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Hayat Sindi – The Saudi global icon

Last updated: Monday, December 24, 2012 8:21 AM
Hayat Sindi

Laura Bashraheel
Saudi Gazette


JEDDAH – Hayat Sindi, one of the world’s leading biotechnologists and a trailblazer in the field of science, is seeking to instill in the Arab youth the passion she feels when she is attempting to make things better for the under-privileged.

Having fought the odds to become the first woman from the Gulf to earn a PhD in biotechnology from Cambridge University in 2001, Sindi recently fulfilled another dream of hers by launching i2institute.

The i2institute aims to create an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and social innovation for scientists, technologists and engineers in the Middle East and beyond.

Hailing from the holy city of Makkah, Sindi has overcome many challenges to crave a niche for herself in the field of global scientific research. She believes that science is the key to better the world as scientific innovation could help tackle existing global problems.

She is also passionate about the ways scientific knowledge can be used to help people, and believes that creativity and talent should be nurtured in the right environment for solutions to evolve.

When Sindi left home, she wanted to make an impact and make friends without losing her identity.

She said: “I’m very proud about where I come from. It was hard in the beginning but its like having a whole tree then you start picking the fruits so you can pick good things about different cultures until you are able to find a base for yourself.”

Inspired to make a difference along the lines of great scholars such as Ibn Sina, Khawarizmi and Einstein, she believes that science is a gift.

“Scientists, engineers and technologists should see their talent as something that would help the world and try to redirect their own invention and discovery to tackle existing problems that only scientific innovation can solve," she said.

“In my opinion, to be able to gain a spot in the scientific world where people would say you are a scientist is when you look at the current situation and find solutions to problems and customize the solution to people’s needs.”

As an example, she said, people in West Africa do not have electricity and would struggle with big complicated machines.

“I look at their infrastructure; I see what they lack and how I can with my talent customize my inventions and my findings to help fit their needs. That’s what I’m doing.

I want to advise any colleagues in the science and engineering fields to look at the existing problem, try to solve it and customize it to the infrastructure and people’s way of life to make an impact.”

Sindi is one of the world’s leading biotechnologists. But when she started studying the subject it was not easy for Saudi women to study abroad. However, she was able to develop a worldwide recognition as the first woman from the Gulf to earn a PhD in biotechnology.

A visiting scholar at Harvard University, she is the co-founder of Diagnostics For All, a not-for-profit organization that aims to save lives and improve health in the developing world through low-cost, innovative, practical diagnostic devices to treat the 60 percent of the global population living beyond the reach of medical infrastructure.

Sindi was named by National Geographic as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and was appointed UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador on October 1.

“I am who I am because I was brought up here and because I have my culture, religion and understanding of what the meaning of life is and how I contribute to that.”

According to Sindi, Saudi Arabia is a young country that is yet to be advanced in science and engineering technology and it is necessary to receive the best education from all sources.

“In England they gave me the platform to study what I wanted while in America they gave me the platform to apply what I learned to the community. We are still young in that area of scientific research. We still lack creativity, support, imagination and the freedom to apply it. We are starting but we should start right.”

People who want to be creative need to be provided with the right atmosphere to give channel their talent in the right way and grow, she said.

“Without breakthroughs and innovations we will be stuck. It’s time to give youth their opportunity.

“The King Abdullah scholarship program has a vision to revive the county; we need to have a position within the international community. These students should be provided with the right atmosphere upon their return. It’s hard to live a life, study for four years and at the end of that you haven’t done anything for the world.”

Shuttling between Jeddah, Cambridge and Boston, Sindi added that thinking outside the box is challenging in terms of research.

“Even abroad, when you do research for non-profit organizations, you will always find people opposing you because people want to live in their comfort zone, so you will find people who de-motivate you. So keep going; the more you keep going the more people will see how beautiful what you do is.”

According to Sindi, scientific technology is new to investors, which is why it is important for them to have faith in its potential.

That’s why with the i2institute she aims to develop a unique system to support scientific endeavor.

On November 16, the i2institute launched the i2 Fellowship Program, dedicated to developing and supporting young scientists, engineers and future entrepreneurs in the Middle East through a holistic system of resources, programming and mentorship.

i2 stands for “institute for imagination ingenuity”.She said: “We call it the i2institute because you need two ingredients to innovate.

“You need the freedom to imagine and ingenuity of how to transform the idea into a reality.”

Applicants will go through a selection process and 12 candidates will be chosen and called i2 fellows.

The i2institute aims to bridge the gap between aspiring entrepreneurs and investors by rigorously selecting applicants with viable and patented ideas and putting them through an intensive, educational and skill-building program designed to directly address these issues and barriers to success.

At the end of the eight months the institute will hold a conference with international and local investors where the 12 fellows will present their work and hopefully connect with investors and create their own venture in the region.

Sindi said: “We want to give every scientist, technologist and engineer the opportunity to discover and fulfill their potential, for themselves and for their societies while making new markets, making new companies and making a difference in the world around them.”

Moreover, the program is unique as it is connected to prestigious universities like Harvard and MIT.

Since i2 is a non-profit organization, they will be seeking funds and contributors.

Sindi said: “Every part of the society needs to be part of it.

“We need the investors, the government, the general public, contributors and even intellectual support.”

Although i2 is based in Saudi Arabia, it is open to the Middle East because Sindi believes integration is always healthy.“We are not restricted to gender, religion or color.We get people connected together so people can learn and be inspired.”

Living a busy life between three continents, Sindi manages to balance between her career and social life, as she believes that balance is good for everything.

“You don’t need to look like a weird scientist geek with no social life and you don’t want to have no purpose in life.

“If you are extreme in anything the outcome is always wrong.”

Sindi also said balance is important as people cannot isolate themselves from the world.

People need to look after their health, exercise, eat well, feed the brain, read, sleep and enjoy life, she said.

“You need to mix with the community because how can you produce something to benefit them if you don’t understand their needs and are not in touch with them?

“Many scientists lock themselves with their computers.You can do that but also see how the universe around you is evolving, what’s happening in the world, and how you can help.

“I exist in this life for a purpose; every single one of us is capable of making a difference.”

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