What do rocket ships, apps like WhatsApp and vaccines have in common? They’re all made possible through STEM, an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Although previously a largely male-dominated field, women around the world, including in Saudi, are making great strides in STEM careers and helping to find innovative solutions to the challenges of today and tomorrow.
At 6 years old, Mishaal Ashemimry was with her mom in Saudi’s Unayzah desert when she looked up into the night sky and began asking questions.
“The desert is a beautiful place to go to at night ... basically it’s just you and the light from the stars. I saw a high density of stars, and I was in awe and trying to understand what the stuff was,” Ashemimry says. “I started asking my mom questions and everybody around me. What are these stars made out of? Why is this one brighter than this one? And no one seemed to give me the right answers.”
The experience led Ashemimry to her mission. “‘The best way to understand what’s up there is to go there,’” she remembers saying. “‘And the only way I can go there is with a rocket; therefore, I have to be somebody that makes rockets, so I can take myself there.’ That was my logic, since I was 6.”
The Saudi-American went on to master aerospace engineering, conduct research for NASA around nuclear thermal rockets for Mars missions, start her own rocket company at 26 and now consult for a major defense and space contractor. She’s lauded for being the first female aerospace engineer in the GCC and has received a wide variety of recognitions, from the Arab Woman Awards’ Inspirational Woman of the Year in 2015 to King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud presenting her an award for her scientific achievements in 2018. In addition to being interested in rockets, Mishaal Ashemimry always wanted to fly planes, even in high school. She ultimately decided to get her certification to fly in 2018, when she was in her 30s; she emphasizes that it’s never too late to do something you love.
Today, she’s also invested in educating young women (and young people in general) about science and math. On her YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat channels, she answers questions in Arabic around the Cassini-Huygens mission, the theory of relativity, rocket ships and planes. She shoots her videos and tutorials in Arabic because a lot of scientific content is in English and not always available in Arabic. “They may not understand 100 percent of it; they may understand some of it, but it plants the seed of curiosity in them,” she says.
The interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics throughout Arabia can be seen not only in the number of comments and followers Ashemimry receives but also in some of Saudi’s recent survey results. According to a Saudi Education Ministry survey conducted on social media, 80 percent of Saudi girls were interested in studying STEM. Additionally, 60 percent of science graduates in Saudi are women. Furthermore, in the Arab world, 1 in 3 startups are led or founded by women.
In addition to aerospace engineering, medicine is another field where you’ll find Saudi women rising in STEM-oriented research. For example, two Saudi women, Wafa Audeh Altalhi and Asma Al Amoodi, were among six female scientists honored during the sixth edition of the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Middle East Fellowship awards in Dubai in 2019. Each scientist received a grant for her achievements.
Altalhi was awarded 20,000 euros in the postdoctorate category. Her research revolves around donorless organ transplants, focusing on bioengineering patient-specific tissue and organs. The Umm Al-Qura University graduate in laboratory medicine also earned her master’s degree in cellular and molecular medicine and her Ph.D. in laboratory medicine and pathobiology from the University of Ottawa in Toronto. Her postdoctoral fellowship is at Harvard and at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Meanwhile, in the Ph.D. students category, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Ph.D. candidate Al Amoodi was awarded 8,000 euros. Her research centers around stem cell treatments, specifically researching ways to improve the efficiency of bone marrow transplants. “This award is about overcoming all limitations and challenges I have faced. The award has turned my dream to do something for our society into reality,” Al Amoodi says.
This award is about overcoming all limitations and challenges I have faced. The award has turned my dream to do something for our society into reality.
One of the most prominent women in STEM in Saudi is Dr. Samira Islam. She’s the first Saudi woman to earn a doctorate degree. Dr. Islam went on to work for the World Health Organization, win a UNESCO award for science, head King Fahd Medical Research Center’s Drug Monitoring Unit and institute a schooling system for girls in Arabia.
— Lisa Zimmermann is a travel writer and editor who has previously written for Club Traveler, Boston magazine, New England Travel, American Airlines and Atlas Magazine.