Women in science: “Dream big or go home!”
Being a UK-based researcher affiliated with two of the most prestigious institutions worldwide i.e. Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum, has been an every day reward for me and a constant reminder of all the rough paths and all the struggle I went through just to be at the stage where I am today.
Born and raised in Tunisia, I was taught at a very early age how to praise education and knowledge. However, as in any developing country, resources for cutting- edge research are always limited. So, I knew that I had to leave and explore the world. I will never forget the heart-warming words of support and encouragements of my family and my Tunisian supervisors. They always saw a great potential in me and wanted me to become “the positive change they want to see in the world.”
It all started when I got a Fulbright doctoral fellowship to do research in America…a truly dazzling experience that changed my life. I had access to the latest available technologies and all resources needed for my research project. Beyond the actual science, it was a wonderful social experience where through science I was discovering new cultures and meeting people from various parts of the globe.
After obtaining my PhD in Tunisia, I was awarded the highly prestigious Unesco- Loreal international postdoctoral fellowship. This program made me an ambassador for women in science. It gave me a leading role in inspiring younger generations of women in order to pursue a career in science, despite all the cultural and social biases such as gender discrimination and financial hardship. This important scheme is also sponsoring my research on pesticide resistance in the case of fruit fly insect pests.
My project is of great economic and social impact to the general public. As an example, 55% of the citrus production in Tunisia is estimated to be lost due to Mediterranean fruit fly (medfly) infestations. Similar losses are being experienced in many parts of the world, e.g. to production of peaches in Spain. Likewise, other flies, the olive fruit fly in olive production around the Mediterranean, the melon fruit fly, in melons and the oriental fruit fly in many tropical fruits. The medfly is usually controlled with repeated applications of insecticides, frequently 10–12 times per year. This has been effective since no cases of medfly resistance were reported initially. However, with insecticide resistance building, higher concentrations of chemicals are needed, while legislation limits their application, and increased demand for organic food and environmental concerns are forcing fruit producers and exporters to seek other options for medfly management.
While the medfly is not a pest in Britain, and is unlikely to ever be established here, most of the fruits sold in British supermarkets originate in infested areas and UK customers are concerned about potentially weaker environmental regulation abroad. I believe the problem of insect pests therefore is of great interest to the general public and can be used to explain the enormous evolutionary consequences of agricultural practices under increased globalisation.
While working on my project I do feel I am at the forefront of adapting novel genomic techniques to entomological and agricultural systems. It is such a challenge to give a plausible answer to such an important applied problem but isn’t it a wonderful reason to keep working harder and harder every day!
I do strongly believe that great achievements are possible with determination, tenacity, self- confidence and a very strong will to just be better and better. I do recall that one of my Tunisian female supervisors used to tell me: “we can’t have it all at once, but we definitely can have everything step by step” so, for all the bright women out there, let’s aim high, and dream big because anything is possible in science!
Dr Samia Elfekih is speaking at ZSL and L’Oréal-UNESCO’s Soapbox Science on Southbank, 16 July 2012 www.zsl.org/soapboxscienceTagged in: citrus production tunisia, fruit, gender, medfly, olives Mediterranean, peaches spain, science, women, women in science
Recent Posts on Notebook
- The Road to the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc - Majorca 70.3 Ironman
- The Retail Ready People project means the future of the high street is in your hands
- Don't get mad about Amazon and make the right ethical choice
- Chagos: Conservationists are swimming in murky waters
- Justin Webb on the medical advances in tackling heart disease
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter