A few months ago I sat down with my fellow lab-mate Omneya Nassar, PhD to talk about her perspective on how it was to be a woman of faith in the field of science. She is a practicing Muslim and so I thought it would be a neat opportunity to compare the similarities and differences of our experiences and our views. Here is a transcript of a lot of our hour-long interview on this topic, plus at the end I've attached random other parts of the interview that don't pertain to this topic but that I found really interesting.
D: What was it like growing up in a Muslim house with Muslim parents?
O: My parents were practicing Muslims. It’s not that different from a Christian home. Every week we go to service. Every holiday we get together and celebrate. Ramadan is really similar to Lent where we have fasting to get closer to God. They definitely make a big deal of not having boyfriends. It’s a part of the religion, but it’s also just about being protected. I appreciated everything my parents did for me. My parents took us to Sunday school. It should be Friday school, but there is public school happening at that time so it is moved to Sunday. So we got a chance to learn parts of the Quran as a kid. The older you become, the more you appreciate what you learned. It’s quite similar to a practicing Christian home.
D: What are the dietary restrictions for Muslims?
O: No alcohol, no pork. I’ve heard that it gets a bit more detailed with no monoglycerides and no gelatin because it can come from pig.
D: So you’ve never had Jell-o?
O: I’ve had halal jell-o… I have like accidentally eaten pork before. I got a stomach ache because I wasn’t used to it. I had a sloppy-joe at a robotics competition, it tasted really good and I said it tasted like beef but my friend said she thought it was pork and I was like, “Oh God…” so I threw away the rest of the sandwich.
D: So you talked about the rules of not having a boyfriend, were there any other rules about who you could or couldn’t socialize with? Were most of your friends Muslim?
O: My parents were pretty free about that. I had girl friends who were Christian, Atheist, Agnostic, Hindu, etc. I actually had more friends growing up that weren’t Muslim than ones that were. Mostly the restriction is just not having guy friends, just not being close to guys. You can still interact with them and stuff.
D: When did you figure out that you liked science?
O: When I started at St. Edward’s University I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So of course my parents were like, PRE-MED! haha Then my second semester of my Freshman year I took my first Chemistry class and I totally fell in love with chemistry and science and it was amazing!
D: You said your love of science started in college. Did you not have that feeling in high school? Was it bad teachers or you just didn’t care or what?
O: In middle school I had fun exploring all different topics. Humanities, mostly, because it was a humanities magnet school, but once I got to high school I felt like I just needed to get good grades to get into a good school. I definitely started enjoying science in college once I really had the freedom to explore a career choice.
D: How did you feel when you first started to explore everything science had to offer?
O: I was actually kind of worried. Before I got into Graduate school I thought, “Man, this might mean that I have to become Atheist like if I study science.” Most the people I studied with were Atheist or said it contradicted the religion and stuff. But then I figured out it’s the exact opposite! Religion really embraces science. Like in the Quran it says, “look at the sun, look at the moon.” It means to study science. Like I’m sure in the Bible there’s nothing against curing people with science or exploring the world or things like that!
D: I was just reading a book the other day. Apparently there is a Jewish prayer specifically for scientists. It says something like "Dear Lord thank you for them, thank you for the wonderful advancements that they’ve given the world." Something along those lines. All these different religions, we all celebrate science. I just feel like it’s not advertised very well.
D: So when you were in undergrad and you felt this way like you needed to be an Atheist, was it anything other people said or you just realized there were a bunch of Atheists around.
O: In my high school the smartest kids were always the most aggressive against religion. But eventually I realized it was just because that they put a lot of their effort on knowing one side and not the other. So I went to a Catholic school, a private Catholic school, for college. I went to one class session and it was really life changing. I had a professor who gave this analogy:
Imagine you’re taking 2 classes, a Religion/Humanities class and a science class. You have an assignment to turn in for both classes, but you accidentally turn in the science report to the humanities class and you turn in the humanities report to the science class. You’re going to fail because they are two different things.
It’s like comparing apples and oranges. One can support the other, but you can’t necessarily out rule the other. This was really eye opening.
D: That was one of the things I've been saying! I’ve said this like 1,000 times over the last year since I found this quote, “Science and Religion are both searching for truth. They’re just asking different questions. Science asks what and how while religion asks who and why.”
D: Switching back to talking about being a Muslim in science. Have you ever felt any ill will towards you from other scientists because of your religion?
O: I don’t know why, but I feel like scientists are so open minded towards diversity. I haven’t felt any peer pressure about being a Muslim. Being a Muslim, people in science have just treated me like normal. It was mostly just kids in high school when I started wearing my headscarf, but kids in high school will bully any one who’s different than them.
