Speaking with Yasmin Altwaijri is a breath of fresh air. The vibe and the enthusiasm took me back to Wamda’s Mix N’ Mentor Riyadh, when we had the chance to speak with ambitious Saudi women about their startups, work/life balance, workforce challenges and stereotypes.
This time however, the conversation took a different turn. Yasmin Altwaijri is not your typical Saudi woman. After graduating with a Bachelor Degree in Public Health and getting married, Altwaijri moved with her husband to Boston and pursued her PhD at Tufts University. In 2002, the couple went back to Saudi Arabia where Altwaijri took on a job at King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences. There, she was in charge of reviewing all the medical courses that were taught at the university; but she wasn’t satisfied. Two years later, she moved to the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh to lead the epidemiology research center there. It was then when she really discovered her passion: Research.
… And the journey begins
Epidemiology is the science that studies the causes and effects of diseases in a certain country. “Many people think epidemiology is all about the flu and infections but it goes much deeper than that,” she says. “In KSA, there are some areas that we need to address. I was interested in obesity. At the time, we studied the percentage of obesity among school children and found that they were similar to North American children. Once they [children in KSA] become older, they exceed American children in weight,” she explains. So they try to identify the reasons behind that.
During her work at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, she was invited to participate in a project that studies mental and general health in the country. “Mental health is a growing global epidemic. It’s a silent epidemic and very little countries are prepared to deal with it.” To know what’s causing this illness that’s still considered a taboo in countless countries, the team working on the project, including herself, launched a “cutting edge modern survey” in partnership with Harvard and Michigan University.
Knock knock knocking on people’s doors
With the help of the Ministry of Interior, Health and the Census Bureau of Saudi Arabia, the team was able to get information on whom to interview and inform local municipalities of their physical presence. After training a team of interviewers on how to go to people’s doors and ask them for few minutes of their time, they were ready to start. “They [interviewees] might invite them in and sit down with them. Interviewers will use the laptop to show them questions on the screen with multiple choices. Meanwhile we in our headquarter office can monitor who is doing an interview and how many seconds they were between questions,” she explains.
Once the survey ends in 2015, all data will be compiled and analyzed to implement specific programs in Saudi Arabia. Many parties contributed in funding the project such as Abraaj Capital, King Saud University, SABIC (their biggest funder), the Ministry of Health and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, under the umbrella of Prince Salman Center for Disability Research.
Aside her daily job, Altwaijri sits on the board of Saudi Women in Science Committee, a network that brings women together to cooperate, connect and share best practices, she has been nominated by popular vote to be a member of Al-Nahda Philanthropic Organization, an NGO that empowers women, and was recently selected by the BBC to be among the 100 women who are changing the world around them. And in a time when women still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, “I’m a privileged person. I have a job that allows me to have a car and a driver. I can take my kids to school and do the errands,” she admits.
A day in the life of Yasmin Altwaijri
Altwaijri’s journey may seem all smooth and opportunistic, but it involves a lot of work, following up and coordination. Here's a glimpse at a day in her life, in her own words.
5:30 am: Wake up, always been an early riser. Pray then check my email and social media accounts.
7:00am: Quick meeting with one of my kids teachers before their classes start. This is the best time for me to discuss any aspect of their education, so I try to stay in touch with them every couple of weeks. And I usually do not need more than 15 minutes of straight to the point updates.
7:15am: On my way to work at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center. It’s a long drive, which means this is a good time to read emails, Twitter, blogs, new articles, and make phone calls.
8:00am: My first stop is the office of the Project Manager, to get an update on the health survey. We often run into unexpected situations which need to be resolved or modified during these morning meetings. Blessed to be part of the most dedicated and enthusiastic research team members. They make coming to work a pleasure to look forward to!
9-10am: Meet to discuss establishing a new Biobank. First of its kind in the country and has huge research potential.
10-11am: Meet with one of the epidemiology staff for their annual employee performance appraisal. Discuss performance and development goals for the next year. We truly value each individual in our department and try to ensure that they grow and develop their capacity with time.
11am-2pm: Blocked time for writing the Biobank proposal, initiating memos, reviewing drafts of our research progress reports or researching our next project. My office door remains open but I try to protect this time to finish these tasks.
2-3pm: Skype interview with a candidate for recruitment. I am always on the lookout for talented individuals, either for my own section or for others. Our work requires really high calibre graduates, so whenever we come across a top resume, we interview them quickly.
3-3:30pm: Walk to Starbucks or Dr. Cafe to grab a cappucino. I usually bump into a friend or one of our collaborators. This is also when my kids call me on their way back from school. We plan their schedule for the rest of the day and review homework and projects due.
4-5pm: Conference call with our collaborators at Harvard and University of Michigan Ann Arbor. They have a decade of survey research experience, so we consult with them on a weekly basis.
5pm: Leave the office; call my parents on my ride back home to check up on the family.
5:30pm: Arrived home, visit each one of my kids in their room. The time that I spend with my kids is so precious to me. I know they will leave to college some day soon.
6-7:30pm: Quality time with my family. Supervise homework, discuss their day at school. Dinner.
7:30-8pm: Exercise. Either treadmill, bike or yoga. I am a naturally sedentary person, so this is not my favorite activity of the day but I know it's not optional. I have to do this in order to be healthy. I read a book on my iPad to keep me distracted. Right now I am reading the Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. The novel is based in Istanbul, one of my favorite cities.
8pm: Rest with a cup of Jasmin green tea and watch the House of Cards, Suits, and Downton Abbey.
9:00pm: Tonight I have an event to attend as part of my responsibility as a member of the board of Al-Nahda Philanthropic Organization. Return early and get ready for work the following day.
Photos Credit: Arab News and BBC respectively.