INTERVIEW: ‘Women’s empowerment is happening and heartfelt,’ says Saudi university head Einas Al-Eisa

Einas Al-Eisa
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Updated 03 February 2020

INTERVIEW: ‘Women’s empowerment is happening and heartfelt,’ says Saudi university head Einas Al-Eisa

  • “I’m leaving Davos convinced that we’re heading in the right direction.”: Al-Eisa
  • Recently the World Bank rated Saudi Arabia as the leading country in the world in terms of fostering female equality

If any of the aspirational young women of Saudi Arabia need a role model, they should look no further than Einas Al-Eisa, the rector of the Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh.

I caught up with her at Davos last week, at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), where she told me one of the most inspiring and heartwarming stories I have ever heard. She was reluctant at first to go “on the record” about her family history, but finally agreed, not least because I insisted. It was too good a story to leave untold.

“Let me tell you something personal. I’m a second-generation female doctor of philosophy. My mum went to the first school ever to open for girls in Saudi Arabia, and she continued to go all the way to be a university professor. She was able to pursue her dream in Saudi Arabia, and became a history scholar. I’m 15 years on from my PhD, in anatomy and neurobiology, in Canada,” she said.

“Now my daughter is doing engineering. That just tells you all the evidence of the amount of empowerment and accelerating change in the Kingdom. Change is real, happening and heartfelt. We really have a good story to tell the world,” she said while in Saudi Arabia’s headquarters overlooking the snowy Congress Hall of the WEF.

Princess Nourah University — or PNU as Al-Eisa calls it — is the biggest female academic institution in the world, with 35,000 students spread across 8 million square meters in the Saudi capital in 600 buildings. It grew out of the College of Education opened in 1970, and is named after the sister of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of the Kingdom.

Her job carries a huge responsibility. “It’s a big challenge, not just for me, but globally. Empowering women is a challenge worldwide,” she said.

She, and the Kingdom, are rising to that challenge. Recently the World Bank rated Saudi Arabia as the leading country in the world in terms of fostering female equality, after a raft of measures to give women essential rights to education, employment and mobility. A new generation of women — like her daughter — is growing up in the Kingdom, increasingly self-confident of their place in Saudi Arabia and in the world, under the Vision 2030 strategy to transform the country.

Al-Eisa is an enthusiastic supporter of the changes, and dismisses suggestions that some of the more conservative parts of the Saudi demographic oppose them.

“Let me take a step back, and talk about the transformation. It’s about opening new sectors that will build the capacity of society as a whole — the quality of life, health, education, job opportunity, economic development — so that we can develop sectors like entertainment, culture, and technology.

BIO

BORN:

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

EDUCATION:

Doctorate in anatomy and neuroscience, Dalhousie University, Canada

Harvard University Professional Development Programs, US

CAREER:

Dean, Department of Science and Medical Studies, King Saud University

Vice-dean, College of Nursing, Saudi Arabia

Rector, Princess Nourah Bint Abdulrahman University

“These are all perfect opportunities for the whole of society to engage in, and now with the rate of enrolment of women in the private sector increasing from 19 percent to 23 percent in just one year, that reflects the engagement of the whole of society. As a university, we study this progress, the implementation of the policies, and the impact of the reforms,” she said.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the big changes underway in the Kingdom is the trend for women to study what have traditionally been regarded as exclusively male domains — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM disciplines. Of the 5,200 who graduated from PNU last year, 1,400 came from STEM faculties.

“I predict a huge contribution from women in that sector in the very near future. One good story that comes from Saudi Arabia is the increased number of women engaging in the technology sectors, for example, versus the drop we see worldwide. Elsewhere women are moving away from these fields, whereas in the Kingdom, the number is going up constantly,” she said.

Education in the Kingdom remains segregated in terms of gender, but she does not think that is a significant or fundamental issue. In the West and in other parts of the world, co-education is the norm, but there have been many serious academic studies that have questioned the benefits of mixed-sex education. She is in no hurry to push for co-education in Saudi Arabia, on grounds of academic pragmatism, rather than any moral or ethical issues.

“If you go back to the literature and look at the assessment of the value of women studying in a campus of only women, there is enough global evidence to support the value of women-only education, in a women’s environment. There is enough evidence out there, but still it is a source of debate,” she said.

“Women are less intimidated in the fields of technology and engineering when they are taught in a safe environment. The way we are tackling that is to ensure that women have the best educators, the best learning opportunities, the best curricula, irrespective of gender,” she said.

Many of the faculty staff are male, she pointed out, so the young women studying at the university are not completely segregated. “We have male and female teachers in PNU, and we will continue to support more women in academia, in engineering especially, as faculty staff, and as engineers in the field. We will continue to empower women and I guarantee they are not isolated,” she said.

The crucial issue is what young women do after graduation. The Vision 2030 reform strategy envisages a big increase in the female workforce, rising to as much as 30 percent over the next decade. Recent statistics show that the Kingdom is well on the way to reaching that target, with 23.5 percent of the private sector workforce being female, according to official figures.

But for Al-Eisa, it is not just a simple matter of meeting official quotas. Again, she takes an academically pragmatic view.

“Just like it should be everywhere else in the world, it’s the competency of the graduates that dictates where they go. We have a very good story in the health sector — nearly 40 percent of people working in health are female, reflecting the parity and the power we have achieved after investing so much in health and education,” she said.

PNU works closely with INSEAD, the French management institute, to ensure that young women graduating from the university are equipped with the skills to get them jobs in increasingly competitive managerial professions.

