Women in biology

(Right to left) Jasmeen Merzaban, Ashwag Abdullah Albukhari, Bettina Berger and Peiying Hong spoke as part of a panel of successful female scientists during the 2016 Fall Enrichment Program. Photo by Ginger Lisanti.

From Rosalind Franklin, the researcher whose X-ray crystallography image helped unweave DNA’s double helix structure, to Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and author of the groundbreaking environmental conservation work “Silent Spring,” and Marie Curie, the famous nuclear physicist and two-time winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics for her discoveries in radioactivity, women have excelled—and continue to do so—in the sciences.

The 2016 Fall Enrichment Program gave the KAUST community a chance to hear firsthand success stories from a panel of four outstanding female scientists working in the biological sciences field.

Panel speakers Peiying Hong, KAUST assistant professor of environmental science and engineeringBettina Berger, scientific director of The Plant AcceleratorAustralian Plant Phenomics Facility at the University of Adelaide, Australia; Ashwag Abdullah Albukhari, assistant professor of medical oncology at King Abdulaziz University​ in Jeddah; and Jasmeen Merzaban, KAUST assistant professor of bioscience, outlined their strengths, triumphs and struggles while navigating successful careers in biology.

Difficult career for males and females

“Science is a difficult career no matter if you are male or female. Much support is required,” said Berger.

“We need to support females as they grow up and move into science. Science is not an easy field and takes a lot of work, time and commitment, and the work-life balance is difficult, especially at the beginning,” Merzaban echoed.

“Gauging how much time to put into your job and your family is especially challenging. Women have a lot of responsibilities in their lives, and they often don’t get credit for these; for example, women often help to support their children, parents and husbands. Having a scientific career on top of these responsibilities can be difficult without support from many people.”

“Women don’t always have an outstanding support system,” added Hong. “Our decisions for our careers become influenced by family considerations and societal expectations, often restricting what we decide to do. However, I believe women should be respected for their decisions, even if they decide not to continue further with their careers. At the end, excellence in life is about asking yourself, ‘Have I done my best?’”


Explore every opportunity

Merzaban noted she “didn’t start out wanting to be a scientific researcher,” originally intending to become a medical doctor.

“Even in high school, I always loved biology, and I followed that passion,” she said, “A series of opportunities appeared and smacked me in the face, and I decided I wanted to go through with them. These opportunities pushed me down certain paths, along with mentorship from different people, and I found that through research, I could still help in the medical field. I don’t regret any door that opened or any opportunity I took.”

“If you look at my CV, you might think there was some planning involved in my career, but it was really just meeting different people at the right times,” Berger said.

Hong agreed, adding, “My successes were a series of opportunities given to me at different times in my life. My passion for science developed over my undergraduate degree, and then I was awarded scholarships. Through those years, I built skills and I had people who believed in me. This drove my passion for research.”

Build your career with confidence

“Your Ph.D. is just the beginning of your career,” explained Albukhari. “After completing it, you must continue to do more research and prove yourself in different ways. It is so important to be satisfied with what you are doing and to love it because you will spend a lot of time doing your research.”

“We women must have the inner confidence to believe in ourselves and what we are doing in science,” said Merzaban. “We must follow what we are passionate about, at the same time remembering that the skills we develop along the way are needed in any field we go into.”

She advised the students in the audience to find a mentor, noting, “You have to find people who believe in you when you don’t necessarily believe in yourself. Don’t ever give up. Failure will happen, but you just have to pick yourself up and move forward.”

“You must believe in yourself and find out what makes you happy,” Berger concluded. “What drives you is the most important thing for your future.”