Four University of Toronto scientists – all Muslim women – will discuss their career paths and groundbreaking research during a panel at the Aga Khan Museum this weekend to mark the eighth annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
The panelists include: Mohaddeseh Abdolhosseini, a PhD student in the department of civil and mineral engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering; Omnia Elebyary, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Dentistry; Hadeel Mohammad, a PhD candidate in the Edward S. Rogers Sr. department of electrical and computer engineering; and Heba Roble, a first-year master’s student in the health services research program in the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
The Feb. 11 event is presented in partnership with Massey College and the Canadian Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
U of T News spoke with Elebyary, who is researching oral biomarkers that can predict the risk of adverse outcomes in bone-marrow transplant recipients, and Mohammad, whose research examines the intersection of wireless communication and electromagnetics, about their experiences as women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine).
What made you interested in studying science?
Elebyary: For me, it was mainly curiosity. I was a practising dentist back home in Egypt after graduating from university there. Though I was able to help patients in the clinic, through doing research I can help many more people on a wider scale. I wanted to do something that could benefit patients – especially cancer patients, as I’ve diagnosed a lot of cancer patients during my clinics, and I want to help them more by finding things that could potentially improve their treatment outcomes.
Mohammad: My interest in science started at a very young age because I was inspired by my father, who was a teacher. I started to appreciate science and wanted to know the answers to questions about ourselves. Even the area of research that I’m working on right now – I’m always interested in the unanswered questions and trying to find answers to the specific issues within my field.
Have you faced challenges in being a woman in your field?
Mohammad: As we move forward in the higher education system, from bachelor’s to master’s to PhD, you can see that the number of women in STEMM degrees decreases. You can certainly feel isolated. When I attend seminars or talks, there are fewer female students. There can be pressure to prove yourself – as a minority in the field, you want your voice to be heard. At the same time, I’ve had some great support from supervisors who send opportunities my way and are always looking to empower women in STEMM – so that has been really helpful.
Elebyary: I think the STEMM field is very challenging in itself, regardless of whether you’re a woman or a man. I think there’s often this notion that women are emotional and empathetic, and so maybe you deal differently with the frustrations that come with science – but I’m always showing that being emotional actually fuels me toward doing better in science because I’m very connected to the cause that I’m working toward. But certainly, it comes with a lot of struggle to prove that you can handle everything that comes with academia. Fortunately, we do have a lot of examples of great, achieving women who have done amazing things here at U of T and elsewhere – seeing their example or having them present in front of you is inspiring.
What’s your advice for young women who might be considering studying STEMM?
Mohammad: We’re so often afraid of failing, so I would say that instead of giving in to that fear, you just have to try. I always try to remember that when one door closes, somewhere another one opens – and that is applicable to different aspects of life. It’s only through persistence that you can reach for something rewarding. So just keep trying – and remember there are lots of different opportunities in the field of science.
Elebyary: Part of being successful is asking a lot of questions – and really listening to what people have to say. A lot of the things I’ve done I once thought were impossible. But when you ask a lot of people, a lot of small doors open for you – leading to even bigger doors; you just never know where they will lead. So, I’ve always been keen on asking those questions and learning from other people’s experiences.
Why is it important to celebrate women in STEMM through the International Day of Women and Girls in Science?
Mohammad: It raises awareness and reminds people that even though we have gone through a lot of advancements in our world, women still do face some challenges in the field. For women in the field, it’s a chance to reflect on all we have done; and for the younger generation, it’s a source of encouragement and makes them excited to know more about the contributions of women.
Elebyary: It's important to have this type of initiative to open doors for women so they feel like they can be represented in the field. I know that it can be intimidating to enter a field where you feel you’re a minority. But when you see Muslim women being represented at an event like this one at the Aga Khan Museum, you might just get inspired. That’s partly how I became interested in science myself – I attended a conference once where I saw another visibly Muslim woman present an amazing talk. It made me realize, “Maybe I can do it.” So, one of my main goals is to show that women – especially BIPOC women – can be represented in these spaces.