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.


Dubai cat cafe hopes rescues will find purr-fect new homes

Dubai cat cafe hopes rescues will find purr-fect new homes
Updated 28 February 2021

Dubai cat cafe hopes rescues will find purr-fect new homes

Dubai cat cafe hopes rescues will find purr-fect new homes
  • The cafe’s original residents were strays taken in by the family over the years
  • Now Ailuromania hosts cats from a government-run animal shelter in the neighboring emirate of Ras al Khaimah, hoping to increase adoptions

DUBAI: A haven for humans craving furry feline company, a cat cafe in Dubai also doubles as an adoption center for some of the United Arab Emirates’ many strays.
The Ailuromania Cat Cafe, which was the Middle East’s first cat cafe when it opened in 2015, hopes the relaxing properties of its 25 rescue and shelter cats will help find them their forever homes.
“Anyone who is stressed just has to find a cat. All your stress will go away,” said Omnia Fareed, whose two cat-loving sisters Allaa and Iman started the cafe after university, taking inspiration from similar establishments in Korea and London.
The cafe’s original residents were strays taken in by the family over the years. Now Ailuromania hosts cats from a government-run animal shelter in the neighboring emirate of Ras al Khaimah, hoping to increase adoptions.
The cafe’s name Ailuromania is a play on the Greek-derived English word for a lover of cats: ailurophile.
The cafe has regular customers who come seeking relaxation from the stresses of life, or because they cannot keep a cat at home.
“They are so cute, they love playing,” said visitor Shaasthra. She said she appreciates how the cafe looks after the cats’ welfare by advising people not to hold them or wake them up.
Another regular visitor, a street cat who would stare in through the window, was also invited and eventually adopted.
Since Dubai began lifting coronavirus lockdown measures last summer, the cafe re-opened with capacity and sanitization restrictions.
Dubai has a large number of stray cats, with many abandoned on the streets by their owners. In 2018 UAE authorities made it illegal to abandon animals, but animal welfare activists in Dubai have for years called for a large-scale trap-neuter-release scheme and feeding programs to bring numbers down humanely.
In August, Dubai municipality issued a circular restating a policy of fining anyone caught feeding strays, saying it increases the spread of diseases.


Chinese court orders man to pay former wife $7,700 for five years of housework

Chinese court orders man to pay former wife $7,700 for five years of housework
Updated 24 February 2021

Chinese court orders man to pay former wife $7,700 for five years of housework

Chinese court orders man to pay former wife $7,700 for five years of housework
  • The award of compensation for housework sparked debate on Chinese social media

BEIJING: A Chinese court has ordered a man to pay his former wife 50,000 yuan ($7,700) as compensation for housework she did during their five-year marriage, state media reported on Wednesday.
Under a landmark civil code that seeks to better protect the rights of individuals, spouses can seek compensation from their partners in a divorce if they have shouldered more responsibilities — including housework.
The woman, who did not work outside the home during the marriage, sought compensation for housework she had done after her husband filed for divorce at a district court in Beijing last year.
The judge ruled in her favor, telling the man to pay 50,000 yuan for her labor, according to state television.
He must also pay 2,000 yuan a month to support their child, with other assets such as property to be divided equally.
The award of compensation for housework sparked debate on Chinese social media, with many netizens saying the amount was too little.
“A nanny’s annual income is already in the tens of thousands of yuan,” said a social media user. “This is too little.”


Experts warn of ‘dangerous’ keto diet side effects

Experts warn of ‘dangerous’ keto diet side effects
A reduction of carbohydrate intake and increase in fats place the body in a metabolic state called ketosis. (Supplied)
Updated 20 February 2021

Experts warn of ‘dangerous’ keto diet side effects

Experts warn of ‘dangerous’ keto diet side effects
  • “The keto diet can also affect your performance during certain exercises, and you won’t be able to work out as intensely or as often as before”

JEDDAH: The ketogenic diet has become one of the fastest-growing dietary trends, but experts have warned that many of its advocates are unaware of the dangerous side effects the diet can cause.

According to Healthline.com, the ketogenic diet, commonly known as keto, is a low-carb, high-fat diet that shares similarities with low carb and Atkins diets. A reduction of carbohydrate intake and increase in fats place the body in a metabolic state called ketosis.
However, the diet has led to severe side effects for some people.
“The keto diet should only be done under clinical supervision, and only for brief periods of time,” Dr. Ruwaida Idrees, a nutritionist, CEO and owner of Hayati Ghethaei, a catering company, told Arab News.
She added that the keto diet should only be considered in “extreme cases,” because it can do “more harm than good.”
Idrees said: “It can cause damage to the heart, since the heart is also a muscle.”
Consulting a doctor, completing necessary tests and discussing goals with a clinical dietitian should all be considered before starting a keto diet, she added.
Idrees said there are many misconceptions surrounding the keto diet and exercise, adding that exercise can still reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity and other health conditions.
People need to be careful about the types of exercises they practice, she said. “The keto diet can also affect your performance during certain exercises, and you won’t be able to work out as intensely or as often as before.”
Fouz Ghannamil, a fitness trainer, told Arab News that the diet appeared to work for many people. “It is good, but my own opinion is that the human body needs more nutrition than just fat and a really small dose of carbohydrates.”
She added: “It has a high portion of proteins which is good, but the fat sources, no matter how good they are, are a bit too much. It is better in my opinion that the portion of fat and carbs is balanced.”
Ghannamil suggested a better alternative for people looking to shed pounds this year — sticking to a diet of “80 percent healthy food and 20 percent junk food.
“Because naturally, your mind will desire junk food that is not natural, however, it has loads of fat in and your body can use it as an energy source.”
She warned people considering a new diet to stick to a balanced nutrition pyramid that contains everything they need: Protein, carbohydrates and fat.
She added that people should avoid diets based solely on numbers rather than personal experience.
Idrees, on the other hand, proposed the Mediterranean diet as a simpler alternative to the keto diet, saying that it has a good balance of seafood and other sources of proteins, moderate portions of dairy and a limited intake of red meat.


