Five centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, men still dominate STEM fields. But women’s contributions to science have gained ground, a 2022 study suggests.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we celebrate a few of Khalifa University’s many outstanding women who are helping to break barriers.


“Women should always remember that there are numerous examples of highly successful women who have excelled despite challenges, serving as leaders in their respective fields. Importantly, many have successfully balanced their careers and family life,” says Anna Maria Pappa, assistant professor of the Department of Biomedical Engineering & Biotechnology.

Pappa, who has a Ph.D. from École des Mines de Saint-Étienne in France, leads the on-chip/biosensors group focused on developing cutting-edge technologies for next-generation miniaturized sensors with applications in health care and environmental science.

Pappa credits her decision to leave her home in Greece to study abroad with being a risk-taker.

CAPTION: Anna Maria Pappa

Her reward: meeting and working with people from all over the world. “Creativity thrives in diverse environments, ultimately leading to progress,” she says.

During her time at Cambridge University, she served as a science ambassador, visiting schools to embolden girls to chase STEM careers. She believes that “the dominance of males in key senior positions contributes to a lack of female role models and a scarcity of a female mindset.”

CAPTION: Anna Maria Pappa labwork

Pappa’s advice to young women is to remain open, never underestimate their abilities and don’t be deterred by stereotypes. She also credits her success with surrounding herself with a strong support system of successful women and men.

Pappa is on the editorial board of several journals and has received multiple awards for her research, including the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award. She is listed among the MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 and has won several awards in entrepreneurship and innovation.


“Diversification is a protection against ignorance,” Warren Buffett once advised. While he was talking about investing, this advice is applicable across any industry — science included. And Elena Fantino agrees.

Fantino, an associate professor in aerospace engineering who holds an M.Sc in astronomy and a Ph.D. in space sciences and technologies, credits her new ideas these days to her unusual and diversified career path.

CAPTION: Elena Fantino

“My journey as a scientist has passed through different fields, disciplines and experiences. I started as an astrophysicist with a passion for celestial mechanics, then I became a space engineer. I worked in space-mission development. For some time, I worked as a software engineer in the private sector. Eventually, I returned to academia and specialized in satellite dynamics,” she says.

Fantino believes that education is at the base of inclusion and there is much work required to equalize the gender gap in STEM.

The solution, she says, is a shift in societal mindset, and that comes from hard work with campaigns, programs and incentives for girls and women. And these require dedicated action.

She also believes that Khalifa University is on the right track, but there’s always more that can be done.

“Khalifa University with its large female-to-male student ratio is leading this transformation, and we must be very proud of it. However, we need to hire more women faculty and researchers not only for their contribution to science and engineering, but also to inspire and encourage the younger generations through their example,” she tells KUST Review. “From my experience as an educator, I can say that female students are strongly inspired by women faculty and researchers. I can sense this in my lectures. Our girls see us as examples to follow because we reached where many of them would like to be. We show them that everything is possible despite the challenges.”

CAPTION: Trajectory looping around Enceladus, the moon of Saturn that became popular after the detection of vapor plumes emanating from its pole. This trajectory enables extended observations of the surface including the polar regions IMAGE: Elena Fantino

Fantino says her career path was inspired by one of her own teachers, and though she encountered gender bias, she credits maturity and experience with overcoming challenges.

Role models are also key to successful women in STEM, but not just to even out the numbers.

“For sure, we need to see more women in senior management roles, and not just as a means to ensure inclusion and fight gender inequalities. We need them because of the different perspectives and unique ideas that women can bring to those jobs,” she says.

Fantino specializes in space-mission analysis, space geodesy, space astrometry, celestial mechanics and astrodynamics and has participated in several mission projects. She has advised more than 40 graduate students and is a member of both the Astrodynamics Technical Committee of the International Astronautical Federation and the Space Dynamics Group of the Technical University of Madrid.

At Khalifa University, she leads the astrodynamics research group and participates in the activities of the Space Technology and Innovation Center.


When Lourdes Vega, director of the Research and Innovation Center on CO2 and Hydrogen at Khalifa University, spoke at EXPO 2020 to a group of secondary students, she asked them for the names of five male scientists. The answers came easily. But when she asked them to name five female scientists, the only name put forward was Marie Curie.

