Sakina Fakhraddin From Yemen

“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

“Only a life lived for others is a life worth while.”

– Albert Einstein –

I preferred to start “My Story with Physics” with the aforementioned powerful quotations of the famous physicist Albert Einstein to point out that three unchanging principles overwhelmed my life with physics. First, scientific learning, development and discovery have no end point. Second, science and religion are, as I believe and apply in my life, two faces to the same coin and not two opposite extremes as some think. Third, whatever researches conducted or discoveries reached they should not target or serve personal interests on the level of individuals or communities, but should be for the benefit of all humanity discarding any type of discrimination.

My story with physics could be rather short, but I would like to share it with you and with the whole world if I have the chance to. It could be your story as it partially mirrors a tale of a country, not only of a person.

Yemen, my homeland, is considered one of the countries in the Arab world that lately joined the establishment of institutionalized educational system. Adequate schools were available in the southern part of Yemen, leaving the northern part in utter darkness and ignorance. In 1962 some schools opened their gates for girls, and this was the beginning of education for girls in this part of Yemen. Currently, and after decades of strife and relentless work, women in Yemen can and do really contribute to the progress and welfare not only of their native soil or Arab world, but rather of humankind through science and technology. This represents a great development for women, especially if we compare the status of women in the early 1960s, when almost no females were allowed to go to school. Since that time more and more women were able to acquire education, as more schools for girls were opened.

Ten years later two universities, Sana’a and Aden, were established. However, this late founding of schools and universities had its impact on the group of women, who can be considered to be the first generation of women to acquire a high degree of education. In this short description, I introduce my story of success, determination and dedication to achieve the highest degree in a discipline previously thought to be only a specialization for men.

  • In the 60s almost no females were allowed to go to schools. By the time I reached High School, in 1979, few females were attending the 12th year board exams. In fact, I was supposed to enter this exam in 1977, but this delay was due to my family’s moving from the southern (Socialist regime) to the northern (Republican regime) part of Yemen. There were a lot of political issues involved in all aspects of everyday’s life. A friend of mine (we both were born in the same year), who stayed in the south, graduated from school in 1976.
  • After school my ambition was to join a Faculty of Engineering, however in those days, Sana’a University (SU) did not have such faculty. So, I had to travel abroad to fulfill my desire to study civil engineering. I travelled to the UK and spent a year there, but could not find my way to the Faculty of Engineering. Hence, I got admission to Baghdad University, but again the circumstances were against my wishes. The Iraqi-Iranian war broke out the night I was travelling to Iraq. So, I had to abandon the idea of travelling and with it I had to give up my dream to study civil engineering. I ended up in the Physics Department at SU, this is how my career in Physics began. At this stage, I lost two years in searching for a suitable university.
  • I graduated from SU with distinction; I obtained the 1st rank over my faculty colleagues.

Consequently, I was appointed as instructor in the Faculty of Science. Immediately, I received a Fulbright scholarship from the US government for my Masters.

  • I obtained my MSc in Physics in 1989 from Michigan State University. I came back to Yemen looking for a fellowship to proceed with my PhD. Unfortunately, Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait took place. Due to the political situation, all of the US assistance, including scholarships, was stopped, so, I had to look for other sources to pursue my PhD. In 1992, a physics professor in Yemen was willing to take me as PhD student. I started my PhD work in my own country. This was great, no travelling, no homesickness, and I was near my family. But a computer was urgently needed to accomplish my work, and none was available at that time in the whole faculty. My father bought me one, and I started my PhD work. I was very lucky to have such a wonderful family, that supported me by all means. Again, things did not work well, my supervisor had serious health problems and he had to leave Yemen. Once again I was looking for any way to complete my PhD. Later, I got a fellowship to pursue my PhD in Cairo, Egypt.
  • I flew to Cairo late in 1995 and finished my PhD degree in 2000. Returning back home, I was appointed as assistant professor in the Physics Department at SU in 2001. Up to 2000, the main teaching staff in the Physics Department was only males. The first female group to enter the academic field as members of the teaching staff was in 2001. I was one of the two females with such a degree in Yemen as a whole. This was a courageous step for me to be in a field mainly occupied by males. Therefore, this was a challenge for me to step up with the males and to compete with them in all terms of the academia. I succeeded in this challenge.
  • My PhD dissertation was examined by two pioneer professors in high energy physics. Both expressed very high estimation and evaluative recommendations for my work. From 2001 till 2008 I worked as Assistant Professor. In our universities we face many difficulties, where the resources available for research are very poor. I was able to overcome these difficulties with determination and my strong belief in scientific research, and could improve the status of women in my country. I tried to establish a scientific collaboration with other groups working in the same field. Thanks to almighty God I succeeded in this collaboration with Cairo University in Egypt and with Shanxi University in China. As a result of my hard and dedicated work in research, I have conducted a lot of research, some of which was presented at international conferences, while others were published in distinguished journals. Consequently, in 2009 I was promoted to Associate Professor.
  • One of the most unprecedented successes that crowned my determination and hard work was that I won the “President’s Award for Scientific Research for the year 2009”. In 2010, I received the “TWOWS Award for Young Women Scientists in Physics/Mathematics for the Arab Region”.

My career accomplishments and the rewards I obtained mirror the achievements and the increasing prominence of Yemeni women in science in general, and in physics in particular. I feel incredibly privileged to have heard so many young women at undergraduate and graduate levels, not only from physics department but also from other departments, saying that these achievements have inspired and enriched their lives. These young women are now motivated to develop their status in physics and other disciplines to present an exceptional excellence, and they have become more confident in themselves than ever before. In fact, these advancements and achievements of a Yemeni woman in physics, represent an inspiring female model to motivate the younger generation.

This is a brief memoir on how I have suffered, first at school level, and then during my academic journey. It is evident from all that I have mentioned that at each stage I encountered difficulties and obstacles, sometimes as a result of political positions, and sometimes as a result of lack of academic resources. I also tried to show how these obstacles were overcome with the help and guidance of Allah Almighty, with my determination and deep concern and eagerness to achieve the highest degree in a discipline that was previously only open to males.