After initially launching an immunocompromised host research programme in Saudi Arabia that aimed to help recipients of organ transplants fight infections, Dr Mozaini extended her research to include diseases that weakened the immune system, including HIV Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

Think trailblazing scientists and Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking spring to mind immediately. How often does Polish-French scientist Marie Curie make that list? The sad truth is, rarely. It’s this narrative the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science programme is trying to change since 1998. ‘The initiative has supported over 3,200 women, rewarded 107 laureates (three have since won Nobel Prizes), granted fellowships in 118 countries till date,’ says Remi Chadapaux, managing director of L’Oreal Middle East. The Middle East Fellowship, now in its sixth year, has been putting female Arab scientists on the global map.

This article is part of series where we speak to three current fellows (announced in November) and three past ones of the Middle East Fellowship.

Also in this series:

Dr Maha Al Mozaini is associate professor at applied medical laboratory sciences, King Saud University, KSA, and past recipient of L’Oreal-Unesco For Women in Science Fellowship

This Harvard Medical School-trained researcher who was raised in the US left her cushy, established life in Boston to return home to Saudi Arabia in 2013.

She then launched an immunocompromised host research programme (ICH) at King Faisal’s Hospital that initially targeted studying how to help recipients of organ transplants (who take drugs to suppress immunity so that their body will accept the new organ) fight infections. The programme also studied hereditary diseases that weakened the immune system, such as Lupus or Multiple Sclerosis. She then extended the programme’s purview to a notorious immunodeficiency virus – HIV.

‘I returned because I wanted to start something in Saudi. I’d learned, got all the skills and even then it meant starting from scratch and facing obstacles,’ she says.

The obstacles came thick and fast. To start with, there was a lack of existing HIV research in the GCC – even the WHO website has no official numbers of HIV carriers or other data. This meant that Dr Al Mozaini had to start a database from scratch documenting patients who visited the HIV clinic at King Faisal Hospital for treatment.

‘The lack of research was a shame because how would you understand how to combat the virus in our region when we have different genetic backgrounds and environmental factors from the West? We might even have a different strain of the virus so vaccines being developed abroad might not work for us,’ she explains.

While she held the fort on the research end of things, collecting data from patients, she found herself struggling with funding for two years. ‘I got support for research on transplant patients but not HIV because it’s considered a taboo topic. But winning the L’Oreal-Unesco fellowship in 2015 changed everything. People paid attention to a Unesco-funded HIV research and suddenly weren’t afraid to talk about HIV and AIDS,’ Dr Mozaini recollects.

She counts the positive media impact as one of her major accomplishments.

Overall, commendable accomplishments have been manifold for Dr Al Mozaini’s ICH programme: her research has made it to a number of publications and received patents within just four to five years of being established. She also got a non-profit organisation for women living with HIV approved last November after a five-year struggle to register it. Recently, she enlisted medical students as volunteers and conducted a widespread survey in Saudi to assess the general population’s knowledge and awareness of HIV.

Based on the findings, she’s is now devising an awareness programme to dispel misconceptions, such as that sharing utensils spreads HIV.

‘We want to increase awareness to reduce new infections as well as target stigma and discrimination because HIV carriers live better lives than diabetic patients if given proper care and medication,’ she tells me.

‘It’s a problem, we’re a ticking bomb. And we’re the only region that tests people for HIV in marriage, employment and education.’

Her non-profit aims to save female carriers of HIV from stigma – most are inadvertent victims who’ve contracted the virus through heterosexual contact with their husbands. Meeting some of them was heart-breaking, recalls Dr Al Mozaini: ‘A young girl aged 19 had contracted it as a foetus from her mum and couldn’t go to college because of her condition. An HIV positive widow had to take care of her kids without a job. These stories piled up and someone needed to do something,’ she recounts.

Doing what no one before them has done characterises the women in Dr Mozaini’s family, who are a microcosm of what Saudi women are capable of. Her oldest daughter is the first female Saudi electrical engineer who works out in the field for a reputed oil company; her second daughter is a biotech major and the third is on her way to becoming a psychiatrist.

Has she decoded the holy grail of parenting – raising a successful child? The proud mother laughs, saying she’s done nothing but expose them to a variety of topics in play and learning – from Lego and electric toys to museum trips and books, without sidelining anything because of a gender bias.

Dr Al Mozaini also extends her trailblazing mentoring to other young women in STEM through informal mentoring. ‘We don’t have a [mentoring] network established for female scientists in the region yet and this is what I advocate for. ‘Science is a really hard profession that comes with a lot of disappointments and frustrations. It’s constant, you can’t go home and switch off, so the right advice helps.’

In the absence of such networks, she values the opportunity of being a jury member at this year’s fellowship to discover talented Saudi women who are go-getters. ‘It’s amazing. We were never under the spotlight, but now we have so many opportunities our leadership is providing as part of vision 2030.

‘Saudi women are in for a bright future, so watch out world.’