As Qataris, we are very fortunate to have inspiring Qatari women representing many different fields; women who have trail-blazed and left their fingerprint in their field. In this interview, we will be focusing on the health and science field through exploring the life of Dr. Asma Ali Al-Thani, the founding Dean of the College of Health Sciences at Qatar University, Director of the Biomedical Research Center and Vice Chairperson of the Qatar Biobank Board of Trustees. So, who is Dr. Asma Ali Al Thani?
I graduated from Qatar University in 1990 with a dual specialization in analytical chemistry and biomedical sciences, because at that time as students of biomedicine had to specialize in two fields. After that, I worked as a teaching assistant at Qatar University for a couple of years and then I went to the UK to complete my postgraduate studies. I got accepted at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine which is the medical branch of the University of London, and I specialized in medical virology. Once I graduated, I returned to Qatar University to work as an assistant professor. I have been making progress in the career ladder moving from entry-level administrative and managerial positions to higher levels since I got appointed at Qatar University in 2005. In 2012, I became the Head of the Department, and then the Founding Dean of the College of Health Sciences. During this time, I participated in many national committees, including the National Committee for Human Research (translation) at the level of the Ministry of Health. The aim of this Committee is to monitor research institutions, particularly those that use human samples to preserve the rights of patients and volunteers. We were mainly concerned with: whether the relevant person gave his or her consent in this respect or not, how such institutions treat vulnerable or needy groups such as prisoners, children, pregnant women, etc. We make sure that whatever research is carried out is done ethically and does not do any harm to the people involved. Furthermore, in 2006, I became a member of the executing committee of Qatar Foundation’s (Qatar Biobank). When I got appointed as Head of the Department of Health Sciences in 2012, there were generally only three health and medical specialties at Qatar University: biomedical sciences, human nutrition, and pharmaceutical studies. However, at the same time Qatar University made the decision to expand its medical specialties and I was appointed a member of the founding committee that was formed by Her Excellency (H.E) Dr. Sheikha Al Misned (previous dean of Qatar University) alongside His excellency Sheikh Dr. Abdulla Ali Al Thani for the College of Medicine to tackle its expansion. This committee included people such as H.E Dr. Hanan Al Kuwari, Dr. Mariam Abdulmalik, Sheikh Dr. Hassan Ali Al Thani etc. We began with the establishment of the College of Medicine, and then we established the College of Health Sciences. Furthermore. We also established the Physical Therapy Department and we have also set several postgraduate specialties in motion, such as Master’s in Medical Sciences, Master’s in Public Health and Master’s in Genetic Counselling and a PhD program in Biomedical Sciences that year too. All these health specialties, which are related to the Colleges of Health Sciences and Pharmacy have been accessible to women only; this is due to the lack of the facilities. We hope to be able to allow access for all students soon. One of the most important projects we have carried out this year is the “Medical Cluster” project, where we began the first year of combining health and medical specialties. In the past, first-year students used to be divided between the three colleges according to their medical tracks, but this made it difficult to move between the colleges. Therefore, we have started joint or interdisciplinary education where all students learn medical and health specialties together in the foundation year.
Have you always wanted to specialize in health and biomedical studies?
Yes, I have always known that I wanted to specialize in sciences, for they have an important and significant impact on society. Of course, all sciences and disciplines have their distinguished and unique role in society, but I chose health for two reasons: first, I used to feel inclined to natural science subjects, particularly biology. Secondly, there is a Qur’anic verse that has always stood for me, it reads: “Only those fear Allah, from among His servants, who have knowledge.”This verse made me wonder why are the ones who seek knowledge considered to have the deepest faith? And the answer came to me that they see the greatness of God’s creation. I believe that this verse applies perfectly to biology. When we look at virology, for example, we see that viruses are extremely small organisms that cannot even live without occupying the body of another being. Yet, their effect on humans is very significant for example, a flu caused the death of 20 to 40 million people. This is more than the number of deaths caused by World War I and World War II put together.
Viruses are indeed very strange organisms. This is the reason why I have decided to specialize in virology. It is a very large field of study due to the fact that these organisms, which do not have a habitat even through an electron microscope, change and evolve over time. I got to witness this myself when two of my siblings had poliomyelitis, which is often called polio or infantile paralysis, even though they were exposed to the same environment as me and my other siblings. Therefore, I came to wonder: what is the reason behind their sickness and why did they overcome that virus? Some attribute that to the differences between viruses themselves. But I think that the most important factor in this respect is how vulnerable a certain person is, the possibility of his or her contracting a certain virus and their being easily attacked by viruses. This is the idea that I’m trying to prove in my research to this very day. On this basis, my research focuses on the causes of the emergence of diseases and viral epidemics, and through this research I can study how the survival methods of viruses evolve and develop and how they attack people and cause their death.
Could you tell us more about the Qatar Biobank project?
