Iraqi scientist Mina Al Ani’s research into autoimmune disease hopes to be a breakthrough in medical science in the region
Mina Al Ani has dedicated her research to discovering more about Multiple sclerosis. Multiple sclerosis affects millions of individuals around the world and its prevalence among females is approximately double that of males. These kinds of autoimmune disease need more recognition and investment in order to further understand their etiology and assist in early diagnosis and hence effective therapy as physicians still face many difficulties in diagnosing diseases of this kind because of their complex nature. Mina Al Ani’s research on using various therapeutic modalities for the drug Herceptin in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis mice will in time, aim to benefit those in the UAE and internationally. We discover why this topic is something so important to Mina and what she hopes to achieve in the field moving forward.
What first interested you in the world of science?
I am interested in science because there are so many questions that I want to know the answers to – why? What? How? Where? Who? When? An I can get all of these answers from science. I love to ponder on these types of amazing questions and search for their answers and that’s what led me to the world of science.
What can you share with us about your research and why is it a topic that’s important to you?
Multiple sclerosis affects millions of individuals around the world and its prevalence among females is approximately double that of males. However, physicians still face many difficulties in diagnosing the disease as it is of a very complex nature with many manifestations, so it’s a very important topic to be brought to light. My research is focused around using various therapeutic modalities for the drug Herceptin in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis mice is novel and will benefit the UAE society especially considering that multiple sclerosis is on the rise in the country. This disease is considered a hardship on society because it involves not only the patients but also their families who must care for them around the clock due to their paralysis.
What more would you still like to achieve with your research?
The results generated from this work will be of high interest to the scientific community including immunologists. So the next step will be applying our novel therapeutic modalities to MS patients.
Why do you think more needs to be done to raise awareness of autoimmune diseases especially in the Middle East?
Autoimmune diseases today, like multiple sclerosis,
need more recognition and investment as a distinct research area, in order to further understand them and assist in early diagnosis and hence effective therapy. I would like to see an Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month, to raise awareness, spread information and increase knowledge about autoimmune issues.
What does it mean to you to be part of this project with L’Oréal?
The L’Oréal-UNESCO Award is very special to me because it has a global title. I have worked on many important projects throughout my career but what’s really crucial for me with this project is that I should be very clear on the goals right from the start and then create a plan. I also like dealing with the most difficult parts of the projects early on—that way in case there are any significant issues, I’ll still have time to complete before the deadline. I also typically break down large tasks into smaller chunks, so that it is easier to know where to start. Detailed planning is very important to ensure an important project goes smoothly.
Why do you think it’s important for global brands such as L’Oréal to recognise successful women such as yourself today?
The core values of L’Oréal focus on the idea of empowering women by strengthening the power within them and encouraging them to realise their potential. Therefore, the L’Oréal Foundation’s “For Women in Science” program is a game-changer. It shatters the stereotypes that stand in the way of the aspirations of the younger generation. It also supports the role of women by bridging the gender gap in scientific fields to create a more diversified sector. Studies have shown that the more diverse the research team, the better the quality of the research results that are reached. This comes as a result of the realisation that the greater diversity of viewpoints and approaches enriches the existing conditions, which leads to better quality research. The world needs knowledge, and science needs women because women in science are able to change the world.
How will the project enable you to move forward with your work?
It will expand my thinking and focus on the research presented as it increases the opportunities for advancement in work as a field of research. This project will give me the opportunity to attend international conferences and medical events.
Being a woman in a typically male-dominated industry, was it difficult for you to reach where you are today?
For a person to choose the path of knowledge is a challenge, and to do that as a woman, is an even greater challenge, but for a woman to be ambitious in this field is a challenge of a different kind. The prevailing belief was that women in the Arab world suffer from many challenges due to social beliefs and inherited customs. However, my participation showed me that women’s challenges are universal and that the differences are only in the details. Because of the support I received, it was not difficult for me to get to where I am today. Women scientists must be given equal opportunities and empowered to participate and lead in high-ranking scientific bodies, as well as research.
In this issue we are celebrating UAE National Day – how does it make you feel to represent your country internationally?
I am grateful to the United Arab Emirates for allowing me to achieve all my successes and achievements. I count it as my second country. I am so proud and happy that I am representing both the United Arab Emirates and Iraq internationally.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in what you do?
One of the biggest challenges came in my first year at college as PhD student was balancing part-time work and the volume of studying required. I tackled this in a few different ways: I looked for opportunities to start or join study groups, met with my professors to gain advice on where to focus my attention and set up a structured schedule to make sure I was putting in the required time for studying and working. This resulted in me maintaining a 3.8 GPA, even though I was also working a part-time job!
What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?
I’m really excited about the future to achieve all my dreams. I’d like to be seen as someone with deep expertise in research and I’m also really excited to take on more responsibilities in the next few years and potentially even take the lead on some projects. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some internationally high ranked universities that support research.
What is your fondest memory of the UAE growing up?
Even though the UAE is completely different now, I still come across pockets of places from my childhood that are still there. My old school in Bastakiya which was very rundown then and little shopping malls. During Eid, my parents would take us to Deira City Center to the game corner. I have a lot of amazing memory growing up in the UAE.