Maryam Heba describes herself as a Muslim woman from the Middle East, a first-generation immigrant to Canada, a graduate from the Honours Life Sciences Program at McMaster University, an advocate for women in science, and someone who is passionate about combining science, art, and storytelling. Naturally, we wanted to speak with Maryam and learn more about her experiences!
The following conversation took place virtually in September 2020.
Understorey Magazine: You recently graduated from a university science program. During your studies, did you experience any difficulties or challenges related to being a woman and/or a woman of colour?
Maryam Heba: I would say it’s more complex than that. During my studies at university, I did not notice any major challenges as a result of being a Muslim woman. I do have stories from when I was younger. During my first year in a Canadian school, when I was ten, no one could believe that someone from the Middle East could speak English so well. Another time, a classmate insisted that I could not speak “Egyptian” because I could not understand the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in a Social Studies documentary.
Silly childhood stories aside, I have to say that being the child of first-generation immigrants is an incredibly complex position to be in. The sacrifices that were made by my parents are immeasurable: family and friends, decades of career achievements, and lots and lots of money. Add to that the discomfort of moving to a country where they could not connect with the language, religion, culture, or even the food. They made these sacrifices just to make sure that I have a better life.
My father insisted that I become a doctor so that I would have a successful future—the reason he came to this country. I took the responsibility to make my parents proud very seriously. It truly felt like a loan that I had to repay. This repayment, however, came at the expense of my mental health and independence.
My life became fully focused on school. I participated in very few extracurriculars. When I scored 95 on a science quiz, I was told I needed to work harder. And so, I placed unattainable expectations on myself and fully believed that if I did not ace that next test, my future was over. At one point in second year of university, I hyperventilated in the shower hoping to pass out so I wouldn’t have to take a test. Everyone knew me as the intelligent kid who would make a great doctor someday. But the further I walked in life, the less I wanted to become a doctor. I knew I wanted to genuinely help people and do something that I truly enjoyed, but being a doctor checked only one of those boxes.
As my father would not take no for an answer, I signed up for the MCAT. Twice. The first year, I cancelled my appointment because I could not get myself to study. Keep in mind, I graduated from a Life Sciences program, where I had already studied a lot of this material. I am no stranger to spending hours on end preparing for a test. Yet I was immensely stressed about the MCAT and my brain just kept rejecting the material. I am not a person who gives up easily, though, and I signed up for the following year of testing. Again, I could not study and I was not ready. But I wrote the test to show that I went, and I voided my test results. At that point, I realized that I would not go to medical school anytime soon and I had zero plans for after I graduated from my degree. I felt pressure to continue school in any type of Masters program, but this did not feel right. So, I took a leap of faith and a gap year. God was it thrilling!
UM: How did you spend your gap year?
MH: The gap year went against every single value my father had drilled into me for the previous twelve years. I was in uncharted territory: school-free. Looking back, I used my time wisely. I got my first official job (I was not allowed to work while I was in school), which helped me pay off my student loans and develop a lot of soft skills that I had missed out on. I was also fortunate enough to start therapy and had the privilege of travelling to Amsterdam. This was the first time I had travelled since I had landed in Canada thirteen years prior and I was able to bond with my extended family there.
I also started volunteering for Lotus STEMM. This organization was founded by Dr. Roopali Chaudhary and provides mentoring and networking opportunities for South Asian women in science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine. Lotus STEMM is run by a team of scientists, healthcare professionals, engineers, and educators. They currently offer a wonderful one-on-one mentorship program where youth (at least 16 years of age) and women can find guidance on professional skills and personal goals as well as meet other mentees. They also started a Lotus STEMM-CAGIS chapter for South Asian girls (ages 9-16) for hands-on STEM outreach.
So, in other words, during my gap year, I went on a journey to find myself. Throughout this journey, I realized that I do not need to become exactly what my father wanted me to become. I still greatly respect his sacrifices to bring me to Canada. But, I also know that no one can live my life except me. I have faith in a future where my father sees me fulfilled and successful, in my own way, and knows that his sacrifices were worth it.
Now I am in my second gap year after my undergrad degree and I am continuing my work in science communication. In addition to Lotus STEMM, I have participated in the Global Science Show on Twitter and have recently started volunteering with Art The Science, a non-profit organization founded by Julia Krolik, which just so happens to be fully run by women! We host residencies in which artists can immerse themselves in a science research lab and then create beautiful artwork that we feature on our platform. We also feature many Canadian and international science-art creators on our amazing blog (#5 blog in Canada via Feedspot!) and on our online SciArt gallery.
I am also looking into pursuing teaching in the long run. I’ve always had a passion for teaching. I see it as perfect career where I can communicate science and directly help people as well. I am so excited to see what the future brings!
UM: Most of your work these days focuses on science communication. Is there a point when you realised this is what you want to do?
MH: I’ve always had an inclination towards science and art. In high school I maintained my creative outlet through communication technology classes, where I learned video-making, design, photography, and so on. However, I did not directly connect science and art until my last year of undergrad, when I took a wonderful class at McMaster called Science & Storytelling. There, my professors encouraged us to let go of rigid scientific rules. They led us into a creative journey of translating hard-cold scientific evidence into intriguing, creative, and human stories. That class was truly an epiphany in my career. From there, I took it upon myself to fill my last semesters with science communication classes—and I finally felt like I was taking these classes for me, not anyone else.
UM: Why do you think this field is important, especially for women and women of colour?
MH: It is important for women and women of colour to engage in science communication because they provide a diverse representation of science, thus making it accessible to underrepresented populations. A project I’m working on with Lotus STEMM improves the accessibility to science by tackling a health equity barrier: language. Due to language barriers, some communities may not connect as well with information from a local English news source as they would from a WhatsApp chain message in their native language. We tackled this issue by translating scientific knowledge about COVID-19 into over ten South Asian languages, along with other minority languages like Arabic. We then presented this information in an engaging video series. I created mixed media clips for these videos, and produced the Arabic version of the scripts. Our videos received positive reception from South Asian communities and the media. With science communication, we give a voice to underrepresented populations, including women and women of colour. Whether by telling their stories or by delivering scientifically accurate information, we help create a more equitable life for all.