Passing the Torch: Two Generations in STEM

Ramla Zaki is a molecular geneticist whose work on the reduction of chromium by chromate resistant bacteria was recently published in the Journal of Industrial and Environmental Biotechnology. Read more below on how Ramla carved her path in STEM and her message to aspiring women scientists.

Do you come from an academic family?

I come from an academically oriented family. Both of my brothers are engineers. My sisters, a doctor, BS in law, and masters in English literature, respectively. I am the youngest, and I deeply admire my sibling’s accomplishments.

What is your scientific background?

I conducted graduate research at the Center for Molecular Genetics (CMG), University of Karachi, Pakistan. It is an institute for applied research in molecular genetics and genetic engineering. My research focused on the degradation of toxic metals from the environment by exploiting microorganisms. My thesis was about the reduction of chromium from effluent of leather tanning industries by chromate resistant bacteria. Hexavalent chromium is extensively used in industries and is disposed through effluents, resulting in high levels of water and soil contamination. In my research, Bacteria that can resist and reduce chromium, proved to be helpful in its removal and in decontamination of the environment. My work was published in the journal of Industrial and Environmental biotechnology.

How did you choose your field of study?

I studied Biochemistry, Chemistry, and Microbiology while I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree. I was very much intrigued by the structure of proteins and their functions, which led to my interest in DNA and genetics.

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science? During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

My research advisor, Dr. Nuzhat Ahmed was my mentor and role model. She was also the Director of the Center of Molecular Genetics. She guided and supported me throughout my work. Being a woman in a male-dominated field never held her back—she has more than 55 publications in her name, is a researcher of high caliber, and has guided countless students in research projects ranging from targeting oil spills to myeloid leukemia.

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I am very interested in nature and am fortunate to live near a nature center and retreat. I like to go there for evening walks to rewind and refresh by connecting with the nature.

If you had the option to give advice to a younger woman what would that be?

My sincere advice to young women who are interested in science is this: once you find your passion, work hard and seek the blessing and council of His Holiness, who encourages equal opportunities for education for women and men and then you will find that the sky is the limit for you. That said, never be shy to ask for help or support from the people and professionals around you.

How do you think being a woman has shaped your career?

I think if I were a man, my life trajectory would have been different. When I was in the final year of my masters, I was offered a full ride to a Ph.D. program in Belgium by Karachi University. Unfortunately, my father passed away the same year. Soon after, I got married. At this point, I decided to put my family ahead of my career and declined the Ph.D. offer. My husband was an officer in Army Aviation, life with him was an extended excursion. We would move to a new station every so often and enjoy the flavors of military perks and privileges. Every time we moved, my kids had to adjust to a new school, new friends, and a new environment. Me being by their side all the time, they not only adapted to change very well, but in the process gained valuable human skills and personality traits.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?

We need to create opportunities for women to succeed in male-dominated fields like physics, chemistry, computer science, and biotechnology. Extra effort is required to involve young girls in STEM programs. I believe young women have a lot of potential and can contribute greatly to the field of science provided adequate support and guidance. The best way to facilitate this would be to create a support system for our young women to pursue their dreams while doing their duties as wives and mothers.

Do you have anything else that you would like to tell us about?

I feel that ultimate reward of getting involved in scientific research is not only individual accomplishments but also advancing it, by enabling future scientists. In 2020, I had the privilege of presenting high school diploma to my daughter at her graduation. It was a proud moment for me, and I felt like I have passed the torch on to the next generation!

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