Professor Islam established with the Faculty of Medicine and Allied Sciences Facilities a BA degree programme in Natural Sciences for girls and the first group were also enrolled in 1975. Professor Islam took charge of this college for the following three years and participated in the required planning to develop its faculty and facilities until it became an independent college of Kind Abdulaziz University. In support of the Health Sector of the Armed Forces and Aviation between 1981 and 1984. Professor Islam also established the specialised secondary school programme for girls ‘School of Health Sciences’ which grants a secondary school certificate in specialised areas of the health profession.
Whilst achieving so much on behalf of women in her country in terms of higher education, Professor Islam also managed to combine her academic work with a successful career as a research scientist – never losing touch with her dream of conducting research that would eventually benefit the whole of Saudi society.
Professor Islam received strong support and co-operation from colleagues and assistants which enabled her to develop her prime interest in research. With their encouragement and due to her dedication to scientific research she would travel to Britain to complete her research in Pharmacology, as there were no research laboratories in her own country during the seventies.
“It was with considerable difficulty I used to collect samples for my experiments in those days and hand carry them to the UK to my Medical School at Paddington,” recalls Professor Islam. At that stage she focused on pharmacogenetic studies, and managed to phenotype the Saudi population; she defined the polymorphism traits with respect to some metabolic pathways; ‘acetylation’ and ‘4-hydroxilstion’ reactions, which some drugs undergo when taken into the body of patients.
“Our country is an open market for imported drugs from East and West and none of the producers have studied the ethnic influences on the effects of these drugs. With regard to medication, we were vulnerable in not having enough specific information about the normal biological and physiological constitution of our population, with the consequence that physicians would used the empirical values for calculating drug doses, which may be extremely risky when prescribing certain drugs because there are many hereditary factors which distinguish the different populations of the world and consequently their needs for specific drug doses, these differences are not critical for all drugs. In any event my research is the first of its kind in the international literature which defines the Saudi profile in drug metabolism and is an important contribution to drug safety,” she observes.
Professor Islam achieved recognition in her field and she became the first Saudi full professor in Pharmacology in 1983. She focused her research on the effect of drugs on the Saudi population through the Drug Monitoring Unit at King Fahd Medical Research Centre of King Abdulaziz University. She founded the Drug Monitoring Unit from the research funds she was granted where the blood of patients undergoing medication is analyzed, thus helping physicians to decide on accurate doses. Professor Islam remarked that she publicised the need for every organisation and individual to support scientific research in this country, especially concerning the drug safety which includes treatment of illnesses and curing of diseases.
Her groundbreaking research and contributions to science in her home country were finally recognised earlier this year in January when Professor Samira Ibrahim Islam became the first Muslim and Arab woman to be nominated by UNESCO as a distinguished Scientist of the World For the Year 2000, at their For Women in Science Awards.
The award, first instituted in 1998, selects female scientists who have made a major contribution to their area of expertise. Of the 100 women scientists nominated globally, the UNESCO award committee in Paris chose 32 in late 1999 as final nominees. Saudi Arabia was one of the six Asian counties from which nominees were selected along with China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and India. As one of the 32 scientists on the shortlist, Professor Islam was invited by UNSECO and sponsored by L’Oreal, Helena Rubinstein to attend the scientific meetings, symposia and ceremonies held in Paris between 6th to 12th January 2000.
The needs of and limitations experienced by female scientist throughout their careers were among the subjects discussed in Paris. “My view that scientific achievements are not limited by a country’s global status or a scientist’s gender was generally affirmed. I was able to share my own experiences of being a member of a conservative society with a particular lifestyle and customs, and yet I was able to conduct as the Principal Investigator a three year research project working with a team of co-investigators who were all men,” said Professor Islam, emphasising that even in the traditional Gulf societies women’s contributions to sciences need not be limited by their gender.
As well as working in Saudi Professor Islam established collaborative links of mutual benefit with several international academic institutions internationally. From 1996 to ‘98 Professor Islam became the first Saudi woman and the second Saudi Arab to hold an official staff position in the World Health Organisation (WHO); she was appointed to the post of Regional Advisor (Essential Drug Program in the Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean), which covers 23 countries of the Region.
Denying herself an international career Professor Islam resigned from the WHO in 1998, and returned to Jeddah in response to the request which she was deeply honoured to receive from the late Queen Effat to establish the first private university college for girls – Effat National College, for which she received the title of Establishing Dean. Professor Islam manages to combine her scientific interests at the Pharmacology Department and the Drug Monitoring Unit at King Fahd Medical Research Centre, King Abdulaziz University with her work at Effat College, continuing to make huge advances in the sciences and in women’s education in Saudi.