Battle royal

By LOW SHI PING | | Updated: 2017-05-05 23:29
Battle royal

Nisreen El-Hashemite says men and women are born free, and have to remain free. Provided to China Daily


Iraqi princess is fighting to correct a shortage of women in the field of science and their unequal pay

If Nisreen El-Hashemite has things her way, the winners of the Hollywood Oscars next year will be presented by leading women scientists from around the world. This is part of her bigger dream to help her colleagues gain the international recognition they deserve.

El-Hashemite is the executive director of the Royal Academy of Science International Trust, a nonprofit organization "dedicated to promoting excellence in education and science". She is also a medical doctor and scientist in her own right.

Using RASIT as a platform, she has devoted herself to championing science technology and medicine education and research.

"I am very happy that you want to talk about my scientific work — thank you very much for focusing on me as a human being," she said in an interview with China Daily, given before she addressed the CRIB Summit 2017 in Singapore, an event in March which focused on women leadership and entrepreneurship.

The statement might seem a little strange, until you realize that El-Hashemite is of royal lineage. She is the granddaughter of King Faisal (I) bin El-Sharif Hussein, the first king of Iraq and founder of the modern state of Iraq. She belongs to the Hashemite family, whose lineage can be traced to the Prophet Muhammad.

"Most people want to talk about me being a princess, but the real me is the scientist," said the 48-year-old.

A look at her resume shows a list of scientific publications two and a half pages long.

Research she has done includes developing techniques for diagnosing single gene disorders from one cell — a technique known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis and now used as a preventive procedure in more than 100 centers worldwide.

While working at the Brigham and Women's Hospital — a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital — from 2001 to 2006, she conducted research on sex differences in tuberous sclerosis-related cancers, which has led to new therapeutic strategies and early detection of major types of cancer through accurate blood tests.

In all, she spent a decade doing medicine and scientific research before leaving it behind in 2007 to work at RASIT. Motivating her was the desire to correct income gap. "In the UK, women who work in science are paid less than men by up to 40 percent. It's a violation of gender equality."

She first realized the imbalance three months after receiving her first pay check back in 1997. It was 2,100 pounds ($2,690 at today's rates) — less than what her male counterparts were paid.

"This is a violation of human rights. Why am I being paid less when I am doing the same job as a male colleague who has the same qualifications?" she asked herself.

"Men and women were born free, and have to remain free. When it comes to employment, whoever is best for the job should be given the opportunity."

Equally vexing for her is the knowledge that women are underrepresented in science.

According to a report released in March by UNESCO, only 28.8 percent of researchers in the world are women. In East Asia and the Pacific, the figure drops to 23 percent.

Through her work at RASIT and its affiliate programs and divisions, El-Hashemite has worked hard against gender inequality and encouraged more girls and women to join her chosen field.

Two years ago, she made a breakthrough.

She presented a resolution to the United Nations to create an International Day for Women and Girls in Science in 2015. The intention is to encourage women and girls to pursue their interest in science and understand what stands in the way of those dreams.

The following year, the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution and Feb 11 was earmarked for the international day. Since then, a day-long conference has been held annually at the UN in New York.

"It is the only day in the UN calendar that combines women and girls," she said. "Unlike International Women's Day, which started because of the agony of women, the one I proposed is to recognize the happiness and achievement of women and girls in science."

This ranks as one of her proudest achievements to date. Another is her science degrees, including a PhD in human genetics from University College London. "I am the first royal princess to have four of them; I attained them by myself and for myself," she said.

Equally satisfying to her is being the founder president of the UN-hosted World Women's Health and Development Forum in 2014.

An independent program of RASIT, it aspires to "(promote) excellence in education and science, and (is) intent on playing an influential role in regional and international women's and girls' health and research policy".

"You cannot develop a woman without health and education," she explained.

El-Hashemite's love for science can be traced back to her childhood. As the youngest of four children, she was constantly trailing after her three brothers.

"They were my mentors and my teachers. I learned about chemistry, physics, engineering and mathematics through them, as they were doing their homework, even before I started studying these subjects in school."

The decision to become a medical doctor came easily to her. What was challenging was finding a university to accept her when the time came to apply.

"I was told repeatedly that science is not for royalty."

This, despite the fact that she had straight A's and would consistently give correct answers at admissions interviews.

"I remember telling the deans of the universities that I am proud to be a princess and born into this family. I said being a princess is harder than being a doctor. If they accept me, they will have the honor of having the (university's) first royal princess."

Eventually a British university — though which one she declines to reveal — accepted her and she continued her education.

Her perseverance is admirable. "My mother brought us up with the idea that you do not live on a title, you live on your achievements," she said.

While at medical school, an encounter with a young patient went on to define her specialization. "I wanted to be a pediatrician because I like children very much, but I later changed to human genetics because of a little girl I met."

Natasha was a 4-year-old orphan who had been diagnosed with thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder.

"When I was treating her, she asked me to promise her to help children like her. She said to me if I don't keep my promise, Allah will send me to hell.

"When she passed away six months later, I knew I had to live up to my word and changed my specialization. My masters thesis was dedicated to her."

El-Hashemite said of the life purpose she has found in serving humanity: "This is my mission, the honor that God gave me."

It is why she is so vocal about her fight against gender inequality and pushing for more women to become scientists and researchers.


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