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The View from Here: Women of developing countries in science

Mike Gangwer Published on 29 June 2009

I have a working relationship with five ministries here in Iraq.

One of them is the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST).

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MoST is located in Baghdad adjacent to Baghdad University. Many employees here are graduates of the university. Some are graduate students themselves, working during the day and studying in the evening.

The senior staffs here, including the director general, are English speakers and have studied in the U.S. Their equipment is largely from Europe, and much of it was manufactured in Germany. The building is old; it is several stories tall and designed like the typical office building. The auditorium, however, is large enough to seat several hundred people. Several of us from the U.S. Embassy attended a desertification conference here in April, and the room was filled. Our host was Dr. Ibrahim, who was educated at Iowa State University with degrees in agronomy and soil physics.

One of his staff members is Ameera Al-Saedi who is a Borlaug Fellows. She will travel to Gainesville, Florida, later this summer and work with the soils staff there for two months.

She was educated at the University of Baghdad in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in soil science and then completed her masters degree there in 2005.

As a staff scientist for Ibrahim, she is currently working on the crop modeling program DSSAT. Interestingly enough, her model data inputs are derived using the soil moisture retention curves measured here in the laboratory. I used the same kind of equipment for my work on Oregon soils. Al-Saedi proudly showed me her laboratory, her study area and her areas of interest.

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The latter includes the effect of irrigation in modeling crop production on water and nitrate movement, managing irrigation on corn with blended water sources of saline and fresh water, consumptive water use in corn and deficit irrigation and finally the very important work here in Iraq – saline water use and management practices for irrigation on alluvial soils. Iraq has two river systems – the Tigris and the Euphrates. Both rivers flood and thus leave alluvial soils having been carried downstream from Syria, Turkey and Iran. These soils are rich in nutrients and overlay the desert sands of Iraq in what is known as the Central Valley.

I have flown over this area of Iraq several times, and this region is very fertile with a wide diversity of crop production including vegetables, date palms, cereals and ornamentals. However, the constrain on crop production is water, and that means water that is low enough in soluble salts so crops can be irrigated. Thus, Al-Saedi’s work is of prime importance.

But there is more to this article than just a topical look at a ministry and a floodplain. I am introducing Al-Saedi to you for an important reason. There are so few women scientists in Iraq.

I am often told that generally, in the previous 20 years, young people were scripted into military service. And when they entered the military, they did not go to school, at least a school like the University of Baghdad. I rarely meet anyone in their 20s or 30s that speaks English and has an advanced degree.

Yet Al-Saedi, a female in her middle 30s, does speak English, and from my perspective she has a very important role in finding the kinds of answers we need to rebuild production agriculture here in Iraq.

I remember my tour in Afghanistan, and the very few women in science. In fact, I could not talk with them, given the cultural norms in that country. Here in Iraq, there are few women in science, but I have absolutely no cultural problems talking with them.

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I have met many women scientists in much of the developing world. They are, and this is a general observation, not on the top hierarchal order. They serve at the lower echelons. Generally the male scientists lead the discussion, generate the interest and form the ideas and research topics.

Yet today, Ibrahim fully turns the discussion of these irrigation and agronomy questions and answers over to Al-Saedi. She carried the discussion admirably. One particular frustration was memorable. Al-Saedi was having problems with what we call data scattershot. That is, the data showed no particular pattern or trend. Ibrahim spoke to us that the data could be analyzed using a different statistical program. Al-Saedi spoke up: “I can ask for help when I get to Gainesville.” Ibrahim beamed.

There are two take-home messages in this article. First, in some countries women still do not yet have an equal seat at the scientific table, but there are exceptions. I found one today at MoST. And her first-line supervisor, Dr. Ibrahim, gets much of the credit for encouraging this young woman to not only perform science in the laboratory but continue her education.

Second, programs like the Borlaug Fellows administered through Texas A&M are excellent vehicles for international study. There are a couple dozen scientists from Iraq having completed or are in the system for the Borlaug Program. If there is one metric the U.S. government is doing exactly right, it is facilitating international scientific exchange at our land-grant universities.

I do not know anything about Al-Saedi outside of the professional workplace. There are boundaries that we diplomats cannot cross, and this is one of them. I am grateful, however, to have at least an academic relationship with Al-Saedi. Someday she will earn her doctorate, perhaps in the U.S., or Europe, or possibly in Iraq, if we can rebuild the Ministry of Higher Education.

I think someday Al-Saedi will contact me by e-mail or phone. Then she will be in Asia or Africa or South America working with local scientists as they rebuild a country. We will have a discussion of transit times, location differences and likely water flow through soil.

And she will tell me her group includes women scientists and engineers, women researchers and laboratory assistants and women field staff. We will probably chuckle about the day I visited MoST in Baghdad and how during our first introduction, she handed me the basis of her work – an oven-dried soil core, having just been through a dozen wettings and pressure extractants in a pressure chamber while sitting on a tension plate.

“A gift from Iraq ... a floodplain soil after a recent flooding event. And it is a Baghdad loam.” PD

Mike Gangwer
Foreign Ag Service Soil and Water Ministerial Adviser in Iraq

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