Rana Dajani is a professor of molecular cell biology, currently* Cmalakova Fellow at the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond, Harvard Radcliff fellow, a Fulbrighter, Eisenhower fellow, former center of studies director at Hashemite University, Jordan, Ashoka Fellow, visiting professor at both Yale and Cambridge. Rana is a world expert on genetics of Circassian and Chechan populations in Jordan and established the stem cell research ethics law in Jordan. Rana is an advocate for biological evolution and Islam, a higher education reform expert, and member of the UN women Jordan advisory council. Over the course of her career, she established a women mentor network for which she received Partnerships for enhanced engagement in research (PEER) award 2014. Rana organized the first gender summit for the Arab world 2017 and counts herself among the most influential women scientists in Islamic World. She was recognized as one of 12 among the 100 most influential Arab women 2015. She is also the President of the Society for the Advancement of Science, Technology and Innovation in the Arab World.
*at the time of publication (September 2020)
Rana Dajani is half Palestinian, half Syrian. Her father is from Jerusalem and – as many Palestinians – was evicted from his home in 1948 due to the occupation. Rana’s mother is from Aleppo in Syria. That makes her half Palestinian, half Syrian, with a Jordanian citizenship.
I’m the eldest of eight girls and one brother, so I was always in a leadership role out of love, care and compassion, out of wanting to do good for them.
As Rana shared her story – and it’s an unusual one – I was amazed at her tenacity and Let’s-figure-this-out attitude which is reflected by her countless awards, scholarly achievements, her book 5 Scarves and multiple TedX Talks. In our conversation, we touched on Rana’s journey as a parent, educator, molecular scientist, social entrepreneurs and reluctant Islamic feminist redefining success for herself and other women:
“My father was the first allergist immunologist in the region, so we grew up reading science magazines and journals, and having discussions every night.
Looking back, my parents inadvertently fostered our curiosity which – I later understood – is the hallmark of a scientist and an entrepreneur: We ask questions all the time.
As the eldest, if you’re smart, you’re expected to become a physician. Doctor is a prestigious job and it pays well so it was a no-brainer. I went into first year college planning to study medicine but then I… got kind of scared. I thought “What if I make a mistake?”
Becoming a doctor wasn’t for me, but I knew what I truly wanted: To become a scientist. I thought ‘If I’m a scientist, I can actually help people, I can find the reason for their diseases, so actually, my job is more important than the physician.
I could sleep at night if some cells in a petri dish didn’t survive or if something happened to a mouse. I could handle that.
Now in Jordan in the early 90s, we didn’t have PhD programs so I finished my masters and applied for universities abroad to earn a PhD. I was accepted at the University of Cambridge. But with tuition of 25,000 pounds a year, it was not an option. I didn’t have that kind of money.
I kept the letter for years.
In 2015, I visited Cambridge as a full professor and during my talk I shared with the audience that you always get to where you want to be, but in ways that you never planned.
So as a basic science graduate, I became a school teacher for ten years. And I think that stage was crucial in shaping my aspirations and who I am today. I was teaching first grade to 12th grade biology and science. Over the course of these ten years, I became very familiar with the many challenges that children, teachers, parents and school administrations face when it comes to academic achievement and life skills.
I was curious to find the root causes through which you create system change in a more efficient way.
What I also learned during that decade is that we may not get what we want when we want it, but it will come later when the time is right. It’s a test of how much you really want something. Instead of being a scientist, I worked as a teacher, I got married and had four children.
When I was thirty, my husband saw an ad in the newspaper for a Fulbright Scholarship. He knew that it was my dream to become a scientist so I applied. My due date with my last daughter was the day of my interview. I had her the next day. And I got a five-year scholarship in the US to do my PhD in molecular biology.
My husband was a lieutenant colonel in the Jordanian Air Force. He resigned so he could be with me, to support me and be with the kids so I could follow my dreams. So we went to the US and I did my PhD and I engaged my children all the time with the research so that they felt that they were part of what I’m doing.”
