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Hayat Sindi A Scientist Among Most Powerful Arab Women

Dropped off at a Danish youth hostel in central London without speaking a word of English, sixteen-year-old Hayat Sindi began to think she had made a huge mistake. The Saudi-born teenager, whose passion for science overrode her logic and common sense, had not realised how difficult her journey to being a great inventor would be. “When I got to England it was the shock of my life,” she explains, recalling that first day. “My sister’s husband collected me from the airport but he didn’t speak Arabic, and I didn’t speak English, so there was no communication, and he put me in a Danish hostel. “I thought, very naively, that because I was a straight-A student, it would be easy. I told my father I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t.” Born in Makkah in 1967, Hayat Sindi is today one of the best known medical scholars in the region. Her research into diagnostics and biotechnology, which is internationally recognised, has earned her a positive reputation both as an advocate of affordable medicine and an ambitious humanitarian. In addition to her scientific work, she has also participated in numerous events aimed at raising the awareness of science amongst women, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world in general. Thanks to her ongoing efforts, this year, she was ranked number nine on the CEO Middle East list of most powerful Arab women. It all started for Sindi when she moved to London. Contrary to some reports, she did not lie to her parents about going to England, but persuaded them it was a good idea. Even at such a young age, her desire to study pharmacology and help the sick was extremely strong, but it was a dream she could never have fulfilled in Saudi Arabia at the time “When I reached high school I really wanted to study pharmacology, but it wasn’t common practice in Saudi Arabia to study a single subject — you needed to do it as part of medicine,” she explains. “I did one year of medicine but I didn’t like it; I wanted to be a scientist. So I had to convince my family to send me to England. Initially they said no way, but I persuaded them. My father was very supportive, but he was worried because I didn’t know English.” As it happened, Sindi managed to pick up the language fairly quickly, primarily by listening to the media. Unable to give up on her dreams, she made a habit of watching BBC news programmes every day, adamant that she would eventually get the hang of the language. “My friend told me the key to learning the language was to watch the BBC. I told her I could not understand a word, and I was crying. She said it didn’t matter, and that one day I was going to understand. So every day for two weeks I watched the BBC and I understood nothing. And then one day, it clicked.” Equally difficult was the road to university. Despite Sindi’s obvious intelligence, upon applying to colleges she received a flurry of rejection letters, and was told her qualifications weren’t enough to study in the UK. “All the universities I applied to rejected me,” she says. “My qualifications from Saudi were like GCSEs, not A-levels, so I couldn’t go. They asked me to do my A-levels again, and that was hard because I had to do it in one year, and I still couldn’t speak English very well.” In the end of course, after a gruelling twelve months of crammed study, Sindi did achieve her goals of going to university in the UK, and - even better - was accepted into two of the best institutions in England. After first completing her Bachelor of Science in Pharmacology at Kings College in London, she was offered a scholarship to do a PhD in Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge, making her the first female in the Gulf to gain such qualifications. During her time at King’s College, she also received the Princess Anne Award for her undergraduate work on allergies. All this, whilst simultaneously juggling an English-teaching job to help fund her studies. When asked how she did it, Sindi says humbly that she was driven by her passion. “When I was very little I wanted to do something for humanity. I was inspired by the great scholars, Arabic and Western, and I wanted to be like them. That was the only thing in my head — I wanted to be a scientist. I loved school very much.”She adds that she got the job teaching English because she didn’t want to burden her parents, and because she wanted to remain mostly independent. “I had to find another way to make an income as I didn’t want to rely on my family 100 percent. So I worked in the university teaching English. I used to get good money for that.” She admits, however, that none of it was easy. Biotechnology in particular, was very tough for a Saudi girl, especially since it was considered “a gentleman’s subject”, and because it was complicated. It was also new for Sindi, given that she hadn’t studied physics or electronics before. “I had to teach myself,” she says. “It was very hard.” Adding to her problems, according to a recent interview that Sindi undertook with Arab News, was the fact that when she first started at Cambridge, a well-known scientist told her she would fail unless she “let go of her hijab” and changed her ways. He gave her three months to fail. “But I managed,” she explains modestly. “I graduated and eventually I started to come up with inventions. I wanted to look at how to make science affordable and accessible. That’s what I do.” Sindi’s first invention, which she began when she left university, was spawned after she founded the company Sonoptix with Saudi seed funding. The diagnostic tool combined a machine and a small piece of glass which used the effects of light and ultra-sound to detect diseases. But it was its ability to detect single molecules in particular which made it so special. This meant it could be widely used to discover life-threatening illnesses in their very early stages. Sindi says she was determined to help women with breast cancer, and to make quick detection accessible to women with a variety of incomes. In addition, she wanted to improve the sophistication of diagnostic tools. “You can detect small molecules, like at the atomic level, and that is the key thing,” she explains. “Most of the diagnostic tools around us are unable to detect single molecules, and in the clinical industry, we need something which is sensitive to this. It can apply to the whole industry, of course, but I wanted to benefit women around the world because I understand that if you screen a disease like this early then it can save millions of lives. We should be screening women once a year, it should not cost much and it should give them a chance to live.”

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