STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) careers have always been quite male-dominated, and specifically in our region. It is not that women don’t pursue studies in STEM fields, but rather that there is a large gap between the number of women graduating in STEM majors and the number actually joining the STEM workforce. This gap may be attributed to many factors, which honestly is another topic on its own (and we’ll definitely get to that someday).
But then there are incredibly driven women like Reem AlMealla , who despite all the odds pursued a career in Marine Biology. Born in the land of two seas, Reem’s love for the sea was almost inherent. Here’s what Reem has to say about her journey as a woman in science and about the reality of the scientific field in Bahrain.
What is it like being a scientist, specifically a bio-scientist, in Bahrain? What is the scientific community in Bahrain like?
In general, it is challenging in many ways, however, I see it as an opportunity to become more creative and an opportunity to build a platform that will enable future Bahraini scientists to utilize and grow. The idea of being a scientist is that one thinks in ways most people don't, and also, of course, experimenting. Science is all about asking questions and then working on figuring out the answers.
For example, when I first started my career in Bahrain, I found it almost impossible to find environmental information in the country whether it be in terms of a list of the protected areas, phone numbers of authorities, specialists in the country etc. Therefore, I decided to find a solution and help others who might be out there like me through building Bahrain’s first environmental online platform – bnature.
The current scientific community in Bahrain is very small and limited especially with it facing a generation gap. Most scientists on the island are pioneers in their field of science in Bahrain, however, there aren’t many successors to carry on the work. This needs to change and young Bahrainis should be given an opportunity to explore the option of taking up scientific research as a career.
Beyond medicine, the career options in science seem to be quite limited in Bahrain, why do you think that is? What can be done to shift that mind-set?
The career options are indeed very limited as they are usually catered to two main fields either medicine or industry. So, if a young Bahraini did go into science outside these two fields their options are either working for a kind of science-private consultancy which are limited in number in Bahrain or go into an industry which is also not guaranteed. In addition, (my own opinion), scientific research is not a priority or concern for the country which is clearly reflected in the structure. Bahrain is one of the very few countries in the world that does not have a national scientific research institution and the one institution that does some research like Derasat, for example, focuses on political and social sciences rather than for example ecology or biology. Another reason might be that when the country needs a research study to be conducted, it sub-contracts a consultancy whether international or national to do it. Bahrain once had the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research years ago but that got closed down for reasons I am unaware of. I remember when I decided to do my undergraduate degree one of my aims was to come back and work there, but by the time I finished it had closed down limiting my options.
The Bahraini mind-set needs to shift from being short-sighted to long-term benefit. Science is the heart of development and without it, one does not know how to progress in an effective way. One can have a strategy but without a scientific foundation, that strategy will not hold up for very long. The shift requires people to be educated in the field of science. Links that showcase how integrating science harbours success and how science can be utilizing in development for most people are ignorant as to how science influences their daily life. Consider a simple example of health: why is everyone in the gym nowadays and changing their diet in order to adopt a healthy lifestyle? It is because science is telling them to do so by showing them the consequences of what will happen if they don’t. A healthy mind lives in a healthy body. But a mind and body would not know how to be healthy if it didn’t have the knowledge of how to become healthy – ‘thank you science!’
What role can authorities, the private sector, and individual scientists play in creating a platform for scientific development and engagement in Bahrain?
Collaboration between the private and public sector in addition to individual scientists is key to creating a platform for scientific development and engagement in Bahrain. Authorities play one of the most influential roles in creating platforms for any field. The Ministry of Education and other related authorities such as the Supreme Council of Environment could influence young Bahrainis to go into science through providing educational platforms and opportunities. This can be done through the provision of scholarships and fellowships that would allow youth to experience the beauty of science and practice it first-hand. Currently, there is some moral support being given to youth, however, moral support isn’t enough as youth need to have access to facilities that will allow them to carry out their ideas. Internships in science are also a very rare opportunity within Bahrain and they are crucial for young people to be able to explore their interests and see if science is for them or not. The private sector can play a big part in providing funding and perhaps also training and internships. Individual scientists are crucial to creating these platforms and help shape national programs to help young Bahrainis who want to pursue a career in science to establish themselves. The National Initiative for Agricultural Development (NIAD), led by Her Royal Highness Princess Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, is a prime example of an authority that creates opportunity through the provision of training and initiatives (e.g. King Hamad Prize) as well as collaboration with an educational institution to create courses that aid in agricultural development and more.
What sort of opportunities are available to young Bahrainis, especially women, interested in pursuing unconventional careers in Science?
The opportunities for young Bahrainis, especially women, interested in pursuing a career in science is challenging. However, opportunities are available even though they might not be very obvious or transparent at the moment. For women interested in pursuing a career in agricultural development NIAD is a big supporter and can provide aid in various aspects. For those in the environmental sector, options are limited however, short-term solutions are present such as working with the Directorate of Agricultural Affairs and Marine Resources, the Supreme Council for Environment or looking at the more inter-governmental offices such as the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage (ARCWH) which harbours a programme called Tabee’a meaning Nature. Other opportunities include working for environmental consultancies such as Environment Arabia in addition to becoming an academic and working at an education institution. For those interested in field work, I also recruit people to help me with my Ph.D. work on the field whereby the positions are advertised on my website and social media accounts.
As a woman in Science, specifically an Arab woman, do you think you had to overcome certain challenges and prejudices that were unique to you?
Similar to women everywhere around the world, there are always challenges in pursuing a career in Science. As an Arab woman and especially a woman from the GCC the journey is definitely a bumpy one. When I was 17, I called the Directorate of Fisheries and asked if they offered any support or scholarships for students like me wanting to pursue a bachelor's degree in marine biology. The response I got was that "we don't have girls on the boat." When I went to register my degree at the Ministry of Education after I finished my Masters, I was asked why I bothered and they found it inconvenient to create a new category to their list. When I was 20, people would ask me where on earth would I be working when I finished my studies as a woman, “the fish market?” they would say and then laugh. “No one will marry you as you will smell of fish all the time, or you’ll end up marrying a fisherman” I was told. I didn’t understand what would be wrong with that either way, I learnt to nod and smile politely. Others would be more worried about “what people would say as you are on the boat alone with men during field work – you will lose your reputation!”. There is so much more to these little stories filled with mockery, prejudice, and judgment but in the end, what matters to me is: following my passion and the support of my parents. I didn’t need more and as the years went by, I am growing into a community that is finally supporting me. The scientific community in Bahrain has been incredibly supportive in having a young Bahraini woman in this field and I remember walking into the University of Bahrain’s Biology department once and one of the male scientist telling me that I was the pride of the country. I am deeply grateful and don’t need more than that one comment to give me strength to continue this incredible journey.
Do you think there is potential for growth within the scientific field in Bahrain?
I believe when there is a will, there is a way. In life, we would not be where we are without science and scientific knowledge. Therefore, for any country to progress, science is needed. If Bahrain is dedicated to growing in a healthy way and is truly ready for sustainable development, then it must embrace science sooner rather than later. There is so much potential and promise in the coming generation that I am very optimistic that change is just around the corner.