For the love of reading
“When we returned to Jordan, I realized that children didn’t read for fun. I grew up being a reader and I read to my kids constantly. But the picture was a different one not only in Jordan or the Arab world; in most of the developing world children don’t read for fun and it’s not a lack of literacy. Kids know how to read, they read for school, they read for religion, but they don’t read for fun and to me, reading for fun has great benefits:
Through reading, kids learn about other people and other cultures, and these different narratives are able to change your mindset at a young age.
You learn vocabulary to express yourself better, you learn to talk, to communicate, to listen and to become the hero you read about, someone who has the courage to become a changemaker.
It wasn’t enough that I read to my own kids. I felt this responsibility for the children in my community. So I tackled it from a scientist point of view. Why didn’t children read for fun? I started diving into the literature and found that most organizations used to think it was because kids didn’t have enough books. But I knew everybody in my community had books, and still they didn’t read. So that was the wrong root cause.
With more deliberation and asking questions, I found out it’s actually about having a role model who reads aloud to you to foster that love of reading and to connect it in the brain of the child. As the child grows up, being read aloud by a parent or caregiver instills a deep sense of security and safety that becomes associated with love of reading in the child’s brain.
The least I could do, and this stems from my religion – was to become active myself. I talked to my kids and husband and said ‘We’re gonna do this! We’re gonna choose a place and gather the children in our neighborhood to read a lot to them.’ And that’s how my social enterprise journey started. We started reading in the mosque because it’s in every neighborhood in Jordan. It’s open. It’s got carpets and a bathroom. It’s safe so anybody can come and the kids can come by themselves.
For the parents reading in the mosque was education and religion so they were all in. I bought books with my kids that were fun in the native language so that they could understand. We chose books about everyday life: the boy who wants to run away, the girl who doesn’t listen to her mom – everyday things that the kids love to hear about. Before long, the kids fell in love with reading and lined up to take books home. In a way, they became the champions of reading in their own household, it was the child begging the parent to read to them. In other cases, they started reading aloud to their siblings and friends. That’s how We Love Reading started in a small mosque in my neighborhood in 2006.
Today, it’s in 56 countries around the world and we train youth and adults from ages 16 to 100 in how to read aloud as an art.”
Treadmill to business model
“I created the nonprofit in 2010, so it’s now 10 years old. At first, we solely depended on grants. I wrote grant proposals and received funding. Also, we were fortunate to win multiple awards:
- 2019 UN Science and Technology & Innovation for the SDGs Award
- UNHCR Nansen Award 2020
- WISE Award at the 2014 World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar
- Top Idea in IDEO.org’s Amplify Refugee Education Challenge
- Stars award
- Clinton Global Initiative Award
- 2013 Library of Congress best practices award
- UNHCR: Winner of Protect Urban Refugee Children Innovation Challenge
- UNESCO Literacy Prize
- Klaus J. Jacobs Awards
- Synergos Arab World Social Innovator Award
Over the last three years I have been working to design a business model that doesn’t depend on grants and awards because that’s not sustainable in the long run.
It’s tiring to create systemic change from the treadmill of grant writing.
Thanks to the work with IDEO.org, we have been able to turn our program into a package that we can license for other international organizations to use. Instead of having an office in every country working to implement the program ourselves, we partner with other organizations like Save the Children. For an annual licensing fee, we train their coaches in deploying our program so they can roll it out wherever they are. We tested it last year and it works. Now we’re trying to scale and find more mission-aligned partners.
For our third revenue stream, we work with selected private sector partners as part of their corporate social responsibility strategy. We train women and men in their geographic location and co-create a children’s book about a certain theme (often aligned with the company’s mission). In Jordan, for example, we worked with a solar energy company and created a number of children’s books around solar energy AND trained locals to run our program in their communities.
Oh, and we have created 32 children’s titles in Arabic and so we sell those as revenue for the organization.”
Being Muslim, I don’t wear hats, I wear scarves – and a lot of them.
