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Helping Arab women scientists achieve more

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A joint research grant program by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and CRDF Global, launched in October 2016, is helping four Arab women scientists to conduct advanced research in collaboration with leading US scientists and thus realize their full potential.

This program is part of efforts by ICBA and its partners to empower women scientists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and contribute to narrowing the gender gap in agricultural research and development in the region.

Under the program, four teams of Arab women scientists and scientists from US universities were awarded a grant of 100,000 USD each for a period of three years. Three of the Arab women scientists are from Tunisia and one from Morocco.

Dr. Rim Nefissi Ourteni, Assistant Professor at the Biotechnology Center of Borj Cedria (CBBC), Tunisia, who teamed up with Dr. Robert Jansen from the University of Texas at Austin, for her project says: “Unfortunately, women do not have enough opportunities to be supported in scientific fields. Especially in the MENA region, there is no equality in research opportunities between men and women. This grant allowed me to go deeper into molecular research in salt tolerance of barley.”

“The grant helped me a lot in establishing my project, which deals with the identification of genes involved in salt stress in barley. As salinity is posing a huge threat to cereals and plants in general in the whole MENA region, I am working on genes involved in salt tolerance,” she adds.

“It was a great opportunity to push forward my research and help my students. The overarching goal of my research is to enhance wheat production in Tunisia because of the price hikes during inconsistence between production and imports, which primarily affects farmers. So I would like to address farmers’ issues related to yield loss under climate change. Another distinction of this project is the inclusion of female researchers, students, and specialists working in extension services. I think this was a great start for me to understand more how to work with farmers and to make a more participatory approach for my research. Both ICBA and CRDF Global were of great support during this project,” says Dr. Afwa Thameur, Assistant Professor at the Higher Institute of Applied Biology in Medenine, Tunisia, who worked with Dr. Walid Sadok, of the University of Minnesota.

“Over the past two years, we have made some crossing to develop a variety which matures early and has good nutritional value. I want to thank ICBA and CRDF Global for helping me with this project. Through this project, we were able to make a lot of crossings, and introduce some genetic material from the USA in our breeding program,” says Dr. Chafika Houasli, a chickpea breeder from the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA - Morocco), who collaborated with Dr. Varma Penmetsa, of the University of California at Davis. She is working on developing and releasing chickpea varieties that are well adapted to different agro-ecological areas of Morocco and have good yield and resistance to various stresses such as drought and diseases.

Another winner of the grant Dr. Amani Bchir, a research associate at the Olive Tree Institute, University of Sfax, Tunisia, who worked with Dr. David Mulla from the University of Minnesota, says: “It was a good opportunity for me as a woman researcher from North Africa to receive this grant. The grant helped me to achieve part of my research activities, which includes studying olive trees, especially in terms of water management and irrigation. The objective of my project is to use satellite imagery and remote sensing to control water use and estimate water needs for olive trees and look at the effect of different water quality on olive yield and quality.”

The program also facilitated building long-term international research partnerships. As a result, the four women scientists had the opportunity to work with senior scientists from ICBA, who provided mentorship throughout the program.

The mentors included Dr. Khalil Ammar, a principal scientist in hydrology and hydrogeology; Dr. Mohammad Shahid, a geneticist; and Dr. Henda Mahmoudi, a plant physiologist.

Through this and other similar work, ICBA contributes to Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and women's empowerment. The center is also implementing another major program called Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla), which is designed to build the research and leadership capacities of Arab women scientists in the MENA region.