Dr Jolanta Weaver is a Consultant Endocrinologist working at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead. She is a Senior Lecturer in Diabetes Medicine at Newcastle University UK and a Visiting Professor at King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, KSA. In her ‘Empowering Women’ blog she tells her story of the power of offering help to others to make life more fulfilling.
Sherin’s story shows us that impossible is nothing and highlights the power of seeking meaningful mentoring to unlock your potential.
Sherin is my ex-PhD student living in a country where women’s privileges are not as generous as in the United Kingdom, yet her aspirations are universal. She is a prime example of a woman who, if given the right mentoring and environment, will flourish.
She is a mother of three living in Saudi Arabia. Her university education started in Egypt where she hoped to qualify as a doctor, but when her mother died prematurely she had to stop studying medicine to look after her siblings. Sherin had the support of her father who recognised that she was more than able to climb a “big mountain” when the time was right. After finally graduating with a degree in Biochemistry, Sherin had just one chance to complete an MRes degree in North Africa. However, she made a conscious decision to abandon it as it was not providing her with enough of a challenge. She ended up completing an MRes in the UK but had to return to Saudi Arabia to join her husband and start a family. A few years later, when her children were old enough, her (female) supervisor suggested she should come to Newcastle University to seek female supervision to mentor her towards a PhD.
It was then that I decided to take on the role of her supervisor as I felt there was a challenge in supporting a female scientist who was clearly keen to do well and needed support. It was also exciting to learn about women’s lives in other countries.
My visits to Saudi Arabia revealed the huge challenges she was facing as a woman in higher education. Nevertheless, her University made it possible for a married woman with children to complete a PhD between two very distinct countries; she took part in a joint supervision scheme between King Abdul Aziz University and Newcastle University, performing experiments in both countries. The advantage of this scheme was that Sherin was not removed from her own environment but was instead improving it from within. We were both creating the building blocks for her PhD but we were also paving the way for other women scientists. But we knew this would not be easy…
I figured out that in a society and institution where women had fewer rights, nor were they as valued or supported as men, the only way to help Sherin was through excellence in clinically relevant research. Her intellectual recognition and respect for exemplar scientific conduct would ultimately allow her to be treated on a par with men.
During Sherin’s research there were probably initially more downs then ups. In taking this role I recognised we could not take any shortcuts as we both wanted this to be relevant to the scientific community and my patients. There were many sleepless nights for both Sherin and myself. We were on uncharted territory, performing experiments that had never been tried before with equipment that did not always work (like many PhDs). Her endeavour was not just about getting significant p values but about solving problems and getting up quickly after a fall. Sherin not only completed a commended PhD thesis but she managed to publish a manuscript in peer review journals higher than she anticipated.
This story is not only about scientific achievement but also about how to achieve this in a balanced and fulfilling way. By now I was more than a supervisor, I was Sherin’s friend. I could advise Sherin on how to cope with the daily demands of teenagers! Sherin and her children are now undertaking very active sports on a regular basis so that her family bonds become even stronger.
So, what was the secret of Sherin’s success? Several words to describe her come to mind: resilient, single-minded, determined, courageous, hard-working. These words may be socially accepted as more masculine attributes, but for Sherin they also came with love for her children and family. Of course, these are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they have to be applied at the right moment. When offered mentoring she worked very hard to reap the benefits from it, although she did not immediately see the advantages of the long-term investment. Over the course of our collaboration, I saw Sherin grow stronger, more assertive and more focused. She learnt to be selective in her research and could decline projects which were lacking in scientific rigor. It was apparent that her knowledge of how to recognise meaningful research was increasing on a daily basis.
The accolades for her hard work grew steadily. Sherin became an Assistant Professor much quicker than others in her institution. She was allowed to become PhD co-supervisor of my next PhD student from King Abdul Aziz University much earlier than anticipated. Her achievements became recognised by her institution who selected her to apply for a Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) fellowship at short notice. She was not selected this time, but we will try again next year and make it a stronger application. Indeed, if Sherin were awarded an MIT fellowship on the first attempt while this would be fantastic, it would also mean that there’s no further mountain to climb.
So, what is the bottom line message? Believe in yourself that doing the right thing will be recognised. Seek and benefit from help when it is offered. Offer your help to others to make your life journey more fulfilling. Grab opportunities and run with them. Go for it… as Ellen McArthur’s poster says on my wall.