowds of youngsters was less about economics and more about giving her parents something to look forward to.
“They want to have conversations with people, that’s what they miss, it’s not about money,” Fan says.
But it was not initially an easy task to persuade fellow villagers to use their houses as a canvas.
“People here are fairly conservative,” she recalls, adding: “But once the first few paintings went up, they could see it brought people in.”
Most of Wu’s paintings in the village stick to rural pastiches or traditional symbols of good fortune.
It is the family home where he really gets to express himself — and which has quickly drawn a mass following on social media.
Perched on a slope overlooking the village, the whole house is covered in images, many of which detail Wu’s politics.
He’s an avid believer that not enough is being done to tackle climate change, so some of the scenes show apocalyptic scenes of environmental devastation.
Others are commentaries on social issues like gay marriage — which he opposes — or how the elderly are treated in an increasingly consumerist society.
“This mural depicts the present Taiwanese corrupt society,” Wu remarks as he walks along a huge painted wall featuring hundreds of images.
“This one is society’s mayhem due to mobile phones, computers and television... and this one is our cultural loss where many of our Hakka young generations don’t know the culture,” he adds.
The Hakka are linguistically distinct group of people who trace their origins back to southern China. They have lived in Taiwan for some four centuries and make up 15-20 percent of the population.
Evelyn Sun puts on art and food events in Taipei and found out about Wu’s paintings via social media.
She visited with friends who all soon found themselves sitting around a table with the Wu family, eating traditional Hakka vegetable dishes and tucking into eggs boiled in a secret recipe of local herbs.
The 25-year-old enthuses: “Taiwan has many ‘graffiti villages’ that are beautiful scenic spots where people will just leave after taking pictures.”
“But I realized when I came here that every mural here is depicting a social problem faced by society.”
She hopes other young Taiwanese will explore the nation’s rural villages more often.
She explains: “These people are our culture, they are our history, we have to get to know them.”