Toward being WISE — STEM stories for success

“We can do it!” group pose with participants at the WISE 2023 workshop at KAUST. Diversity of the participants expanded perspectives and insights shared. Photo: KAUST

When scientists and engineers get together at a conference, talking shop is a given. For participants at the third annual Women in Science and Engineering (WISE; formerly known as WISER) Workshop at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), held February 7–9 on the University campus, the same was true, only with a holistic twist.

Women have been and continue to be trailblazers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and the global treasury of collective knowledge owes much to their contributions through millennia. However, a culture of support for women in STEM has been historically lacking. The last century has witnessed a slow and uphill climb toward recognition, with STEM awareness gradually guiding hiring and funding practices in the last few decades.

When asked how the STEM dialogue this year has differed from prior years, WISE Founder and Director Dr. Niveen Khashab, professor of chemistry and chair of the chemistry program at KAUST, said that she thinks the focus has shifted to include selfcare. For this reason, her objective for this workshop was to empower women with sustainable strategies for achieving mental wellness and balance in their personal and professional lives — thus the “twist” from most other science and engineering conferences.

“The STEM conversation had mainly been about getting women in the door, i.e., jobs, promotion and pay equity, whereas now it’s focused on shedding light on issues that women are dealing with in the workplace and at home,” Khashab said. “Women are inclined to self-sacrifice and multitask to the point of being overworked and stressed, and so it’s important to focus on wellness and other factors that could empower them.”

Participants at the WISE 2023 workshop at KAUST enjoy networking and getting to know each other between presentations. Photo: KAUST

Approximately 1635 attendees tuned in to the WISE workshop online, and 140 in-person participants from outside the University joined the women and men from the KAUST community.

Zenaid Stead, a PhD student in molecular bioscience studying malaria, said that this is the first event she’s been to that is female-focused. “My participation here has been different from other conferences I’ve attended with males. I find it’s been easier to be more open, connect and share stories. All the advice the women have given has been very empowering for me,” she said.

Everyone has a role to play

“Everyone has a role to play in empowering women!” was the WISE call-to-action. Over the course of the three-days, women and also men not only talked shop, but also shared uplifting, life-changing approaches and lessons learned from their personal and professional journeys that have helped them achieve success while managing the daily pressures of work and family and also major curveballs such as depression, disease and divorce.

Speaker presentations included practical strategies for navigating the daily complexities of life such as leveraging resilience, persistence, motivation, energy and personal pursuits, and managing the calendar and difficult scenarios.

“Remember to cheer for yourself,” advised Dr. Athba Al Qahtani, a molecular oncologist and clinical research specialist at King Fahad Medical City, whose research focuses on breast cancer. When Qahtani was unexpectedy diagnosed with cancer, she found herself comforted by the same counsel that she’d given patients through the years as a doctor.

Professors and editors affiliated with KAUST, distinguished science publications and other universities engaged in a panel discussion on publishing at the WISE 2023 workshop. Photo: KAUST

Additional activities included panels, outings and special events, such as the gala dinner; a highlight of the evening was an outdoor performance under the moon featuring different styles of dance, from acrobatic to modern to Bollywood.

Director of Innovation at the Saudi National Institute for Health Dr. Sufana AlMashadi, inspired audiences with her presentation, How Can Motivation Help you do What you Want and Love What you do. “I am honored to be invited as a speaker at the WISE meeting," she said. "I believe that establishing a network will help us address gaps in our systems. It is very important for women to take advantage of all the empowerment that is happening in the Kingdom.” Video: KAUST]

Attendees represented a wide range of expertise across academia, industry and government in fields such as bioengineering, chemistry, publishing, health administration, computational science and science policy, among others; they also represented different ethnicities and cultures — from the Kingdom and region to other parts of the world. Such diversity expanded the perspectives and insights shared.

Saudi Professor of Medical Genetics, Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders Dr. Aida Al Aqeel opened the WISE 2023 event with a lecture on the role of Muslim women scientists in history. Photo: KAUST

Dr. Aida Al Aqeel of Prince Sultan Military Medical City is a trailblazer and inspiration among Saudi women for being the first female Saudi geneticist and metabolist in Saudi Arabia. For more than 30 years she has researched and treated genetic disorders in patients, with a focus on children. In her lecture, Muslim Women in Science through History, she said, “Vision 2030 promotes Saudi women as an important part of the Kingdom’s strengths. Each one of us has to have a positive and creative change in both our personal and professional lives.”

In her lecture, Career Journey, not a Career Path, Her Highness Mashael Mohammed Al Saud, senior governance specialist with the Health Sector Transformation Program, said, “To my fellow Saudi women in the Kingdom: We've been given every opportunity known to man. This is our revolution. We need to take charge — to stomp our foot on the gas pedal and go for it. Now's the time.” Video: KAUST]

The conference is a central activity of the organization, but it’s not the only one. Outreach includes a multiprong agenda of advocacy aimed to support women. Lectures, panel discussions, networking opportunities, internships, lab resources and access to mentors and professionals are among the slate of activities offered throughout the year.

The WISE network includes female Saudi students and professionals from across the Kingdom representing different fields. Photo: KAUST

Professor Khashab serves as the WISE chair, with faculty lending support in an advisory capacity. This year’s event was co-chaired by Nazek El-Atab, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and co-organized by KAUST Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs Suzana Nunes, professor of chemical and environmental science and engineering; and Deanna Lacoste, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“Over these three editions of the WISE workshop, we have seen a gradual increase of interest for this event at KAUST, in the Kingdom and globally,” Lacoste said. “This is an important yearly rendezvous where women and men can exchange ideas about how we can improve the life and career of women in science and engineering.”