A scientist’s journey from sickbed to Harvard

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

A scientist’s journey from sickbed to Harvard

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.


Ramadan helps Egyptian women bakers make ends meet

Ramadan helps Egyptian women bakers make ends meet
Updated 20 April 2021

Ramadan helps Egyptian women bakers make ends meet

Ramadan helps Egyptian women bakers make ends meet
  • Noura Mohammed, 58, and women in her family travel by train to Cairo to sell their home-baked bread
  • When back in Beni Suef, they distribute the earnings to other producers

BENI SUEF, EGYPT: For 58-year-old Nour Al-Sabah Mohammed and her crew of bakers, business is brisk during the holy month of Ramadan.
The women travel by train to Cairo to sell their home-baked bread, piled high on metal trays, as well as eggs, vegetables, and cheese, produced by neighbors in a farming village near the city of Beni Suef, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) to the south.
During Ramadan, when fasting Muslims indulge in large family meals after sunset and stock up on supplies well in advance, the women double their usual output.
Mohammed’s daughter and daughter-in-law make the two-and-a-half hour train trip to Cairo twice a week to sell from spots on the pavement that they’ve occupied for the last five years.
They set off at 10 p.m., leaving their children in the village and returning the following evening once they’ve sold out.
Back in Beni Suef, they distribute the earnings to other producers, each of whom made about 30 Egyptian pounds ($1.91) from the recent sale of 15 kilograms (33 lbs) of bread, along with the other products.
“This way we work hard for our living and we make each other stronger,” said Noura Hassan, Mohammed’s daughter-in-law. “It’s also a good thing that these women are helping out their husbands and their children.”


NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet
Updated 19 April 2021

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet
  • It was a brief hop, just 39 seconds and 10 feet (3 meters), but accomplished all the major milestones
  • The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

CAPE CANAVERAL: NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.
The triumph was hailed as a Wright brothers moment. The mini 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
It was a brief hop — just 39 seconds and 10 feet (3 meters) — but accomplished all the major milestones.
“We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment, and here it is,” said project manager MiMi Aung, offering a virtual hug to her socially distanced colleagues in the control room as well as those at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California declared success after receiving the data and images via the Perseverance rover. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly when it touched down in an ancient river delta in February.
The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.
Scientists cheered the news from around the world and even from space.
“A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal,” Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said from England.
This first test flight — with more to come by Ingenuity — holds great promise, Brown noted. Future helicopters could serve as otherworldly scouts for rovers, and eventually astronauts, in difficult, dangerous places.
Ground controllers had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the preprogrammed flight had succeeded more than 170 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. The first attempt had been delayed a week because of a software error.
When the news finally came, the operations center filled with applause, cheers and laughter. More followed when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared, showing the helicopter’s shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars.
“The shadow of greatness, #MarsHelicopter first flight on another world complete!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted from the International Space Station.
Next came stunning color video of the copter’s clean landing, taken by Perseverance, “the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for,” Aung said in thanking everyone.
The helicopter hovered for 30 seconds at its intended altitude of 10 feet (3 meters), and spent 39 seconds airborne, more than three times longer than the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer, which lasted a mere 12 seconds on Dec. 17, 1903.
To accomplish all this, the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute — five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1% the thickness of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough — with blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldly lift.
More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is just 19 inches (49 centimeters) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip.
Ingenuity also had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind, and is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for surviving the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights.
NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity’s airfield. Following Monday’s success, NASA named the Martian airfield for the Wright brothers.
“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked,” NASA’s science missions Chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced.
The little chopper with a giant job attracted attention from the moment it launched with Perseverance last July. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger joined in the fun, rooting for Ingenuity over the weekend. “Get to the chopper!” he shouted in a tweeted video, a line from his 1987 sci-fi film “Predator.”
Up to five increasingly ambitious flights are planned, and they could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as lookouts for human crews. On Earth, the technology could enable helicopters to reach new heights, doing things like more easily navigating the Himalayas.
Ingenuity’s team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights so that the rover can get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.
The team plans to test the helicopter’s limits, possibly even wrecking the craft, leaving it to rest in place forever, having sent its data back home.
Until then, Perseverance will keep watch over Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny.
“Big sister’s watching,” said Malin Space Science Systems’ Elsa Jensen, the rover’s lead camera operator.


Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory
Updated 19 April 2021

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory
  • The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day

JERUSALEM: Israelis stepped into the streets without masks on Sunday for the first time in a year, a key milestone as the country vaccinates its way out of a coronavirus nightmare.
“It’s very strange but it’s very nice,” said Eliana Gamulka, 26, after getting off a bus near the busy Jerusalem shopping boulevard of Jaffa Street and removing her face covering.
“You can’t pretend that you don’t know anyone any more,” she smiled.
With over half the population fully vaccinated in one of the world’s fastest anti-COVID 19 inoculation campaigns, the Health Ministry announced on Thursday that masks would no longer be required in public outdoor spaces.
For Gamulka, a project manager, the good news came at the perfect time: Just two weeks before her wedding.
It will be “very nice to celebrate with everyone, now without masks,” she said. “The pictures will be great! I’m very relieved. We can start living again.”
The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day.
That has allowed the reopening of schools, bars, restaurants and other indoor gatherings — although masks are still required in indoor public spaces.

HIGHLIGHTS

• With over half the population fully vaccinated in one of the world’s fastest anti-COVID 19 inoculation campaigns, the Health Ministry announced on Thursday that masks would no longer be required in public outdoor spaces.

• The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day. That has allowed the reopening of schools, bars, restaurants and other indoor gatherings.

Israel just months ago had the world’s highest infection rate, a coronavirus outbreak that left 6,300 people dead among 836,000 cases.
But the country sent its coronavirus caseload tumbling after striking a deal for a vast stock of Pfizer/BioNTech jabs.
In exchange, it agreed to pay above market price and share data it gathers on the recipients, using one of the world’s most sophisticated medical data systems.
Since December, some 53 percent of Israel’s 9.3 million people have received both doses of the jab, including around four-fifths of the population aged over 20.
As recently as January it was registering 10,000 cases per day.
But as the effects of mass vaccination kicked in, by March it was able to implement a gradual reopening.
“There’s no better advertisement for Pfizer,” said Shalom Yatzkan, a computer programmer who had been in quarantine after catching the virus.
“I was sick for three days, I had neck pains and felt weak,” he said as he walked through central Jerusalem. “I just hope the new variants don’t catch up with us.”
Another Sunday landmark in Israel’s exit from coronavirus restrictions was the full resumption of the country’s educational system, without restrictions on the numbers of pupils in classrooms.


How Jewish women married to Arabs were regarded as a threat to Israel: Haaretz

A picture dated March 1, 1940 shows new immigrants wahing their laundry at the immigrants camp near Kibbutz Na'an. (AFP/File Photo)
A picture dated March 1, 1940 shows new immigrants wahing their laundry at the immigrants camp near Kibbutz Na'an. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 18 April 2021

How Jewish women married to Arabs were regarded as a threat to Israel: Haaretz

A picture dated March 1, 1940 shows new immigrants wahing their laundry at the immigrants camp near Kibbutz Na'an. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Israeli newspaper Haaretz details cruel treatment they faced from their own community
  • Researcher: ‘Ostracism, denunciation and shaming gave way to violence’

LONDON: During the formation of Israel in the late 1940s, hundreds of Jewish women were branded as enemies for marrying Arab men, resulting in exclusion, isolation, and in some cases murder, according to stories buried in the country’s archives. 

The histories of the “lost” Jewish women — those who married and assimilated into Arab culture — have been revealed by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which details the cruel treatment they faced from their own community, including “harsh opposition from home, ostracism, labeling, and opprobrium and social alienation.”

Hanania Dery, chief rabbi of Jaffa at the time, traveled to refugee camps in the newly occupied Palestinian territories to search for Jewish women who had married Arab men and converted to Islam.

He reportedly discovered about 600 Jewish women living in Hebron, Nablus, Gaza City, Khan Yunis and East Jerusalem, and encouraged them to return to their Jewish roots.

The subject of interfaith marriage has long been a taboo subject in Israel. Idith Erez, a graduate student in the Israel Studies department at the University of Haifa, has detailed the plight of the “lost” women, and their treatment at the hands of authorities and underground paramilitary groups.

She said two of her own relatives married Arabs, and “the responses in the family ranged from acceptance and reservations to total rejection.”

Erez was warned by colleagues about the lack of material on the subject. She discovered Jewish references to relationships between Jewish women and Arab men from 1917 to 1948, but found that “writers sought to play down the ‘forbidden stories’.”

Erez said: “One can assume that what was perceived as a family or personal stigma, or as national shame, was excluded from the collective memory, relegated to the warehouse of the darkest secrets and remained hidden there.”

But she found stories hidden away in newspapers, and also detailed records of surveillance operations targeting the “lost” women.

Archives from underground Zionist organizations — including Haganah, Lehi and Irgun — revealed that the women were viewed as a threat to the Jewish community, and were targeted as potential spies.

One notable case is detailed in a report sent by a Haganah member to the organization’s intelligence branch in 1942. He outlines a plan to deploy a Jewish woman to spy on senior Arab figures.