D: So how has your family acted since you left pre-med to go more of the research direction?
O: My parents have been super open about me following my passion. I had other family members who were more on the cultural side that being a doctor was the best and so that’s what you should do. But my parents were super supportive. I actually just got off the phone with my mom and she was like, “Look at what you’ve done, getting into science! You can really help people live better lives, find treatments, things like that, just by pursuing pharmacology/toxicology!”
D: So moving forward, do you want to continue doing research?
O: I do, but I want to be in industry instead of academia. There are more doors open in industry. You kind of get stuck in academia. So yes I do want to continue research, just not in academia.
D: So on a similar topic, if you want to be in industry, that is really a full time job. How does that correlate to your family/culture’s view that you need to settle down and get married and start a family?
O: It’s actually really strange; it’s kind of been like a yo-yo. In the beginning of my scientific career they were like, you should think about marriage. When I graduated undergrad my grandpa told me they had a suitor for me, but that didn’t work out. Then I got further in my PhD and they said “We don’t want any distractions. Don’t think about marriage, don’t think about relationships.” So it’s been kind of back and forth. But then I would think about it and be like well I don’t want to be single forever. But I’ve never had my parents force me to be with anyone. I know that’s a stereotype associated with my culture/religion, but you do have the right to say no. Anyone can say, "hey you should be with this person," but in the end, you sit down with the person who will marry you and he asks you specifically do YOU want to marry this person and if you say no he packs up his bag and leaves. That’s how it works.
D: What about being a woman in science, have you ever felt overlooked or looked on as less in any way, whether from classmates or professors or anything?
O: Definitely. So I do think there is a big struggle in being a female in science. I don’t know why it’s just easier to pick on female scientists than male scientists. That’s just what I’ve noticed. I think as a female we are just naturally inclined to feel a little bit more insecure about ourselves. It’s just a pattern that I’ve seen. Unfortunately people either take that insecurity and put it as a negative for that individual or take that insecurity and take advantage of it and make them feel worse about it. I don’t want to give any specific examples because I don’t want to pick on anyone I know.
D: You don’t want to use codenames? Like, “Well Bill did…”
O: I think… no. no. I feel like they would figure it out. I have heard stories of a professor who told someone, “You’re too beautiful to be in science.” It’s just like… what? It’s just these strange things that happen to women. So I think as a female scientist I think I have struggled. And I think to myself, if I were a male I’d probably have an easier experience. Of course, you know, in this lab I didn’t have that experience.
D: Yes, our lab is wonderful!
O: But outside of our lab I have had that struggle. And I can only imagine other lab environments that have that problem.
D: Throughout your undergrad and graduate career have the institutions been understanding of your Muslim traditions? So I know it’s hard during your month of fasting to come in and be productive during that time, and I often don’t see you as much during that time. Or I know our admin is really good about getting you a vegetarian pizza and things when the lab gets lunch. But in other parts of your college career has it been as understanding or were their any difficulties with that?
O: It’s been very understanding. I’ve never had a problem. If anything, somebody might forget, or it’ll just be a misunderstanding, and they’ll totally apologize and get me something really special to make up for it. Like I feel excited and actually felt happy that they forgot.
D: Isn’t Eid over the summer? That’d be easy enough, everyone is on summer break so there are no classes.
O: Actually Muslims follow the lunar calendar so the season changes. So like one time in college it was in September and the hours were really long. I also had lab that day, so I was fasting since 5 o’clock in the morning and I didn’t eat until 9pm. I was like, “I’M DYING!” haha But, you know, it’s moments like that when you realize your priorities. You are really passionate about your religion, obviously in a very peaceful way, it’s only hurting me. But it’s worth it. You learn how to make sacrifices for the ones that you love. If you love God, you make sacrifices for God. It’s not too bad. It’s just difficult when you have to study without eating or drinking.
D: You have to have that brain food!
O: Exactly. But if you take breaks and reorganize your schedule, like there was a time where I did Ramadan and I would come into the lab at like 6AM so I would be done around 2 or 3pm so I’m not too hungry because I already ate. And if I have to finish work, I’ll just finish after I break my fast. I think the hardest part of the day is actually after you break your fast. Because if you eat too much you get so tired. Your insulin spikes. But if you eat modestly you can still get some work done.
D: On the flip side… we’ve talked about how your religion plays a role in your work in science, but something that I’ve noticed, especially in the Christian world is that the reason there seems to be this disconnect between faith and science, this “understanding” that the two don’t go together is because they’re not talked about together. So like in church they never mention science at all. Or at school they don’t mention how certain religions see these scientific things. So in your Sunday services, do they talk about science ever?