She also works with the Ministry of Education in its “Women Leaders 2030” program that nurtures young women to become business leaders in the private sector. The ministry’s work is closely coordinated with the UN’s sustainable development goals which also align with Vision 2030.

“It’s very important to produce holistic leaders, women who understand the challenges and bigger issues in the wider world,” she said.

Her visit to the WEF has certainly opened her eyes to the bigger picture. All the issues that concerned her back in Saudi Arabia were also on the WEF agenda, she said, and she was “pleasantly surprised” that Davos was not all about money and economics.

“I come from the education sector, and I thought there will not be much for me in Davos, but there is so much going on, in investment, in education, in new opportunities, in skills development, science, science breakthroughs. I was impressed by the wide array of topics discussed and the caliber of discussions,” she said.

She will leave Switzerland with a new set of ideas to further promote the role of women in Saudi Arabia.

“The session on Education 4.0 was a very good exchange of ideas, and made me think how Saudi Arabia must invest even more in the infrastructure of education, curriculum development, teachers’ preparation programs and the rest.

“It’s time now to experiment with more disruptions in education. I’ve learned new ideas about education and I’m going home with the conviction that we’re heading in the right direction. Now when we talk about concepts like artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data science, these are new programs that are opening up for all women. This is the language of the world, not just for Saudi Arabia,” she said.


Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

Updated 20 February 2020

Man vs. machine in bid to beat virus

  • Human and artificial intelligence are racing ahead to detect and control outbreaks of infectious disease

BOSTON: Did an artificial-intelligence system beat human doctors in warning the world of a severe coronavirus outbreak in China?

In a narrow sense, yes. But what the humans lacked in sheer speed, they more than made up in finesse.

Early warnings of disease outbreaks can help people and governments to save lives. In the final days of 2019, an AI system in Boston sent out the first global alert about a new viral outbreak in China. But it took human intelligence to recognize the significance of the outbreak and then awaken response from the public health community.

What’s more, the mere mortals produced a similar alert only a half-hour behind the AI systems.

For now, AI-powered disease-alert systems can still resemble car alarms — easily triggered and sometimes ignored. A network of medical experts and sleuths must still do the hard work of sifting through rumors to piece together the fuller picture. It is difficult to say what future AI systems, powered by ever larger datasets on outbreaks, may be able to accomplish.

The first public alert outside China about the novel coronavirus came on Dec. 30 from the automated HealthMap system at Boston Children’s Hospital. At 11:12 p.m. local time, HealthMap sent an alert about unidentified pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The system, which scans online news and social media reports, ranked the alert’s seriousness as only 3 out of 5. It took days for HealthMap researchers to recognize its importance.

Four hours before the HealthMap notice, New York epidemiologist Marjorie Pollack had already started working on her own public alert, spurred by a growing sense of dread after reading a personal email she received that evening.

“This is being passed around the internet here,” wrote her contact, who linked to a post on the Chinese social media forum Pincong. The post discussed a Wuhan health agency notice and read in part: “Unexplained pneumonia???”

Pollack, deputy editor of the volunteer-led Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, known as ProMed, quickly mobilized a team to look into it. ProMed’s more detailed report went out about 30 minutes after the terse HealthMap alert.

Early warning systems that scansocial media, online news articles and government reports for signs of infectious disease outbreaks help inform global agencies such as the World Health Organization — giving international experts a head start when local bureaucratic hurdles and language barriers might otherwise get in the way.

Some systems, including ProMed, rely on human expertise. Others are partly or completely automated.

“These tools can help hold feet to the fire for government agencies,” said John Brownstein, who runs the HealthMap system as chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It forces people to be more open.”

The last 48 hours of 2019 were a critical time for understanding the new virus and its significance. Earlier on Dec. 30, Wuhan Central Hospital doctor Li Wenliang warned his former classmates about the virus in a social media group — a move that led local authorities to summon him for questioning several hours later.

Li, who died Feb. 7 after contracting the virus, told The New York Times that it would have been better if officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier. “There should be more openness and transparency,” he said.

ProMed reports are often incorporated into other outbreak warning systems. including those run by the World Health Organization, the Canadian government and the Toronto startup BlueDot. WHO also pools data from HealthMap and other sources.

Computer systems that scan online reports for information about disease outbreaks rely on natural language processing, the same branch of artificial intelligence that helps answer questions posed to a search engine or digital voice assistant.

But the algorithms can only be as effective as the data they are scouring, said Nita Madhav, CEO of San Francisco-based disease monitoring firm Metabiota, which first
notified its clients about the outbreak in early January.

Madhav said that inconsistency in how different agencies report medical data can stymie algorithms. The text-scanning programs extract keywords from online text, but may fumble when organizations variously report new virus cases, cumulative virus cases, or new cases in a given time interval. The potential for confusion means there is almost always still a person involved in reviewing the data.

“There’s still a bit of human in the loop,” Madhav said.

Andrew Beam, a Harvard University epidemiologist, said that scanning online reports for key words can help reveal trends, but the accuracy depends on the quality of the data. He also notes that these techniques are not so novel.

“There is an art to intelligently scraping web sites,” Beam said. “But it’s also Google’s core technology since the 1990s.”

Google itself started its own Flu Trends service to detect outbreaks in 2008 by looking for patterns in search queries about flu symptoms. Experts criticized it for overestimating flu prevalence. Google shut down the website in 2015 and handed its technology to nonprofit organizations such as HealthMap to use Google data to build their own models.

Google is now working with Brownstein’s team on a similar web-based approach for tracking the geographical spread of the tick-borne Lyme disease.

Scientists are also using big data to model possible routes of early disease transmission.