Qatar Biobank is a population research project where we collect biological samples and demographic information from volunteers (social and economical) of the Qatari population in order to create an archive that will contribute to future research initiatives. The sampling process usually takes three hours and during that time we collect three types of samples and conduct various tests including eye examination, respiratory examination and bone densitometry. Then, we conduct a comprehensive questionnaire on their health, which includes their social status, family medical history as well as his or her eating and sleeping habits etc. After approximately a month following the examination, we contact the volunteers to give them the results of the tests and to inform them with the steps they should be taking if we notice certain symptoms. Volunteers must be adults, whether Qatari or non-Qatari (who have lived in Qatar for more than 15 years) because they have been exposed to the same environment. We consider ourselves at Qatar Biobank as a platform for scientists as we facilitate their research. Now, we have about 100 people who have access to use the data collected by the project in their research and publications. Scientists must pay certain fees to allow them to use such data and samples. Whereas, students are exempted from such fees in order to encourage them to conduct further research. As for (Qatar Genome), it was founded in 2018 by Her Highness Sheikha Moza Al-Misned. The aim of this project is to collect genetic data and to put it in a chip in order to establish a sophisticated medical diagnostic system. Currently, there are eight thousand cases on this chip, including some of the cases that Hamad Hospital was unable to diagnose and in addition to discoveries made by Weil Cornell University in Qatar, Sidra Medicine (Hospital) and other research institutions. This project is intended to collect medical data of and for the people of Qatar and we have called it “Qatar Chip.” This information can, therefore, be used for premarital screening and for screening newborns to ensure that the best service is being provided to maintain the health of the citizens. We often find that Qatari hospitals can detect, identify and diagnose certain symptoms displayed by patients that cannot be diagnosed in hospitals outside of Qatar and the region. This is because their tests are based on the medical and genetic data of the population and citizens of their own country. For this reason, it is crucially important that we collect all this data on the medical history of the population of Qatar and develop the field of medicine for our benefit. One of the things we are currently working on is the personal genome report. This report presents a detailed medical diagnosis based on a person’s genetic code. This way the relevant person will be aware of the types of food he or she must avoid in addition to other important factors that help to their health. However, not everyone is receptive to these reports thus we have established the genetic counselling program that assesses the status or case of a person and prepares them for getting their report and the results of the genetic testing. These projects are classified as a kind of preventive medicine as we seek to find a way to prevent diseases before an outbreak.
Could you tell us more about the initiatives you made to attract students to this field?
In my day, the percentage of Qatari women in the field of medicine was over 80%. However, over time women had the opportunity to study and work in many other fields; therefore, the percentage of Qatari women in health specialties has decreased. This is why we started several initiatives to garner interest for the field of medicine; for example, we have collaborated with sponsors like Sidra Hospital and other hospitals to secure the students a job after graduation. For young girls, we have started (Seha) program, which gets high school students acquainted with the curriculum of health specialties at Qatar University and introduces such specialties to them. As for boys of the same age, we have established a special program for them about various local birds such as the falcon etc. and it revolves around biology and scientific classification.
How do you manage your time between all of these projects?
That is not easy, for I am a mother of four children, and I have come to the realization that the period in which a woman can excel and establish a career is also the same time at which she is expected to get married and have a family. This is a universal reality. Even when I worked in the West, I came to notice that men are able to excel faster due to the fact that they do not carry the same responsibilities as women do such as pregnancy etc. So, it is not easy to achieve and maintain the balance in this respect, particularly if you come from and belong to a conservative family and, of course, you do not want to displease anyone. I hold my own principles with respect to my religion because customs and traditions change over time, but religion will always remain consistent. I also am very thankful that we are Qatari, for from my point of view, there is a harmony between our religion in one hand and our customs and cultural heritage in the other. We have always been known for maintaining the balance between tradition and modernity. So, if religion allowed me to do something, why would I refrain from doing it? It is also really important that your husband and family are supportive. I was lucky in that regard because I had the support and help of my husband’s family when I was studying abroad. Whenever I needed to go out for a certain purpose, I felt reassured that my children were in good hands. As for the projects, Firstly, I have to set priorities. Secondly, I make sure to not postpone any thing that I have to do otherwise the work will pile up. I always follow the well-known testimonial “Take benefit of five before five: your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free-time before your preoccupation, and your life before your death.” Thirdly, I make sure to appoint a capable and efficient staff regardless if they disagree with me on some points. You should prioritize the quality of the work over your own interest. For example, if someone came up with a better idea than mine, I would welcome it rather than get conceited and try to impose my own opinion. On the contrary, I like people who are critical because they motivate me to develop my work further. Of course, it is important to employ someone you trust but this trust must be based on efficiency rather than blind support. So, I recommend three steps to be taken: setting and arranging priorities, not to put off any work and surrounding yourself with efficient, qualified and capable team.
You have passed through many different phases in your career is there a specific phase that stands out for you?
I enjoy being a researcher and not just a teacher. Sometimes the students themselves will ask questions that challenge my thinking, and it forces me to learn of new things and stay updated.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
A general piece of advice is to be patient. Nothing in life worth having comes easy. You should pursue your goals and take advantage of any opportunity. Take the initiative and attend lectures outside your specialty so you can have some good connections and get to know people outside your field. Of course, life offers both the ease and hardship. God Almighty says: “Allah does not place a burden upon a soul that is greater than what it can bear”. If you had the ability to do something, then why would not you seek it? And do not try to please the people, just make sure to please Allah first.
- Interview written by Fatima AL Naimi.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.