TWITTER POLL: Huge majority disagree with US decision to remove Houthis from terror list

TWITTER POLL: Huge majority disagree with US decision to remove Houthis from terror list
Updated 15 February 2021

TWITTER POLL: Huge majority disagree with US decision to remove Houthis from terror list

TWITTER POLL: Huge majority disagree with US decision to remove Houthis from terror list

DUBAI: A large majority of respondents to an Arab News Twitter poll said they disagreed with the US decision to remove Houthi militia from a terrorism list — reversing one of Donald Trump’s final decisions before leaving office.
A staggering 74 percent of 1,113 voters said they opposed the decision, while just over 17 percent agreed. And only 8.9 percent said they were undecided.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Houthis will be removed from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations on Feb. 16.


Blinken said the decision to remove the group’s FTO designation as well as its Specially Designated Global Terrorist Designation was driven by concerns, calling it “a recognition of the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.”
The announcement came after the Houthis mounted a number of attacks on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, which were condemned by the State Department earlier this week.
The top US diplomat noted in his statement that Houthi leaders Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, Abd Al-Khaliq Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, and Abdullah Yahya Al-Hakim remain under sanction.


“The United States remains clear-eyed about Ansarallah’s malign actions, and aggression, including taking control of large areas of Yemen by force, attacking US partners in the Gulf, kidnapping and torturing citizens of the United States and many of our allies, diverting humanitarian aid, brutally repressing Yemenis in areas they control, and the deadly attack on Dec. 30, 2020 in Aden against the cabinet of the legitimate government of Yemen,” he said, using another name for the Houthis.
The Biden administration's special envoy for Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, was in Riyadh this week for meetings with Saudi and Yemeni officials as well as UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths.
“The United States will redouble its efforts, alongside the United Nations and others, to end the war itself. We reaffirm our strong belief that there is no military solution to this conflict,” Blinken said Friday.


French nun, Europe’s oldest person, turns 117 after surviving COVID-19

French nun, Europe’s oldest person, turns 117 after surviving COVID-19
Updated 11 February 2021

French nun, Europe’s oldest person, turns 117 after surviving COVID-19

French nun, Europe’s oldest person, turns 117 after surviving COVID-19
  • Sister Andre is not going to do anything special for her 117th birthday
  • She converted to Catholicism and was baptized at the age of 26

TOULON, France: Europe’s oldest person, French nun Sister Andre, turns 117 on Thursday after surviving COVID-19 last month and living through two world wars, with a special birthday feast including her favorite dessert — Baked Alaska.
Born Lucile Randon on February 11, 1904, Sister Andre said she didn’t realize she had caught the coronavirus, which infected 81 residents of her retirement home in the southeast city of Toulon, killing 10 of them.
“I’m told that I got it,” the nun said ahead of her birthday. “I was very tired, it’s true, but I didn’t realize it.”
But David Tavella, spokesman for the Sainte-Catherine-Laboure nursing home, said she had “experienced a triple confinement: in her wheelchair, in her room and without a visit.”
“So, her birthday, it reinvigorates us,” he added, following the deadly outbreak.
Sister Andre said she was not going to do anything special for her 117th birthday but the home is planning a celebration for her.
There will be a special mass at the home, which has a dozen nuns, and the chef is preparing a birthday feast of foie gras, capon fillet with porcini mushrooms and Sister Andre’s favorite dessert: baked Alaska, washed down with a glass of port.
She says her favorite food is lobster and she enjoys a glass of wine.
“I drink a small glass of wine every day,” she said.
Born in Ales in a Protestant family, she grew up as the only girl among three brothers.
One of her fondest memories was the return of two of her brothers at the end of World War I.
“It was rare, in families, there were usually two dead rather than two alive. They both came back,” she said last year, on her 116th birthday.
She converted to Catholicism and was baptized at the age of 26. She joined the Daughters of Charity order of nuns at the relatively late age of 41.
Sister Andre was then assigned to a hospital in Vichy, where she worked for 31 years and then spent 30 years in a retirement home in the French Alps before moving to Toulon.
She is the second-oldest living person in the world, according to the Gerontology Research Group, after Japanese woman Kane Tanaka, who is 118.
Asked what she would say to young people, Sister Andre said: “Be brave and show compassion.”