Science, education, and women in the Arab World... and beyond

Dr. Rana Dajani is a higher education reform expert and a member of the UN Women Jordan advisory council.  She frequently writes in the journal Nature about science, education and women in the Arab World and in 2014, she received a PEER award to establish a network for women mentors. Rana is a strong advocate for the theory of biological evolution and Islam.  Proclaimed one of the most influential women scientists in the Islamic World and 12 among the 100 most influential Arab women 2015, Rana received the 2017 Global Change-maker Award from IIE/Fulbright. Rana is an incredible scientist and advocate, an inspiration, and a member of the 500 Women Scientists leadership team. We asked Rana some questions about her work and what drives her:

A little over 10 years ago, you started a weekly storytelling session for young children in your community mosque in Jordan and this grew into a "We Love Reading" initiative of community based libraries that foster the love of reading from a young age. How does that initiative link to your other work to promote science education and women in science? 

The initiative was born out of the following:

1. As scientists we hold a responsibility towards society. Our role is not limited to our labs and classroom halls. We should reach out and help society with our skills and knowledge.

2. As scientists we observe phenomenon around us and try to analyse why.  We then think of solutions that can solve the problems.  I did just that with the problem that children don’t read for fun and created a solution that works.

3. As a scientist, I learned to be simplistic and minimalistic so I created a simple solution.

4. As a Muslim, I was brought up on three pillars that a.) I should take advantage of every minute in my life to make it useful b.) I am responsible for helping humanity c.) what matters is that I try.

Reading is the most important tool that can allow a child rise above the circumstances they are born into and cannot control.  It is one tool that can stay with a person forever.

You've talked about the importance of teaching scientific concepts like evolution to Muslim students. What are some teaching approaches that have helped you convey controversial topics, like evolution?

I don’t impose any opinion on my students (otherwise I would be an oppressor as well by forcing an opinion on them). My objective is to help foster freedom of thinking, to encourage students to have confidence in themselves and their minds and their thinking, to trust their own opinions. I ask them to observe, collect data and facts and read.  Then I ask them to think rationally about what they have gathered and to come up with their own opinions and conclusions. I ask them never to accept something without being convinced 100%.  I tell them that what ever conclusion they reach it will be respected if they have the evidence to back it up. I emphasize that it is not about following one school of thought or another but about reaching a conclusion that they feel comfortable with that they have thought through.


You have developed and implemented a peer mentorship platform for women scientists in the Middle East - the Three Circles of Alemat. What prompted you to start working on this topic? Why is peer mentorship important for women scientists in the Middle East and what lessons can we take to the global women in science community?

Scientists in the Arab world face similar problems of lack of funding and technicians, and bureaucracy.  These challenges are the same for men and women.

However, I realized that women scientists don’t have time to hang around to discuss the latest discoveries, conferences and ideas because we want to enjoy our children as well. This is not unique to women in the Arab world but is something we share as women all around the world. So I thought if I can come up with a flexible mentoring model that would allow women to communicate to help them succeed in their professional and personal life then that would be great.  So I gathered a group of women and brainstormed with them and over the course of 5 years finally came up with this model that I tested and now doing rigorous research on to understand why it works and how can we make it even better.

The model is working in Jordan and we envision that other countries will take it up. In addition to women in other professions.

How do you balance continuing a rigorous research program in molecular biology with all of your efforts to increase access to science education and mentorship for women scientists in the Middle East and beyond? 

Time management, prioritizing, and enjoying what I do.  Work is fun!

My work in science education and women scientists helps my research by opening new doors of collaboration and development of new hypotheses. 

If my research is frustrating than my other work is a haven and vice versa… the two sides feed off each other in a positive way.

Also my career pathway was a zigzag.  I married early and had my children before 30.  I then did my PhD and became a professor at 35.  So many of responsibilities were kind of done in separate time segments.

You' have talked about the importance of recognizing that traditionally, women's family roles differ from those of men (where family commitments limit women from accessing opportunities to advance their careers) but that measuring success using metrics developed during a time when men dominated the work force is inherently biased and does not place value on family. How can access to mentorship and networking that specifically address the intersection of personal and professional responsibilities help women in the Arab world and beyond succeed in science? 

Note: This is issue is common to women all over the world not only in the Arab world.

The mentorship and networking helps women learn from each other, advise each other, get support and gain confidence from each other, have the courage to take decisions, learn to identify priorities, how to follow your passion and to gain support from family and community. To learn about other role models who have succeeded in non traditional ways.  That life is long and what you don’t achieve today you can achieve tomorrow.  You learn not be intimidated and have the courage to follow your heart and what you think is important.  We need each others support.

Check out more from Rana here and here. 


Rana Dajani Ph.D. molecular cell biology, a Fulbright alumnus twice, Harvard Radcliff fellow 2017,  Eisenhower fellow 2014, Associate Professor, founder of the service learning center and former director of the center of studies at the Hashemite University, Jordan, Yale stem cell center and Cambridge University visiting professor. She is the world authority on the genetics of the Circassian and Chechan populations in Jordan. Her research focuses on genome-wide association studies concerning diabetes and cancer and stem cells. She advocated the establishment of the law for stem cell research and therapy in Jordan.

Dr. Dajani has also developed a community-based model and philosophy “We love reading” to encourage children to read for pleasure received multiple awards the Synergos award for Arab world social innovators 2009, the Library of congress literary award 2013 best practices, WISE Award, King Hussein Medal of Honor 2014, Star Award for education impact 2015. for best education program for refugees 2015 WLR has spread to 30 countries.  

Dr Dajani is married with four children.