I have believed in the power of science since I was a child. When I was five years old, I had a little cat called Ginger and a small broken chair, which I converted into a small cave.
I made it my own little world. I spent hours and hours with Ginger inside this small cave. Spending time imagining about where science may go to in the future. The space, the moon. Also, I admired scientists and scholars who did something amazing for humanity.
They were my heroes. Sometimes I would dress like them. Yes, I used to sneak into my mom’s cupboard and put clothes on to try to look like them. Sometimes I wore a cardboard box on top of my head, thinking I was walking on the moon. I love exploring and learning.
I was lucky. I had a father who could teach me anything I wanted. One day I showed him the scientists and I asked him a question. Are they really human beings? My father answered, “Yes. Why are you asking?”
I said, “I wanted to be like them, but I cannot find anyone like them around.”
He replied, “They exist.”
“Hayat, with education and learning, you can do anything.”
“You can be one of them.”
So I loved school. School days were the happiest of my life. I know it’s weird, but it’s true. I wanted to be like my heroes, to make a difference in the world. So I asked my father after high school to send me to England to study to become a scientist. Because my lifelong passion is to make the impact of science more tangible for every human being in the world. I believe science and technology can solve many challenges: sustainability, poverty and, of course, climate change. But if I look from the heart, I recognize part of the world is deprived of the benefit of science and technology.
Why? It is not because of capability. We are all capable, as much as scientists. But we need to work hard to grow remarkable solutions to open and accept or encourage new, fantastic ideas. Take the Russian scientists, for example. They have a history of confidence.
Building fighter jets from wood, for example. Or the self-running magnetic engine of a Portuguese scientist. It’s true, they don’t come from the right place. They haven’t been to the right school. And they do come with risk. However, they remain truly startling ideas of imagination. So powerful. But we need to be more open to them. They could be right. I also didn’t go to a private school.
I didn’t have the chance to learn another language like English, for example. Or have the chance to see a real lab. I come from a traditional family with no extra luxury. Eight children, and I Ieft home all the way to England, a completely new environment, a huge risk, with no scientific background, and with no English, just to fulfill my dream to help the world. I remember, not long after I’d been in England, I went straight away to the admission office at the University of London.
I took with me a female translator. And I asked her to tell them that I want to do science. The lady at the admissions counter asked, “Do you have scientific qualifications?” The translator told me, and I said, “No, but how can I get them?” By this time, the lady started to ask, “Who wants to know?” When she realized it was me, she said, “No way, she doesn’t even speak English.” She asked the translator to tell me, “Ask her to go back home She’s crazy.” She didn’t know that was my nickname. I didn’t give up, I didn’t give up because I believe in the power of science and technology.
This was the inspiration that pushed me so strongly against many odds to work as hard as I needed, and be accepted at the best world universities like King’s College in London, Cambridge University, Oxford, MIT and Harvard. I really wanted to link science and society.
I really wanted to reach out to the hand of people. Science is already practical: cars, trains, airplanes. But I wanted to make science more practical and real for people. So I worked with Paper Diagnostics, a social innovation to manage healthcare in a developing world. As a scientist, me and my team, we had no clue how to take the idea from the lab into the market.
So my boss advised me to go to Harvard Business School so I can learn the commercial side of technology, and how to write a business plan, how to understand to translate the idea from the lab into a product. You can imagine as a scientist it was tough to be in a class with everybody speaking a different language than me. And I had to keep looking smart. I reached out to the right community for encouragement and support. And this happened when I was accepted as social innovation fellow and science fellow at PopTech.
What I found there is everybody speaking my language of social innovation. Thank God. Yet, when I left Harvard, I still felt the full potential of social innovation was not being achieved. Scientists are still fixed in their own careers Getting tenure, making publications.
I remember I had so many discussions with them. I said, “Science was born to solve problems, and we have many challenges.”
“Your talent, your gift could save lives, could clean water in Vietnam to help children. Could generate electricity in Africa so more people will have extra hours to study, to learn, to operate in a hospital.” I remember asking them to think more out of the box.