U-M researcher Majd Abdulghani named Saudi Arabia's first Rhodes Scholar

Wednesday, December 5, 2018 - 8:41pm

Majd Abdulghani

Majd Abdulghani Buy this photo
Courtesy of Emily Blobaum

Growing up, life sciences researcher Majd Abdulghani watched her mother overcome the various obstacles she faced as a Muslim female scientist working toward her Ph.D. in London. With her mother’s determination and bravery in mind, Abdulghani will have the opportunity to return to England to pursue her own doctoral degree in genetics as Saudi Arabia’s very first Rhodes Scholar.

“My mom was doing her Ph.D., and that showed me a lot about the sort of effort it takes to be a scientist, but also at the same time, how wonderful it is and also how it’s possible to be a scientist, be a woman — and my mom is also a Muslim and wears a headscarf,” Abdulghani said. “She was doing all of this while raising three teenagers and two children, so she was really an inspiration for me at that point in my life and continues to be.”

Once her mother completed her Ph.D. and the family returned to Saudi Arabia, Abdulghani took a particular interest in genetics. She recalled how her mother encouraged her to pursue the field and since then, she has enjoyed it thoroughly.

“When I went back to Saudi Arabia, I was ready to go to college and I chose to become a geneticist because I just really enjoyed it in high school,” Abdulghani said. “I remember my mom said to me, ‘Don’t you want to discover the gene that cures cancer?’ And while that’s probably not going to happen for biological reasons, that’s why I chose to study genetics. It’s been incredibly rewarding so far. I love being a geneticist and I can’t wait to see where being a Rhodes Scholar takes me as well.”

The Rhodes Scholarship is a prestigious award offered to students who demonstrate academic excellence, mastery in various extracurricular areas, moral character and leadership ability. The scholarship only became available to Saudi students in 2018 and was funded by Muhammad Alagil, chairman of Jarir Group. His donation added Saudi Arabia as one of many worldwide Rhodes constituencies. As a Rhodes Scholar, Abdulghani will have the opportunity to receive her Ph.D. at the University of Oxford in England.

Along with a passion for science, Abdulghani had other hobbies including karate and recording episodes for her award-winning podcast, “Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl by Radio Diaries” of NPR. Though the large audience was daunting at times, Abdulghani found her podcast especially rewarding because she was able to connect with people around the globe.

“I think (the podcast) was valuable,” Abdulghani said. “This vulnerability that ended up making it in the podcast, this is what all people share across the world, this is what really makes us human and this is what can really connect with. That’s what made a lot people from various places across the world, and from starkly different backgrounds from mine reach out and tell me that they could relate to me.”

As it so happened, Vivian Cheung, research professor at the Life Sciences Institute, heard Abdulghani’s podcast about her experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia and her dreams of pursuing science in the future. Cheung was so moved by her determination that she called the NPR station and was eventually put in touch with Abdulghani. The two women remained in touch over the years, and upon Abdulghani’s completion of her master’s at Iowa State University, she began working in Cheung’s lab at the University of Michigan.

Cheung praised Abdulghani’s investigative work ethic and scientific thinking that allowed her to explore the realm of what is possible in regard to research.

“She’s absolutely terrific,” Cheung said. “She’s fearless and she’s very careful but also really allows herself to kind of see where science takes her rather than being tied down by what is known. I think she will make an amazing scientist — she really follows the data and goes where it takes us.”

Henry Dyson, director of the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, also noted Abdulghani’s eloquence and motivation. Dyson had the opportunity to work with Abdulghani as she prepared for her final interview with the Rhodes committee.

“I was really excited to meet her,” Dyson said. “She (had) at that point already been offered a finalist review, so we set up a practice interview for her and I knew within the first five minutes — I mean this is easy to say in retrospect — but I knew in the first five minutes that she had a very good chance of winning.”

Abdulghani confessed she was initially uncertain about what type of assistance ONSF would offer her because she was not a student at the University, but instead a staff member. However her meeting with Dyson resolved many of her concerns, and she praised him for helping her prepare for her final interview.

“I was like, ‘Well I’m not really a student, I’m a staff member, why would he pay any attention to me?’’’ Abdulghani said. “But as soon as I walked in his office, he was energetic. He was always excited for me and he went out of his way, despite the short amount of time that was between my meeting with him and my interview at the Rhodes — I think it was about two or three weeks max— he went out of his way to do everything he could for me.”

After finishing her Ph.D. at Oxford, Abdulghani hopes to return to Saudi Arabia, become a professor and eventually establish a research hub for women in the Gulf region.

“I really want to get research going in Saudi Arabia,” Abdulghani said. “There is a lot of research happening, but I don’t think it’s quite enough yet. There is not enough involvement of women in research; the percentage of Saudi women faculty in scientific fields is extremely low. I think it’s around 30 percent and we really need to fix that. I hope to go back to Saudi Arabia and initiate a research hub eventually that provides world class education in research to people across Saudi Arabia and across the region.”

Dyson expressed his excitement for Abdulghani’s goals in the future and praised her ability to intertwine her identities and passions with what she hopes to accomplish.

“One of the things that’s so interesting about Majd is how (speaks) in her blog about her lived experience, that she does have these other pursuits, such as karate and horseback riding,” Dyson said. “But also... she interprets those things through her Islamic values, practices and heritages and how she’s able to talk about how those things contribute to her vision for what she wants to do with women’s education in Saudi Arabia in the future.”

Though Abdulghani is hopeful for her post-Ph.D. plans, she also acknowledged some of the challenges that come with being a Saudi Muslim woman pursuing science. However, she is optimistic that her journey and the obstacles she has faced will inspire others to realize their own dreams are achievable as well.

“This might be self-imposed, but I definitely feel like I’m still navigating how to be a hijabi and a biologist at the same time,” Abdulghani said. “I hope that this is really just in my head, and that people don’t actually attach these thoughts to my identity, but right now I think it’s challenging. But, I hope that what I’m doing will encourage more women, and Muslims, and hijabis to be in the sciences.”

With ambitious plans for the future, Abdulghani reflected back once again on how her mother’s experience and encouragement inspire her to remain optimistic about what she is capable of doing as a Rhodes Scholar.  

“If I could give the Rhodes Scholarship to anyone else, I would give it to my mom,” Abdulghani said. “She has overcome so many obstacles and when I see that, I ask her, ‘How am I supposed to do that, too, when you’re facing all of these problems and being a Saudi woman scientist, how can I come back and do anything?’ She always brings out the positive energy and she always encourages me to come back and telling me that because these problems exist, this is why I need to get the Rhodes Scholarship.”