Publication Date: 
Thu, 2010-06-17 00:59

Yasmin Altwaijri, Senior Scientist and Head of Epidemiology Research at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center (KFSH&RC) in Riyadh, believes the fields of science and technology go well with the nature of Saudi customs and social norms for women, which may be why an increasing number of Saudi women are showing interest in science and technology.
“In my profession, I come daily to my office, gather information from online scientific journals and books, prepare proposals for funding, analyze the data we have collected and write our results. All this is done within the confines of an office. Of course all my work is done in collaboration with other scientists whom I meet with frequently but most of our communication is via e-mail. The same can be said for females in other areas of scientific research. So if you think about it, from a purely cultural point of view, my job does not cross the boundaries of our societal norms and customs. I think it is an ideal working environment for Saudi women,” said Altwaijri.
Saudi Aramco and the Research Center at King Faisal Specialist Hospital, were among the first to employ female scientists in Saudi Arabia. “Dr. Sultan Al Sudairy, our Executive Director, suggested the establishment of a national network of female Saudi scientists known as the Saudi Women in Science Committee. Basically, wherever female scientists are welcome you will find them there, and they are successful and impressive. Particularly the new generation that is joining the work field now,” said Altwaijri who is presently Chair of the Saudi Women in Science Committee.
In the early 1990s, women had a choice of two major careers, in the field of health and medicine or the field of education. Altwaijri was accepted in a doctoral program with a strong emphasis on molecular biology. Ph.D. students were expected to join a lab where they would conduct their research. After a year in the program, she had not chosen a lab and was still unable to cope with the idea of spending a lifetime of lab research. Her decision was taken after she took her first graduate Epidemiology course. She enjoyed it so much that she decided to complete her doctoral research in epidemiology.
Altwaijri who received both her M.Sc. and Ph.D. from Tufts University in 1996 and 2002, is thankful to “her very supportive parents who placed a heavy emphasis on education in general and had very high expectations for us. My father is an industrial engineer, and he always stressed that we should study something that we excelled at and gave us joy at the same time. My mother wanted to ensure that her daughters would be financially independent and career focused, without losing sight of their important roles as future mothers. So, growing up, I felt that I had no barriers to my aspirations,” she explained.
Understanding epidemiology is not as difficult as it might seem at first. Work starts with a simple idea or a question related to a health issue such as the pubertal characteristics of Saudi children. Pediatricians in the Kingdom are using the same pubertal growth standards of US children as a standard of reference for local children because there are currently no standards or frame of reference for Saudi children. Pubertal characteristics differ according to geography, socioeconomic standards and even diet. An epidemiologist has to find out how Saudi children grow and develop pubertal characteristics. Once the questions have been formulated, a research study is designed in order to gather the information in a scientific way and minimize bias as much as possible.
“After our research proposal is approved and funding is secured, we proceed with collecting the data at the community level, then conducting statistical analysis, and getting answers to our questions. This ends with dissemination of our findings to our colleagues in the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public,” said Altwaijri whose research interests have focused mainly on determining the prevalence of risk factors for chronic diseases such as obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, hypertension and high blood cholesterol within the Saudi population in general and among children and adolescents.
She has been a vocal advocate for policy changes in order to reduce the growing obesity epidemic. The percentage of obese women is higher than men. Women tend to lead sedentary lifestyles without adequate exercise. This is mainly due to socio-cultural factors such as the taboo of women sports, the lack of physical education curriculum in girls schools, the lack of fitness clubs for women compared with men and the fact that private sports clubs are too expensive for the average middle class family.
Child obesity is also on the rise. “The lack of safe play areas in the neighborhoods, leisure time spent watching TV or playing computer games and poor eating habits are considered the major causes of childhood obesity,” said Altwaijri.
Children also eat too much processed food. According to a study conducted at the University of Virginia, the human body uses the calories from processed food much more efficiently than whole food. Processed food is already so broken down that it is absorbed immediately by the small intestine without even using energy to digest. Moreover, refined food, is filled with corn sugar derivatives and fats as well as salt flavorings which increase the desire for more. This explains why at an early age children become virtually addicted to processed foods (chips, cookies and chocolate bars) and dislike the taste of healthy foods such as fruit and vegetables.
As an advocate for policy changes and initiatives aimed at creating an environment which supports healthy lifestyles for the community, she believes that there is a need to change the approach to preventing obesity: “Currently the burden to overturn this growing epidemic is carried by the health sector alone. However, the solution is multisectoral and interdisciplinary.”
The education sector could be part of the solution by introducing effective physical education curriculum to both girls and boys schools, in addition to introducing a health module to the science curriculum. The municipalities can play a major role by planning safe areas in each neighborhood where the adults can walk, jog or bike, and kids can play. Trade regulation should monitor and control food pricing of healthy versus unhealthy foods.
After a long day at work, Altwaijri enjoys spending time with her children, they provide a welcoming refuge. But she admits that nothing is easy and that organizing her professional life with their activities and functions can be very hectic.
“To stay organized, a daily, detailed schedule is essential, and spontaneity is not an option. I regularly have to step back, get perspective and re-calibrate my priorities as new situations come up. At work I know it is impossible to have it all, do it all and keep everything in balance. Due to this, there are certain career opportunities that I have not taken up because it is not the right time to pursue them at this stage of my life. Maybe when my children are older and more independent. And last but not least, I must add that having an understanding and supportive husband was essential and integral to my success.”

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