Rocking the Science Scene



Wed, 15 Nov 2017 - 03:49 GMT


Wed, 15 Nov 2017 - 03:49 GMT

Menatallah el-Serafy (far right) and Basma Mostafa (far left) were recognized by L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science regional program at the third annual award ceremony early last month - Courtesy of L'oreal Egypt

Menatallah el-Serafy (far right) and Basma Mostafa (far left) were recognized by L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science regional program at the third annual award ceremony early last month - Courtesy of L'oreal Egypt

The legacy of Egyptian female scientists goes back to over 4,000 years ago, all the way to the earliest woman physician, Merit Ptah, whose name and image are inscribed in the Valley of the Kings, dating back to 2,700 BCE.

Adding to a long list of inspirational women who have been contributing to the technical advancement of humanity throughout history, two young Egyptian scientists were recognized by L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science regional program at the third annual award ceremony early last month.

Menatallah el-Serafy, a molecular biologist, and Basma Mostafa, a computer and operations researcher, were awarded the 2017 regional fellowship, granting them €10,000 and €6,000 respectively to undertake their progressive research ideas in genetics and mathematical models.

“The mission of the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science program is to identify, reward and encourage exceptional women scientists from around the world, women who can serve as role models for younger scientists,” says Nahla Mokhtar, L’Oreal Egypt Corporate Communication Manager.

Leading a revolution in molecular biology

Having acquired her PhD before turning 25, as well as having a rich list of publications in the field of molecular biology and a research project offering advanced knowledge for new health innovations made Serafy an outstanding candidate for the award amongst 90 other applicants. Today, she’s revolutionizing research in her field in Egypt, and she hasn’t even turned 30.

Looking up to late scientist and Nobel Prize winner Ahmed Zewail ever since she was a child, Serafy’s primary goal has always been to make a difference and have an impact similar to the renowned Egyptian chemist’s. She graduated from the German University in Cairo in 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology; and on the evening of her graduation ceremony, she was on a plane to Germany, to pursue both her master’s and PhD in just five years at Heidelberg University. “I wanted to learn some practical skills, so I decided to travel abroad to get proper direction in research,” Serafy tells us.

She later decided to return to Egypt and apply her knowledge at the Center for Genomics (CG), affiliated with Zewail City for Science and Technology, focusing
mainly on ways to repair DNA damage. Currently a postdoctoral researcher, Serafy applied for the L’Oreal-UNESCO fellowship to be able to advance her project, which uses yeast to identify new genes and proteins, and which is expected to contribute toward repairing DNA damage.

“The research has so far uncovered 11 genes that are believed to be involved in a certain repair pathway; and which no one has ever reported in any publication,” Serafy says. The current step in the project is to try to look for mutations in these genes in different patients centres to see if there are certain diseases that are, indeed, caused by this mutation.

“Knowing the genetic cause will open the way for personalized medicine that targets the exact disease causing mutations; it will reduce the side effects and avoid the risk of prescribing certain medicine that the patient would be resistant to,” Serafy says. “It also improves the diagnosis and facilitates early detection by looking at the mutation in the gene.”

Having won the regional fellowship, Serafy plans to direct the full €10,000 to purchasing chemicals in the lab and publishing high-impact articles in renowned international publications. “I want the whole world to know that we produce respectable research here, in Egypt, that we have a contribution and we are not just consumers,” Serafy says, adding that she believes this fellowship has enabled her to have more impact on society. “People are more aware about the research and my students became more motivated,” she adds.

When asked about the experience of being a female scientist in Egypt and in the Arab world, Serafy notes that while the whole world is moving toward empowering women in science, “the only problem here is social constraints, which are starting to change. . . . We need social awareness to appreciate that women want to balance between the two things [personal and professional lives], as well as social support at the workplace, like providing nurseries, or being able to take a break and come back to proceed,” Serafy says.

Being a newlywed herself, Serafy has praised how supportive her husband and family are, calling for every motivated woman to choose a man who would appreciate and support her goals. “My husband works with me and he knows I am very motivated and I want to make a difference. . . . Each of us has his personal goals and we have common goals as well. And each of us has the duty to support the other to reach their goals in their careers,” Serafy says.

Having won the regional postdoctoral fellowship, Serafy is now eligible for the International Rising Talent Award, which recognizes 15 women scientists internationally. The fellows are selected among the winners of the national and regional fellowship programs, and receive a grant of €15,000.

Applying mathematics to monitor heart devices remotely

Assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Computers and Information at Cairo University, Mostafa, 30, was awarded the L’Oreal Unesco Fellowship for her PhD thesis entitled “An optimised mathematical model to monitor the internet of things network.”

