Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Bringing Science to Afghan Women

By Stephen Luntz

In her spare time, cancer researcher Nouria Salehi runs an Afghan restaurant as well as programs to teach science to the women of Afghanistan.

Some scientists may feel burdened as they race to discover the cure for a disease or reveal a threat to the planet. However, few can compare with Dr Nouria Salehi, who is trying to find better ways to diagnose cancer while also changing the fortunes of perhaps the world’s most suffering nation.

Salehi grew up in an Afghanistan that was poor yet showed few signs of the troubles to come. She says she was “interested in maths and physics from an early age, and also a bit in chemistry.” At 11 she was already showing great promise in maths and, when ready for university, needed to decide between science and medicine.

While medicine was her preference, she was offered a scientific scholarship she felt she could not turn down. “I was the only woman in physics classes of maybe 15, but I was always working with the men,” Salehi says. “There were no problems, no one discouraging me. Everything was sharing; we worked in the labs together.”

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Salehi went to France where she did her Masters and PhD. While there, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and her return became impossible. “My brothers were in Australia, and they wanted to get my parents out. It was easier to bring people to Australia than France, so I moved here and was then able to bring my parents over.”

Salehi did not stop there. She opened the Afghan Gallery restaurant, introducing most of its customers to Afghan food and culture for the first time.

However, there was another purpose. The need for chefs and waiters allowed Salehi to get visas for 35 Afghan families over the years, many of whom would probably not have survived without her assistance.

Salehi ran the administration and finances for the restaurant at night, with her brothers managing it while she worked for Melbourne Health during the day. She also found time to campaign for a ban on anti-personnel landmines.

Now a senior scientist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Salehi says that while all her work is in the diagnosis of disease it has “two different parts, both applying physics to medicine”. She says one line of study is “the diagnosis of inflammation from analysis of white blood cells” to allow more accurate targeting of the location of inflammation sites, while the other looks at better ways of using radioactive isotopes for cancer detection.

Salehi says the cancer work has been slowed by her other activities, but she is determined to see it through. “When it is finished I will retire,” she says. The retirement would still be more work than most people manage at their peak.

In 2002 Salehi visited Afghanistan for the first time since leaving and saw the devastation. “There was no infrastructure,” she says, so she established The Afghan Australian Development Association, which has since raised $1.9 million to provide education where it is most needed.

AADA’s first project was to train science teachers, Salehi having observed that the limited pool of teachers Afghanistan had left knew little about science. It now also has a program teaching what Salehi calls “life skills” to women in rural Afghanistan and men in Kabul.

“So far we have trained 1700 teachers,” says Salehi, but her goal is 140,000. “We have had 950 women finish the life skills course, but it will be 1080 soon. We teach ten women in each village, first literacy then trades.” Many of the women have used what they have been taught to establish businesses.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the Taliban’s hostility to women’s education, the AADA’s programs have not drawn threats of violence, let alone actual attacks. “We keep a low profile, staying away from TV and radio, and so far this has kept us safe,” Salehi says. “But tomorrow that may change.”

The Afghan government has welcomed her efforts, with the deputy minister for education hugging her when she proposed the idea of training science teachers.

The profile may be deliberately low in Afghanistan, but in Australia Salehi is doing her best to raise it. Just 0.2% of AADA’s funding comes from government sources, so prominence helps attract donations.

In 2012 Salehi was Victorian Senior Australian of the Year, which enabled her to talk to many groups she might not otherwise reach. “Some audiences could not believe what they saw in my Powerpoint presentation,” she says. “That Afghan women were studying science.”