Don’t Stop Believing.
When I came home to the UAE after completing my Bachelor’s degree in the United States, I soon learned that finding a job in my field was very difficult. There were limited opportunities and no research centers in UAE at the time. I was also interested in continuing my education, so I made the decision to travel to the United Kingdom to pursue a Master’s degree in Medical Engineering.
Suddenly, I was confronted with brand new challenges. The field of medical engineering was fairly new, and there were few resources for my studies. I was able to work with my classmates as a team to overcome these challenges.
But even working in a team was challenging as there were gender issues. Some of the male members had problems with the women scientists who were part of the team. They had difficulty accepting input from us, and accepting one of us as a leader in the group. These obstacles did not stop me. In fact, this time period marked my first real exposure to medical science and opened my eyes to how research can change lives for the better.
After obtaining my Master’s degree, I was eager to put my studies to good use. Unfortunately, I still could not find a job in the field for which I had such passion. I landed a job working for the Dubai Police Crime Lab where I stayed for seven years. The knowledge I gained from my studies was helping solve criminal cases. Over time, though, I came to realize that I really wanted to focus my energy on research – a world filled with intellectual, ethical, physical and emotional challenges that results in a dynamic and rewarding profession.
I knew my aspiration for excellence and to succeed within the medical research profession could help make a difference to the lives in the future. So, I decided to pursue my Doctorate in Medical Science in Australia. I specifically chose a disease that was, and remains, highly prevalent in UAE – Type 2 Diabetes.
The PhD phase of my journey was most difficult in my life. There were so many hurdles to overcome and I again began to feel that I wanted to quit before I even started. I was eight months into the program when I realized that the UAE lacked a research environment – we had no funding agencies, no centers and no adequately constituted ethics committees.
I thought that I could not tolerate this anymore, especially after speaking to other UAE female scientist who went through the similar struggles and decided to pursue their projects abroad. I thought that I would have to return to Australia and accept a projects to study a disease in an Australian population.
But I was determined to complete my project in the UAE even if meant starting at ground zero. No one even believed in my idea at first and it took a lot of effort and energy for me to continue. I had to secure funding in the UAE at a time where there were very few research agencies here. To compound the matter, none of them focused on studies into genetics.
I wrote several proposals but – because genetic research is very expensive and was without a proven track record – my applications were rejected many times. Yet, I was committed to doing research for the people of the UAE, so I personally backed the proposals to collect preliminary data for which I spent AED 100,000 from my own pocket. My family and friends provided great support. I wrote a fresh proposal, applied to Emirates Foundation and successfully received additional funding.
I never stopped believing in myself or my work. And other people were beginning to believe in me, too.
By Dr. Habiba Alsafar,
Assistant Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering at Khalifa University