Pakistani researcher wins UNESCO fellowship

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Mar 19, 2014.

Islamabad – They face a cruel, patriarchal social order, gender barriers and limited opportunities. But in spite of the violence and suffering that works constantly to diminish their existence at home, Pakistani women have kept on making their country proud at the international level.

Dr Gul Shahnaz, an Assistant Professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University’s Department of Pharmacy, is the latest addition to the list of Pakistani women who have won global accolades and awards through their hardwork and talent.

Shahnaz is among the 15 young women scientists from around the world who have been awarded the prestigious UNESCO-L’Oreal International Fellowships for the year 2014.

She is currently in Paris, France, to receive the fellowship award, which will be presented to recipients at a ceremony at the historic Sorbonne university on Wednesday, March 19.

“It is a matter of pride for me and my family,” Shahnaz, who got her PhD in Pharmaceutical Technology from Austria’s University of Innsbruck, wrote in an email from France about her achievement. “But most of all, I am happy that Pakistan is getting represented in the international scientific community.”

The fellowships are a part of the For Women in Science programme run by French cosmetics giant L’Oreal in partnership with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). The programme started in 1998 and aims to support women researchers around the world, accoridng to L’Oreal’s website.

Young female researchers beginning their careers in life sciences are supported through 15 annual $20,000 fellowships and the work of accomplished women scientists is recognised through five annual $100,000 grant awards, under the programme.

In an informal interview with The Express Tribune before she left for France, Shahnaz said she won the fellowship for her research proposal about a drug delivery system for Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that is spread to humans by the bite of infected sand flies.

The disease affects over 12 million people worldwide and causes over 20,000 deaths annually, according to some estimates.

Around one million cases of the disease’s cutaneous form were reported worldwide between 2007 and 2012, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The cutaneous version is also the major form of Leishmaniasis in Pakistan with over 5,000 cases reported in 2012, a WHO report stated.

But the sole existing treatment is expensive and risky.

Shahnaz’s research aims to use nanotechnology to create a new system of treatment which allows efficient and more stable administration of the medicine. Her research will also look to determine alternative ways of drug intake and to overcome the reduction in the drug’s effectiveness, she said.

“In a particularly innovative extension of her research, she will also attempt to overcome the problem of drug resistance associated with conventional therapies,” according to a description of Shahnaz’s research on L’Oreal’s website. “If she achieves her goal, her work will enhance quality of life for countless Leishmaniasis patients around the globe.”

Women’s contributions to science are undermined and ignored not just in Pakistan but worldwide. However, Shahnaz is the third Pakistani woman researcher to become a UNESCO-L’Oreal fellow, according to Juliette Jacovidis, a public relations officer for the L’Oreal Foundation.

Pakistani scientists Dr Farzana Shaheen and Ishrat Bano won the fellowship in 2004 and 2009 respectively. Shaheen is currently an associate professor at the H.E.J. Research Institute of Chemistry at the University of Karachi and Bano is pursuing post-doctoral research at the Cambridge University in the UK.

The UNESCO-L’Oreal fellowships require fellows to spend at least 10 months of the grant’s one-year period conducting research at a recognised institution outside their home countries.

Shahnaz, who is originally from Bahawalpur, said she will start work in the US at the Division of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard-MIT possibly in August.

But her heart is set in Pakistan.

When she returned from Austria after completing her PhD, she said her major goal was to contribute towards scientific development in Pakistan.

“I wanted to set up a state-of-the-art pharmacy lab at a Pakistani university,” she said.

That dream is still unfulfilled, mostly due to lack of funding, expensive technology and an entrenched culture of senior-junior divisions within the Pakistani academia.

But Shahnaz said she has been supervising PhD students through the Higher Education Commission and putting them in touch with international scientists for collaborations.

She is also keen on bringing projects through her fellowship grant back to Pakistan so young researchers and local scientists can also benefit.

“We need to learn from the attitude of European scientists who are eager to share their knowledge and research with students and other scientists,” Shahnaz said. “What good is our knowledge, if we guard it and not let others benefit from it.”

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