Many residents of the UAE are well acquainted with the remarkable achievements of Maryam Matar, MD, PhD, in her diverse roles on the national stage as a doctor, geneticist, policy maker, government official, health influencer, public speaker, and the founder of multiple charitable organisations. However, her stature as one of the world's foremost female scientists, and the path she undertook to attain this position, remains less known.
When she speaks of her journey, it is coloured with anecdotes, memories and motivational tales, and she does not dwell on how difficult it was. To overcome challenges on her path, she simply made every step count and every act matter, in the care of people and in the service of society. The resulting story is the definition of rising above the ordinary and revising the norm.
Maryam recalls her childhood to motivate anyone who thinks their own circumstances are dire. “I grew up with nine brothers and sisters in a simple and ordinary home,” she explains. “My parents were not literate, but they encouraged all their children to study hard, score high marks, and achieve something.”
She is candid about the backdrop of her sterling career. “My grandmother was a popular herbalist, and when she passed away, I asked my mother why so many strangers had gathered at our home to cry for her.” When her mother explained that they were people who had been cured by her, it put an idea in little Maryam’s little head. I will learn how to heal people and I hope they will feel like this for me, she told her mother. “It was on that day I decided to do everything I could to become a doctor that people loved.”
True to her word, Maryam went on to earn an impressive number of academic degrees, diplomas and certificates in medical sciences from reputed universities in the UAE, UK and US, and became the first Arab woman doctor to be certified in genetic diseases by Japan.
On her return, she was appointed as the first woman to the posts of undersecretary in the ministry of health, and director general of public health, where she helped formulate social policies for several editions of the Dubai Strategic Plan, and almost doubled the number of community health centres in the UAE.
As a fervent advocate of public health and working in collaboration with various ministries, Maryam founded and nurtured several community health initiatives like charting the genetic map of residents, instituting pre-marital medical examinations, screening for genetic mutations in children, and addressing issues around illnesses such as Thalassemia, Alzheimer’s and Autism. “I look at every appointment as a heavy responsibility that motivates me to give more. I beat a lot of odds to get here, and the trick is to be confident but never arrogant.”
I am fiercely proud that I am able to fly the flag for my country as Mohammed Matar’s daughterServing people is the highest satisfaction.
Her zeal and outreach led to the creation of several charities and not-for-profit institutions in the country, the most influential of which are the UAE Down’s Syndrome Association, which she established in 2005, and the UAE Genetic Diseases Association (UAE GDA) in 2006.
Maryam describes how the seed of an idea takes shape inside her to grow and impact thousands of others. She was once enjoying some downtime at the beach when she saw a young mother struggling with her baby who had Down’s syndrome.
“I told her I was a doctor and offered to mind the baby for a while so that she could have a short break, and the next week, there were two mothers looking for my help,” she recalls. “Soon my private beach audience had reached 14 families, it became a support group, and that is how I established the Down’s Syndrome Association.”
Elevating the UAE’s global presence
As the Founder of UAE GDA, she is single-handedly responsible for putting UAE on the global map of genetic research and innovation. Her tireless work in genetics has her ranked as the most powerful Emirati female researcher in science, and one of the most influential Muslim female scientists in the world.
Dr. Maryam Matar is not someone who sits in the comfort of a consulting room.. She goes above and beyond her profession by advising organisations on sustainable healthcare and community empowerment. She is pioneering new fields of research in epigenetics and regenerative medicine, she mentors young graduates, and speaks at dozens of international health conferences around the globe. Maryam thanks her husband and family for their constant support as she heals individuals and communities, and aims for much more.
“I am fiercely proud that I am able to fly the flag for my country as Mohammed Matar’s daughter,” she says. “Serving people is the highest satisfaction.”