Hayat is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. She is a biotechnologist working to bring affordable health care to remote, impoverished communities using a unique tool—a tiny piece of paper.
According to National Geographic, “The low-tech diagnostic tool detects disease by analyzing bodily fluids. The device is produced by etching micro-channels and wells onto a small square of paper, and pre-filling the wells with chemicals. To perform a test, a drop of saliva, urine, or blood is placed on the paper. The fluid travels through the channels and a chemical reaction occurs that causes the spot to change color. Results show up in less than a minute and can be easily read using a color scale provided with the device. (The team even chose colors that someone who is color-blind can see.)”
Growing up in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, Hayat understood that “science is a universal language.”
Her first scientific influences were early Arab scholars such as Averroes and al-Battani. She also relished National Geographic magazine. “It was an open horizon to the world,” she remembers.
Hayat’s father always encouraged her to read, which helped give her confidence as she embarked on a career in science. Even at an early age, Hayat stood out from her peers. “Scientists were always thought of as old, bald men,” she says. “And I was a young, Arabic woman!”
Hayat went to England to study, and was shocked to be rejected by the colleges to which she applied. She did not give up, however, and continued to study, research, and apply for college. “I decided that I would show them! I could read the same books they read, and do the same scientific work.”
She earned her first degree, in pharmacology, from King’s College in London, England. She went on to earn her PhD in biotechnology from Cambridge University.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“The emails I receive from other scientists and women are incredibly inspiring to me. I remember reading an email from a woman in India who just earned her PhD. It simply said, ‘Thank you for inspiring my life.’”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Travel is time-consuming. I recently traveled from Jeddah [Saudi Arabia] to Germany, to Boston [Massachusetts], to Seattle [Washington], all in less than a week. It makes me homesick, as well as exhausted.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“The birth of the Earth, and what human beings do with these gifts of natural resources.”
Hayat pursued higher education in Europe because she believes the West continues to play an important role in training new scientists, even those from non-Western nations. Western universities allow students “to come out of their shells, and mix with different societies and cultures,” she says.
The mixing of deep-rooted cultures and more open cultures allows students and scientists to “gain so many skills in the development of new ideas.”
Hayat says her background as an Arabic woman has given her unique insights into the scientific field. “I can give hope and guidance . . . for a new generation to find the right recipe” to balance science, social systems, education, and their own motivation.
Biotechnology is an increasingly important part of this recipe, Hayat says. “It’s a way to communicate with different cultures toward finding a better way of life. It includes so many different disciplines: physics, technology, chemistry, immunology, pharmacology . . .”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . BIOTECHNOLOGIST
Hayat encourages students to take advantage of their school’s research laboratory.
She also recommends playing with different ideas, both inside and outside the classroom or lab. “Play! When you play, you experiment,” she explains. Experimentation can lead to new ideas or possibilities.
Hayat also stresses the importance of setting goals. “You have to have a goal to affect society, and it has to be sincere, and serious.”
“Develop tolerance,” Hayat recommends to all families and students interested in science. “Educate yourself on the different habits and traditions of other people.”