Meet the all-female science team

Girl Power: The science team at GIS. (L-r) Tanja Kolarov, Sangita Thakrar, Hoda Alawady and Hiba El Majzoub.

Science is a male-dominated industry, but at GEMS International School – Al Khail (GIS) the science department is a woman’s world. Ahead of Women and Girls in Science Day, we caught up with the school’s all-female science team to learn more about their inspirations and why gender representation matters.

The GIS science team is led by Head of Department Tanja Kolarov, who specialises in Biology and Integrated Science, and has been at GIS for four years. She says that while all-female teams are not uncommon, they do perform a vital function: “Most teachers are female, so it is not a rare thing to have an all-female science team. But, more importantly, females should inspire other females, showing our students that anything is possible if only you put your mind to it.”

Tanja’s team is made up of Middle Years Programme (MYP) Science Teacher Sangita Thakrar, who specialises in Chemistry and has been at GIS for 18 months; Diploma Programme (DP) and MYP Chemistry Teacher Hiba El Majzoub, who specialises in Analytical Chemistry; MYP/DP Physics Teacher Priti Suresh; and, the newest member of team, MYP Science Teacher Hoda Sabry Mohammad Alawady, who joined GIS last month.

Sangita Thakrar was inspired to pursue science by her GP and a Macmillan nurse. She was 17 at the time, and her mother was sick with cancer.

“Nurse Sarah and Doctor Patel taught me so much about cancer and different treatments, and they taught me how to research (this was in the times before Google) the different treatments. As a result I went on to university and completed a pharmaceutical science degree with a particular interest in the cell biology of cancer and drug development.

I was so interested in the different techniques used, and it was a chance to bring my scientific ideas to life. Teaching has allowed me to combine my passion for education with science.

“I feel there is a misconception that the only real scientific field is medicine or nursing. There are hundreds and hundreds of different science areas girls can pursue. I am very passionate about children developing other science paths apart from medicine to enhance students’ awareness. I have organised monthly ‘meet the scientist’ lectures, where invited scientists and lecturers from universities come and speak to students.

“The scientist I’m inspired by is Anne McLaren (1927-2007). She was a pioneer of in-vitro fertilisation. Her work led to the birth of the first test-tube baby. As a child, I used to play with the world’s first in-vitro baby. Her family were close friends of ours, and as I got older, I started to learn about her conception and the doctors who made it possible. So whenever I think of Anne McLaren I always think, ‘wow, she created my childhood friend!’” 

Hiba El Majzoub, comes from a family of doctors and has helped her students through many rounds of national STEM competitions. She is an advocate for engaging students in invention and innovation.

“When girls and boys alike are exposed to many examples where women serve as role models because of their numerous contributions to science, they see that it is not only possible but also very rewarding to pursue a career in science. That was true for me. My father’s side of the family includes many doctors in various disciplines, and this inspired my choice. Initially, I wanted to get into the faculty of Pharmacy. However, later I chose to major in Analytical Chemistry. The link between chemical structure and function has been always my personal interest. This is why I have done research on QSAR (Quantitative Structure-Activity Relationships).

“I have worked in mostly male teams, one all-female team, as well as mixed teams, and in each we aimed to put in our best effort to reach our targets.

“We need to have a paradigm shift, as there is a misconception around this career being a mostly male domain of work. Yet, throughout history, numerous female scientists have made valuable contributions to science and industry. Students need to have expertise with lab techniques and experiences with problem-based scenarios where they learn the design thinking skills required to solve problems in the real world.

“The more we hold career talks revolving around STEM-related sciences, where we discuss the latest discoveries and new research being conducted, the more girls are encouraged to participate in science-related initiatives and competitions, and they are more likely to select STEM-related fields in higher education.”

Priti Suresh benefited from having great female teachers at school who encouraged her. Now she sees it as her responsibility to do the same.

“I was fortunate to come across several dedicated female science teachers throughout my school years who helped me foster a sense of curiosity in how and why things work.

“I believe it is important for young girls to see representation in every aspect of their lives, be it in academics or extra-curricular activities, as it helps them unlearn the conditioning brought on by generations of patriarchy and prejudice, while encouraging them to pursue their interests without feeling hindered by their gender.

“I hope the presence of an all-female team of science educators helps girls understand the breadth of career choices available to them in science, and I hope it rids them of any misgivings about science being a conventionally male-focused career field.”

Hoda Sabry Mohammad Alawady has worked in all-female teams previously and she says, while results remain the focus, there is power in representation and mentoring.

“I was inspired to study science by a female teacher. She taught me from Grade 5 to Grade 10 and was always diligent and enthusiastic about science. My father was a paediatrician and he hoped I would become a doctor, too. However, I chose pharmaceutical sciences as my major. 

“This is my third time working in such an all-female team and I think girls are encouraged to pursue science careers when they are mentored by strong female leaders who show them that this is possible.

“In all the teams that I have worked with, whether all-female or mixed, we all strived to reach our highest potential. It is all about setting goals, working smart to reach them and maintaining effective team work. Gender never had an impact on our performance.

Without a doubt there is a perception that science and the great scientific advances made in the world are all male-dominated. To change this perspective, students should learn about women’s achievements in science, and teachers need to be role models for them.”