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Sister Scientists

Drs. Yasmine and Heba Aguib are making their mark in Germany’s technical universities and on their home country  as well
By Dominika Maslikowski 

Dr. Yasmine Aguib and her younger sister Dr. Heba Aguib credit their careers to their grandmother. Afaf el Hadidy always told her granddaughters not to marry until they got their PhDs. She never got a higher education herself but was a strong woman who always read up on current events and law and was the family’s go-to person for advice, her granddaughters recall. When el Hadidy was diagnosed with cancer, Yasmine was working on her PhD in Molecular Biotechnology while Heba was a few years away from becoming the first woman to get her doctorate in mechanical engineering from her department at the Technical University Munich (TUM.)

It was their grandmother’s diagnosis that prompted Heba to later change fields from automotive engineering to focus on medical device technology and gave Yasmine a new perspective on her own research into brain cells and a cellular process called autophagy that she confirmed plays a role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Prion infections.

“My interest in understanding health and disease started earlier, and my research in the field of cancer therapy also came before that. But when my grandma got sick, it added a new dimension to my work,” said 30-year-old Yasmine, who’s currently in Munich on maternity leave from her position as a scientific consultant to TUM’s president. “I knew that without scientific research, existing therapies would not exist and future therapies won’t exist. But when you live through it with your closest family members it takes things to another level. My grandma and a very close aunt got cancer at the same time, around 2007. So I was performing experiments in the lab with a very famous cancer drug (while studying a cellular process in brain cells) and at the same time my aunt was being medicated with the same drug.”

Heba shifted gears after years in the automotive engineering field and a prestigious internship at BMW, where she analyzed vehicles in terms of aerodynamics and design. It was a challenging jump into medical device technology, but it enabled the young scientist to bring what she learned from the automotive engineering to a medical sector where not many came from her specific background.

“It mainly happened when my grandmother in Cairo got pancreatic cancer. I decided to support research to improve the quality of life and surgery,” Heba said. “I liked aerodynamics and working at BMW but I wanted to be closer to human-related topics. It was a very interesting change because I used methods and approaches that were very common in automotive engineering but not in medical, like numerical simulation and modeling which uses numerical models to test, design and optimize new products. I also thought in Egypt we don’t have enough money for prototyping and materials, so computer-aided design and optimization is the best way to bring ideas to a certain level in research and development.”

Although both sisters now live and work in Germany, they haven’t broken their ties with their native Egypt and are both involved in projects they believe will benefit the country’s future.

Two years ago, Yasmine was appointed as a scientific consultant to TUM’s president in the field of life science and the university’s strategic alliances in Europe and the Middle East. During that time, she set up TUM’s representation in the German Science Centre Cairo, a platform for German-Egyptian exchange in science fields, research and technology.

Heba is currently the deputy managing director of TU Berlin’s Campus El Gouna on the Red Sea, where she consults and initiates projects that are relevant to Egypt and the challenges in the region. One of the campus’ main projects, funded by Germany’s education and research ministry, focuses on developing curricula for vocational education in Egypt to improve the quality of non-academic education. Other projects at El Gouna deal with implementing renewable energy, waste water treatment, water desalination and urban development with a focus on new towns and big cities.

Such projects are a priority amid the rapid population growth in Egypt’s urban areas, where infrastructure isn’t always ready to handle an influx of people.
“The topics we are dealing with are crucial for the developments in Egypt,” Heba says. “We try with our students, German professors and the whole team to support the development of new technologies and solve such problems analytically and sustainably.”

Heba and Yasmine have both kept close ties with Egypt while studying and working abroad, and say their upbringing in Cairo and their supportive family contributed to their success. Growing up in Egypt played a major role in Yasmine’s accomplishments, as she says the country’s complex and colorful society always challenged and stimulated her mind. Heba, on her part, hopes to settle down in Egypt someday, saying she not only misses her family but also the vibrancy of her native city and downtown spots like Souq Bab el Louq, where both sisters attended a nearby German school.

“My parents raised in us an interest in sports, art, music, languages. They always took us to different classes and courses and tickled in us an interest in discovering life,” Yasmine says. “Our school also played a major role. So I grew up with a strong interest in understanding things and to be honest, I wasn’t a kid that decided to become a scientist. I wanted to become an actor, dancer, doctor, scientist, politician, lawyer and journalist.”

“I remember there was one TV program about the latest developments in technology and our parents always wanted us to watch it,” Heba adds. “They supported us in finding our way and to think free.”

Despite the family’s encouragement, there was some concern when Heba chose to enter the traditionally male-dominated field of mechanical engineering. That field of study, she was warned, was notoriously difficult for either a man or woman to complete. It wasn’t a field that seemed to pull in many women either, whether they were Arab or European.

“In Germany, which was shocking to me, I was asked by German women if I thought that as a woman I was intelligent enough for mechanical engineering. In Germany at school some girls really think they cannot be good in math and physics because it’s a guys’ thing. This is not the case in girls-only schools,” Heba says. “Then there’s the fact that the job is really hard, and I have to admit I gave up a lot of soft things and interests. You deal mostly with men at the job, which sometimes is very comfortable but also difficult because their accepting you as a boss or competition isn’t easy. And in Egypt it is not always easy — and I am sorry to say but many guys think this way — to be of interest as a partner while being that strong and self-aware.”

Heba stopped wearing high heels for awhile because she wanted to be treated equally and not as a woman. Her studies didn’t leave much time for a social life or hobbies, but she soon realized the importance of balancing her life to include more artsy pursuits outside of her scientific and analytical work.
“I started doing contemporary dance during my PhD because I needed to focus on my inside and balance the amount of hard work and the extremely stressful job,” she says. “That’s something I learned with time: that you need and must do things for your soul so your mind and body keep working efficiently.”

With her daughter Fayrouz just turned three months old, Yasmine is now facing her own challenge of staying at the top of her career while raising a family. She was previously able to take frequent business trips and be flexible with her working hours, but knows things will be different now. It’s very critical to have a supportive partner and develop a plan to maintain a private life when both parents work full-time, she says.

“We simply keep putting ourselves in each other’s shoes. With the baby it gets a bit harder. We still don’t have a routine or an ideal solution on how to schedule what. But I have a feeling that we have good sensors: Each one of us feels when the other is exhausted and jumps in,” she says. “I would tell every woman that there will always be challenges facing you. It might be your family, a teacher, your own doubt in your capacities, a disease or a senior interviewing you for a position telling you not to negotiate the offer because you should make compromises because you will end up with kids anyway. Know that every successful woman has faced at least one of these challenges and managed to find her way.”

Although Heba is based in Berlin and Yasmine lives nearly 600km away in Munich, the two sisters remain close to each other and their family in Cairo. They offer each other support and reminders that keep them on track and keep things in perspective.

“I don’t want to be cheesy and start with the soul mates statements, but we grew up together, sharing everything, laughing and fighting. We went through many things together, share many dreams but also have very different characters,” Yasmine says. “When one of us starts thinking in circles, the other one pulls her out. We might end up making similar decisions but if you question each of us you’ll find that we took different paths to similar results. It might be our way of analyzing and approaching things, but what we have in common is that we are honest and always try to be genuine and fair. We always remind each other where we came from and where we are or should be going. And that we have to stay real. Real Egyptians.” et

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