Rana talks about the meaning of her 5 scarves in both her TEDx Talk and her book Five Scarves: Doing the Impossible – If We Can Reverse Cell Fate, Why Can’t We Redefine Success?
Here’s a short version:
My first scarf is that of a mother, the most important one to me because nobody can replace me as a parent.
“I think as human beings, we need to put that role at the forefront. Being a parent rarely gets much attention as if it doesn’t matter, as if it’s a no-brainer when, in fact, it is the most fundamental role for us as a human species to survive. If we don’t take care of our young, we will not survive!
My second scarf role is an educator. As a former teacher and now university professor, I’m always invested in being creative and innovative when it comes to teaching. My Harvard website talks about the different pedagogies of how I teach in different ways.
As you know by now, my third scarf is that of being a scientist in molecular biology.
My fourth scarf is the social entrepreneur through We Love Reading.
The fifth scarf is actually something I did not ask for. It’s a funny story. In 2014, I was informed by an organization in the UK that they had chosen me as one of the 20 most influential female scientists in the world. I was honored and thanked them. Later, I found out that they had given each of us a title. I was astonished – and not necessarily pleased – to find out that they had given me the title of the Islamic feminist. The issue was twofold:
When you say Islamic, the Western world is going to look at me skeptically – whether they want to admit it or not. And when you say feminist, the Eastern world looks at me skeptically. In a sense, I felt like I was losing both sides.
I asked the organization to change it but they refused on the premise that I did in fact write about women in science and clearly I AM Muslim. Instead of fighting it, I figured I would own it and make of it what I wanted it to be. So that led me on a whole pilgrimage. With a lot of curiosity and my scientific mind, I first had to try to understand what Islamic feminist meant, and that led me to the question what success means for a woman. The reason I wrote the book was that I wanted to share what I’d learned in this pilgrimage. I interviewed women all over the world about what success means to them.
I still don’t describe myself as an Islamic feminist. I’m just a human being and to me, it’s about giving every person the freedom to find their passion, to pursue it and for society to support and trust them to do what they want.”
I want everyone to understand that you can change your mind even in the middle of your life and do whatever you want, whenever you want, so long as you have identified your passion. And that only can happen through education, through learning, through communication and exposure to the world.
Life as a scientist and female social entrepreneur in the Arab World
“There’s a Western stereotype about women in the Arab world. But to tell you the truth, women here are very active. Over fifty percent of scientists are women.
70% of Jordanians are eligible to go to university. We are highly educated, the majority being women.
When it comes to social entrepreneurship, the gender ratio is 50/50, it might even be more women than men. Women are more active in the social sphere than men. Women may not become CEOs or managers because they want to spend time at home, to be with their kids so instead, they deploy their skills and knowledge in the social enterprise space.
The whole concept of social entrepreneurship is still very new to Jordan and loosely defined. But it fits well because we are inherently invested in helping others as part of the culture.
In Islam, you give time or money to help the poor, that’s just part of our culture and we don’t call it volunteering, charity or social entrepreneurship.
As the world is becoming more global, in our case not least due to the refugee crisis, we have more and more international organizations coming into Jordan. They like to put these labels on things and it feels like they’re bringing in a framework and trying to find where it fits. When in reality, helping and supporting someone in need is simply part of who we are. It means coming together and doing good for the community rather than launching typical social businesses where you create something new. But in that sense, I am one of many social entrepreneurs.”
How can we support you?
Everyone is special. No one’s DNA is similar to anyone in the world and therefore you have something unique to give to humanity and the world. Identify a challenge that bothers you in your environment; think of a solution you can implement, believe in yourself and take action.
Don’t worry too much about achieving results. What matters is to try and dream.
Because of Covid-19, we also launched the free online We Love Reading training in two languages with the aim to reach 10 languages by the end of the year to reach every neighborhood in the world. If anyone is interested in bringing this model into their region and native language, we would love to talk!”
Mother, educator, scientist, social entrepreneur, human being. Ashoka Fellow. Creator of curious minds and changemakers.