“I am thinking this week of getting in touch, to obtain information, with a Sephardi girl from Tiberias who has intimate relations with Kamal Al-Hussein. He likes to waste a lot of money on her,” the member wrote.

The stories discovered by Erez share one common feature: The hostile attitude of Jewish society toward the relationships.

“The phenomenon was perceived as a threat to the resurgent Jewish collective in Israel, as crossing a national and religious border and as the violation of a social taboo,” she said.

“These relationships were seen as the ultimate threat, serious and significant. They were perceived as having the potential to turn the Yishuv (Jewish community) into a Levantine society, to bring about religious conversion and assimilation into Arab society.”

Many Jews saw interfaith relationships as a deviation from the norm, and the women involved as “whores”, “traitors”, “enemies of Israel” and a “national disgrace,” Erez said.

As tensions between Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine grew, reactions to interfaith relationships became more extreme.

“Ostracism, denunciation and shaming gave way to violence in the family and violence perpetrated by security organizations,” Erez said, adding that some women were even murdered.

Esther K. and Mahmoud Al-Kurdi first met in a Jerusalem cafe that the latter owned, and soon fell in love and married, despite not receiving parental agreement.

Their case went to court, where Esther was told to return home. She told Al-Kurdi: “Never mind, a few months will go by, I’ll turn 18 and come back to you, my dear.” It then emerged that she had fallen pregnant and was forced to have an abortion.

Al-Kurdi said following the case: “I loved her so much. I would do anything for her. People are cruel. Why are they trying to take my blood from me?”

Chaya Zeidenberg, 22, whose Arab lover was Daoud Yasmina, was murdered in early 1948 by Lehi.

In a statement, the paramilitary group accused her of “treason against the homeland and the Jewish people and of collaborating with Arab gangs.”

Lehi members raided Zeidenberg’s apartment and drove her to an unknown location, where she was interrogated and shot dead.

She was buried without her surname on the headstone. The local Jewish burial society registered her as a “spy.”

Erez said of her research: “The women involved were opinionated and strong, unwitting feminists who were ahead of their time and defied the social order, the mechanisms of regimentation and the establishment’s balance of forces. 

“They ignored public opinion and the Zionist ethos, which expected the Hebrew woman to nullify her personal yearnings and serve as a ‘sacrifice,’ if needed, on the altar of the nation.

“The steep price paid for maintaining a relationship with an Arab man did not keep them from conducting the relationship.

“These women did not flinch from harsh reactions, and they saw no contradiction between their choice of an Arab man and their national loyalty or religious affiliation.”


Prince Harry’s son was never entitled to a royal title — and it has nothing to do with Meghan

Prince Harry’s son was never entitled to a royal title — and it has nothing to do with Meghan
Updated 17 April 2021

Prince Harry’s son was never entitled to a royal title — and it has nothing to do with Meghan

Prince Harry’s son was never entitled to a royal title — and it has nothing to do with Meghan
  • Title protocol dates back to 104-year-old decree issued by King George V

LONDON: US TV star Oprah Winfrey’s high-profile interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry left many viewers with more questions than answers.
One major controversy covered in the interview concerned the title of the couple’s son Archie, full name Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor.
Despite being seventh in line to the British throne, Archie was not granted the title of prince, which has angered Megan and her fans.
But Archie’s lack of title at birth is to be expected, given the precedent established by a royal rule dating back 104 years.
In 1917, King George V issued a decree stating: “The grandchildren of the sons of any such Sovereign in the direct male line (save only the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales) shall have and enjoy in all occasions the style and title enjoyed by the children of Dukes of these Our Realms.”
Because Queen Elizabeth II is the ruling sovereign, her children and grandchildren receive royal titles.
But her great-grandchildren — including any children of Megan and Prince Harry — will only be titled Lord or Lady Mountbatten-Windsor.
This also means that Archie did not receive the title “his royal highness” (HRH). His parents decided to use the title “master.”
Despite Megan’s expectation that her son would assume the title of prince upon becoming a grandson when Prince Charles takes the throne, she was told that “protocols would be changed.”
So why did the children of Prince William and Kate Middleton receive the royal titles? Because Queen Elizabeth demanded it.
As a direct heir to the throne, their son George was always entitled to be a prince, unlike his siblings Charlotte and Louis.
But when Kate was pregnant, Queen Elizabeth issued a letters patent giving the prince or princess title to any of William’s children.
This led to Megan arguing that her son “was not being titled in the same way that other grandchildren would be.”
Several of the queen’s grandchildren, including Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn, could have been provided with royal titles when they were born, but their parents requested otherwise so that they could pursue normal lives.
So even though Queen Elizabeth decided to avoid extending the HRH title, it might be a silver lining for Megan and Prince Harry, given that they have since chosen to step back from royal duties altogether.