O: It depends on where I go and who is doing the talking. In Islam you have to read the Quran in Arabic, you have to learn it in Arabic. Start in English, but eventually you have to learn it in Arabic. So when I hear a preacher in Egypt preach in Arabic it makes a huge difference than when I’m listening to someone here. It’s a little bit more advanced. There’s a live stream called **I’m not even gonna try to guess how to spell it** It’s just an Egyptian show where they’ll bring a priest and talk about the religion or they’ll bring a physician who will talk about religion and science. They’ll talk about different parts of life, business and just everything, like social aspects. They’re very detailed about bringing religion and being very specific about what part of the Quran mentions this, why did it mention it, what’s the history behind it, etc. So in the Middle East it’s actually a big problem where people take advantage of a religion and turn it into this terroristic plot and then you have people who don’t want to continue practicing their religion because they don’t want to be seen as a terrorist. It’s really unfortunate. So there has been a push in the Middle East to include many other parts of life, more than just religion in your religious services just so they make sure that the people understand that religion should never be used for such violence but it should be applied to your daily life. So they talk about how your religion should be playing a role in your social life or in business or how it applies to science. So in that regard they have been including science in their talks even more recently. They’re having a really strong push for the marriage between religion and science. One should not outweigh the other. They’re two different entities.
D: Other than the actual institution that you have services at, are you involved in any other faith groups? So like I volunteer with a church’s youth ministry, but I also meet with a bunch of Catholic young adults to bond and discuss our faith. Do you have anything like that?
O: I wanted to, there’s one in Clear Lake. I think it’s called the Clear Lake Islamic Center, or CLIC. The problem is that it’s like 45 minutes away, so that’s too far for me. In Austin I did have something like that as an adolescent. But at that time the Muslim community wasn’t as big, it wasn’t as developed. But I was a part of the Muslim youth group and went to their outings and events and picnics and things.
D: Speaking on diversity and loving each other, so for the Catholic religion it was HUGE last week when the pope went to the UAE because he was the first pope to go to that area of the world and to embrace those people and talk about the unity of all people and they had this conference on it. Were you even aware of it, that this was happening? Was it of any kind of importance from the Islamic side?
O: I didn’t know he went to the Emirates, but I know it was a really big deal when the chief of Egypt went to go visit the pope and the pope visited Egypt. I know more about Egyptian news. I didn’t know he went to the Emirates, but I’m pretty sure that would be a really big deal there and people would embrace it.
D: Ya it was really neat, they showed images that they held the largest Christian service ever in that area. They had the pope lead a mass. There were a lot of non-Christians who came to the mass because like I said, they were embracing unity, they were embracing this love, and it was over 2000 people who came to just be there and be a part of this monumental moment. So it was really neat and I really liked it.
O: Kimmy invited me to an accurate representation of how Jesus was born at one of the really big churches in League City. (After she described it, it was not in League City. It was Sagemont Church in Houston.) But it talked about the birth of Jesus and the purpose of Christmas and that was really educational.
D: Because you guys believe in Jesus and that he really lived and that he was a really wise man, right?
O: Ya, we believe in Jesus, we believe in Jesus’ miracles. We believe in everything Jesus did; we just don’t agree that Jesus is God. And we don’t believe Jesus was crucified, we believe that God saved Jesus and made Judas to look like Jesus and that it was actually Judas who died on the cross. (I had no idea. Mind blown.) We believe that Jesus was a prophet, he was born from the virgin Mary, we believe all of that.
D: What is the Muslim culture like in the lovely state of Texas which is generalized as being very Christian and very anti-science, and how does the religion fit into this lovely state we live in.
O: Well I don’t think Texas is really anti-science…
D: EEHHHHHHHHHHH….. there are many great science institutions in the state of Texas. But if you talk to the average Joe off the street, I feel like I’ve encountered a lot of distrust of science.
O: Well like I was raised in Austin, so… That’s MY perspective of Texas, an inaccurate one. In Austin and in Galveston, which are both pretty liberal areas, I’ve seen a push to be in the know of science and of other religions, just to have a good relationship with the Jewish community, the Christian community, any other religious community. And also advocate the practice of science. I haven’t ever met a Muslim that was anti-science. It’s actually really highly looked upon. You have a good reputation if you practice science.
