Women in Leadership – Global Health Series: In pursuit of knowledge by Dana Itani
The ‘Women in Leadership: Global Health’ series has been a delight to lead. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed producing it. It has been a privilege to help share the stories of such inspirational women across the globe and I hope you will seek encouragement and motivation that wherever you are in your journey, there are no limits on what you can achieve.
And finally, in the words of Malala Yousafzai:
‘Do not wait for someone else to come and speak for you, it’s you who can change the world.’
The final post in the series is brought to us by Dana Itani, a young woman from Lebanon, who let no one limit her aspirations.
With International Women’s Day recently celebrated, I am glad to share my monumental moments transitioning from pipettes and tubes to global health. This post is dedicated to young women around the world to deeply believe in their abilities and realise a better future – for themselves, and all of us.
I come from Lebanon, a small but versatile country in the Middle East. Despite being known for its political disputes, devastating blasts, and economic inflation, Lebanese women’s impact has been remarkable and yet not well-publicized. Women that are rarely celebrated due to social constraints placed upon women of intelligence and ambition. At a young age, we are often preconditioned to aspire for the happily-ever-after marriage and to raise kids, but this wasn’t my story.
My story begins with a pursuit of knowledge and high aspirations. I recall my tiresome days as I graduated with merits from both my BSc in Biology and Masters in Applied Animal Biology from the Lebanese University, despite most classes being delivered in French, my non-native language. During that time, I was fascinated with bacteriology and immunology, so I decided to join as an M.Sc. graduate in Microbiology and Immunology at the top university in both Lebanon and the Middle East: the American University of Beirut (AUB). I was able to take high-level courses and use state-of-the-art equipment sparsely found in the region, and I was awarded the Graduate Assistantship Award for stellar academic and research performance.
Being fortunate enough to excel in STEM, where women like me were historically excluded, I focused on understanding the underlying molecular mechanisms of Colistin resistance, the last resort of antibiotics, in Gram-negative bacilli. The work was the first of its kind in the Middle East and used molecular methods to characterize the first Colistin resistance E. coli isolated from poultry in Lebanon. I was fortunate enough to work under the brilliant mentors of AUB, and I am tremendously grateful for their genuine investment in me. The work was challenging as it needed me to set up new solutions that attempt to tackle several challenges from finding a suitable testing method, right effective treatment and understanding the underlying mechanisms of resistance. I was constantly devastated by the patient samples I received, conjuring up images of those dying from aggressive bacterial infections to which there was no cure. I thought about how any of my loved ones could be next.
With the aim of discovering new antibiotics, I later joined AUB as a research assistant to establish the drug discovery project—for the first time in Lebanon and the region more broadly. I was able to cultivate and isolate novel antimicrobial agents from the soil and marine samples and use chromatographic techniques to elucidate their structures. The isolated agents showed activity against the life-threatening bacteria S. aureus and P. aeruginosa. Then, these findings were presented at national and international conferences in Lebanon and the USA. Conveniently, this position also helped with my administrative skills from purchasing laboratory orders to managing students and drafting grant proposals and manuscripts.
In tandem with my research, I have always felt a sense of giving back to my community. In June 2017, I took on humanitarian work in the Dar AlAjaza retirement home and volunteered in local charities dedicated to feeding the most vulnerable Lebanese. During my role as a mentor for the Student Research Initiative Program for Amalouna, a non-profit organization, I also saw the unique gender gaps in STEM fields. This motivated me to focus on supporting and equipping young undergraduate and graduate students with research and leadership skills to help them reach their full potential during their time at university and beyond. At that moment, I came to an important realization that I wish to contribute to global health on a regional scale.
I then applied my strong experience in antimicrobial resistance (AMR) to the role of a consultant for the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (WHO EMRO). Being a scientist, I had to adapt my skills and be open to unique public health perspectives. It was quite challenging, especially being a 26-year-old woman, mentoring 22 member states spread throughout the Middle East. Nevertheless, I was determined to confront the taboos head-on.
I am now the AMR Regional Laboratory and Candida spp. Surveillance focal person for the entire Eastern Mediterranean region. I have enjoyed the challenges of advising and assessing National Reference Laboratories (NRL) for AMR and hospitals in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Pakistan, Jordan, Bahrain, Sudan, and other countries. I worked on reinforcing laboratory capacities and patients’ results through regional and country-level training workshops. I organized regional webinars with laboratory directors and Ministry of Health focal points with over 30 participants discussing the roles and challenges facing laboratories and contributed to global WHO guidelines. My work overreaches to various projects such as the “One Health” surveillance project in four Eastern Mediterranean countries – Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, and Iran – and supports the enrollment and reporting of AMR data from the 22 member states to the Global Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System developed by WHO.
Women are constantly challenged by self-limiting beliefs, often exerting double the effort for equal or less recognition. But, I am here to tell you that it is a learning process and can be overcome. When you define a goal, be conscious about the challenges you will face and pursue it wholeheartedly while still staying true to your morals and beliefs.
My strong admiration for women leaders at work inspired me to be the voice of young women in global meetings and veer from the long-standing gender and age stereotypes defined by society. We are all born with unique skills and I believe that we, women, should hold the door open to each other. So, let’s speak up, take on that challenge and stand up for the women together!
Dana Itani is a scientist, specialising in antimicrobial resistance. Currently, she is the AMR laboratory and Candida spp. focal person for the Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Prevention and Control Unit at the World Health Organization Regional Office Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO). She is a strong advocate for enhancing women’s roles in science and global health.