Having graduated first in her undergraduate class, and receiving her master’s degree in 2014, Mostafa is currently working to acquire her dual PhD at the University of Montpellier, France and Cairo University.

“My goal is to target the devices monitoring the health of patients, especially if they are old and they cannot go to hospitals all the time.” Mostafa says. The thesis aims primarily at developing a mathematical algorithm that would monitor health devices connected to the internet and make sure that there is no delay or malfunction in reading the data, sending it to the doctors, and automatically alerting the system for any emergency to send an ambulance. “It is very critical to make sure there are no problems or delays in such a system,” Mostafa stresses.

The Network of Things includes billions of smart devices; phones, heart monitors, blood sugar monitors, cars and TV monitors; all connected to the internet. “However, it still needs models to monitor it and make sure that the required quality of services is realised,” Mostafa says.

Mostafa’s developed mathematical model aims at creating this remote monitoring at the lowest cost, and allowing for realistic application that “would touch people’s lives,” she explains.

With nine months left to fulfill her PhD requirements, Mostafa has initially applied for the fellowship to help finance her travel expenses to Paris. However, she also puts great weight on the impact of this recognition in introducing her project to the people and helping realise its importance in the society.

“The mathematical model is already accomplished but this is a primary phase. It needs to be turned into a code and tested,” Mostafa says, adding that she has already communicated with doctors involved in the industry who are waiting for her to finalise the product to be able to find a patient who would use her research results.

A wife and mother of two children, Mostafa stresses the challenge to balance between the responsibilities of a scientist and a mother. “I am grateful to the support of my husband and his appreciation of me being mentally occupied, as well as accepting that I am working towards a big thing that would be rewarding for myself and for our home,” Mostafa says.

For Women in Science

The competition, which covers Egypt and the Levant, featured a total of 111 applications this year, 50 percent of which came from Egypt, reveals Mokhtar.

The L’Oreal-UNESCO initiative was first founded in 1989, but the regional program launched in 2014, aiming to recognize and honor female scientists from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Egypt for the quality of their research work.

“We wanted to have a larger representation of women; all women, women from the Arab world, and specifically from the Levant region and Egypt,” Mokhtar says. “[We wanted] to acknowledge their crucial role in the development of the region.”

For the past two years the L’Oréal program in the Levant and Egypt used to award five outstanding female postdoctoral researchers with a grant of €10,000 each. However, in 2017, the figure has increased by adding a new category, now offering three postdoctoral fellowships, amounting to a total of €10,000, to Arab women researchers working in research laboratory, institute or university. Four other fellowships, amounting to a total of € 6,000, are granted to Arab women pursuing doctoral degrees. The fellowships are all granted by the L’Oreal Foundation, L’Oreal Egypt and L’Oreal Liban SAL.

Since its inception 19 years ago, the L’Oreal UNESCO’s international program has recognized 2,800 women scientists in 115 countries; including eight Arab Laureates who won the international award, and more than 90 promising Arab talents.

Egyptian women scientists have been recognized by initiative for years. In 2001, Amal Ahmed was awarded the international fellowship for her project focusing on the elaboration of simple tests that allow the measurement of seawater pollution using shells.

In 2002, Nagwa AbdelMaguid was awarded the Africa and Middle East fellowship for her advanced research in the fields of psychiatric genetics. The same fellowship was given to Karimat El Sayed a year later for her post-doctoral research on small impurities in metals.

In 2006, Ghada Abu El-Heba was named international fellow for her project in improvement of nitrogen-fixation in legumes. Hadeer El-Dakhakhni also received the international fellowship in 2010 for her research in the field of biomaterials and their use in clinical applications. Rashika el Ridi was awarded the Africa and the Arab states award the same year, having conducted research that led to the development of a vaccine against a tropical disease. Shahenda el Nagar, research director at the Children’s Cancer Hospital 57357, was named Pan Arab Fellow a year after, followed by Heba Salama in 2012. Sherien Elagroudy was also awarded the Arab fellowship for her research in novel solid waste treatment system in 2013. Nourtan Abdeltawab was recognized twice for her work in pharmacogenetics of Hepatitis C virus, winning the Levant and Egypt fellowship in 2014, followed by the International Rising Talent award in 2015. Nashwa Mamdouh El-Bendary and Mai Fathy Tolba also won the regional fellowship in 2015 and 2016 respectively for their projects in information technology, and mechanisms of resistance of hormone-responsive cancers to chemotherapy.

“We have a say we are proud of, 'The world needs science and science needs women' because the women in science have the power to change the world,” Mokhtar says. “We have number of talented, exceptional women in science that are working day and night to change the world. Our role as a corporate, believing in their power and committed to science as it is in our DNA, is to show the success of those successful models to the community to inspire others.”



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