Curie, arguably the most famous female scientist of all time known for her work on the properties of radium as therapeutics and winner of two Nobel Prizes (physics and chemistry), is not a surprising answer. What is surprising is that she was the only answer.

Vega says she has had many experiences in her career in which being a minority stood out, but she also believes that doing what you love is the key to a rewarding life. And these choices should be made inherently. “Our girls and young women need to know that (a career choice) is a natural choice, depending on their curiosity and interests, and that they have an important voice. A scientific career is not easy, but it is very rewarding.”

Though science is highly competitive, Vega says most of her successes were when working in a team environment, and she says this is something women bring to STEM — a different perspective and collaboration.

CAPTION: Lourdes Vega receiving the Mohammed Bin Rashid Medal of Scientific Distinguishment for her contributions in clean energy and sustainable products IMAGE: MBR Academy of Scientists

Not everyone has the privilege of going to work every day to do what they love. But Vega knew from a very early age that science was her path.
And her path began in Seville, Spain, studying physics.

In a program with only 10 percent women, Vega says it didn’t take long before the fact that she was a woman was no longer an issue. Her capabilities spoke for themselves. She ultimately acquired a Ph.D. in physics and 30 years of experience in research, teaching, innovation and strategy in chemical engineering and materials science on three continents.

She has published over 230 papers in top journals, has 10 commercialized products, and six patents. She is known for applying fundamental science to the living world focused on clean energy and sustainable products, carbon capture and utilization, sustainable fuels, sustainable cooling systems and water treatment.

Vega has been recognized globally. She was selected in 2024 as one of the 60 impactful women in the Middle East driving sustainability and one of the top 100 Women Leaders in Spain. In 2020 she was awarded the Mohammed Bin Rashid Medal of Scientific Distinguishment for her clean-energy contributions. And this is only a handful of honors.

CAPTION: Lourdes Vega with postdoctoral students at Khalifa University IMAGE: Khalifa University

Representation matters, and for Vega, that means taking any opportunity to inspire and mentor young women. “I try to engage at all levels, first with the people next to me — undergraduate and graduate students — (and) with those collaborating with me — graduate students, postdocs, faculty and colleagues,” she says. Vega also worked in the UAE with the Spanish embassy and the Association of Scientists and Researchers on Women Have the Formula, highlighting the role of women in science.

To young women considering a career in STEM, Vega says, “believe in yourselves. Difficulties should not stop you from pursuing your dreams of being scientists. Even though there are difficulties there are always opportunities ahead and people willing to help and support. Work hard and be resilient. Science is not an easy profession but we can contribute to improving the quality of life of our people and also leave a better planet.”


“I believe that in our region (the Middle East), female scientists in STEM play an instrumental role in driving the innovation and science advancement, and I am optimistic that the future will be even brighter,” says Hessa Alfalahi, biomedical engineer, researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Khalifa University.

Alfalahi’s plan to contribute to that brighter future? She’s hoping to gear her research toward those who struggle with neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Early diagnosis and intervention are imperative with neuropsychiatric disorders to improve quality of life and manage complicated symptoms, but many diagnoses, like Parkinson’s, typically come after years of neurodegeneration. Alfalahi wants to get in front of it before it gets to this stage. Her research could also prove valuable for conditions like depression, which, according to the World Health Organization, affects 280 million people globally.

CAPTION: Hessa Alfalahi

She plans to use AI technology and smartphones.

“I aim to leverage AI algorithms for the detection of depression in the wild using smartphone typing data, i.e., the finger kinematics during typing captured as a series of timestamps of key presses and key releases,” she says.

Typing behavior might help detect psychomotor impairment and diagnose depression passively at an early stage, she adds.

She won the L’Oréal UNESCO Women in Science award for her work in 2022.

Alfalahi says taking an active role in science is the key to “mitigating evolving challenges in quality of life and the sustainable development of society.”

Alfalahi shares her research by publishing papers and participating in high-ranking international conferences. But she says she really enjoys interacting with the younger students at Khalifa University, sharing her experiences as she transitioned from student to researcher.

Alfalahi says she is grateful for the inclusive research environment at Khalifa University and hopes to share her vision with the women of the Middle East.

“The time is ripe now to take part in accelerating the research production and innovative solutions in all the scientific disciplines,” she tells KUST Review.

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