Of course I love Cavendar’s, I love their boots, but I’ve gotten the awkward glare of “what are you doing here?” But I think for the most part we’ve reached a level that it’s at least better than when I was growing up. My mom and I could just be walking in the street and people used to yell at us or say something mean. But now just because there’s this huge push just to be open and like embrace the diversity that America has, it’s more of a “I will live my life the way I want to live it and you live the way you want to live it and that’s it.” But I have had an experience where I was volunteering in the Emergency Room where there was a patient who came and of course if you’re in the ER you want to see a doctor as soon as possible and you’re in pain, but he absolutely refused to talk to me or say anything. Eventually I figured out that it was because I was Muslim and he was from a rural area. So eventually I just said I have to be the mature person here so I went and got a white nurse to help him instead. But in the end I feel like if you’re comfortable with the religion that you practice I feel like these sorts of things don’t hurt you as much.
D: You are less than a month from defending, (now at the time of publishing, it’s 2 months after her defense, and it’s the day of her graduation) we’ve already talked about that you want to do research in industry. Are you looking in Houston? All over?
O: Yes, Houston/Austin area. I want to stay close to family.
D: Is finding a good Muslim community a point of interest when looking at where you are going to go?
O: It is more about family. I did apply for positions outside of Texas, and I do always look for a Muslim community. It just makes such a big difference when you celebrate Ramadan, when you celebrate Eid, things like that. Fasting by yourself is really hard, but fasting in a community is a really incredible experience.
D: I know one of your priorities is being near your family, but I also know since I’ve been your friend for a few years, that living with your family as a grown adult can be kind of suffocating at times. So once you graduate and have a job that pays well, would you still live with your parents?
O: I do want to stay living with them because I want to be able to take care of them like they took care of me because I was a pain in the butt as a teenager so I feel like I have an obligation to take care of them. I don’t think it’s fair for me to just abandon them and not take care of them. They’ve told me that if I wanted to get married, have kids, have my own life that they totally support me. They just don’t want me to be alone. I don’t blame them. I don’t like being alone. They’ve eventually learned that I’m an adult so they can communicate with me like I’m an adult. So we’re at this point that we can grow together and it’s really nice.
D: So I know in general in the Muslim community, family is really important, but as far as like taking care of your parents is that more female oriented or is it for any gender that both need to take care of their parents.
O: It’s actually the male’s role, in Islam the man HAS to be the provider. He has to be a bread winner. If a woman wants to go and work, that’s fine, but whatever money she makes goes to her pocket. If she decides to share it, that’s her choice but if she doesn’t, that’s fine. She does not have to pay anything. Whenever she pays the bill. That’s considered a donation, that’s not considered a requirement. He’s responsible for taking care of his parents, so it’s actually my brother’s responsibility before it’s my responsibility. Men in Islam actually have a huge responsibility of taking care of the family. Women aren’t required to have household duties, but they usually just take on those duties culturally. They do have the responsibility of being in charge of the kids, that is their role as the mother. In the religion, before you listen to your father you’re supposed to listen to your mother 3 times. They say if I had to pick my mother or my father, who do I pick, mother, who do you pick, mother, who do you pick, mother, who do you pick, father. So because she has such authority, she’s responsible for taking care of the kids, but once again she’s not financially obligated to anything. She can have a career but she DOES have to have permission from her husband to do so.
D: But it’s like you were talking about earlier that you’re not going to marry a husband that doesn’t give you permission. If you’re one of those people who wants a career, you have the right to say no.
O: Exactly. In the marriage contract you can say, “I want to work, and you accept that I can work.” and if he doesn’t like that then you guys don’t have to be together.
D: So when you do get married, you do write out…
O: Yeah! There’s a written marriage contract. It’s sort of like a pre-nuptial agreement here.
D: So if they break that down the line are you allowed to divorce them?
O: Yeah, so divorce is allowed. Well, it used to be only a man was allowed to divorce a woman, but now they have a rule in the middle east where you can file a lawsuit to get a divorce, as a woman. If they picked up smoking, even just having really bad breath all the time. If they’re not being financially responsible, things like that. If they’re not holding up their part of the bargain, you can say I’m done. They have an option for women to get out of the relationship. For men they can just say we’re divorced and the divorce just happens. If you divorce 3 times, you can’t marry her again unless she marries someone else first.
D: Wait… does that happen often that a guy will divorce you then marry you again then divorce you two more times then want to marry again?
O: Yeah people have done that. They might be too aggressive and what will happen is they’ll like hire a person for her to marry then they’ll divorce her after a certain time period just so the guy can marry his original wife for a 4th time. Really what is supposed to happen is she is supposed to find someone who she really likes and really likes her and if that doesn’t work out then she can go back.
D: Is that more of a religion thing or a cultural thing?
O: It’s a religion thing, it’s written in the religion. What is supposed to keep the husband and wife together is the religion and really if you follow the rules it brings a lot of order to the home. But there’s a lot of responsibility placed on men, but there’s also a lot of sacrifices placed on women. But it’s only a sacrifice if she agrees from the beginning that she will make those sacrifices.