Samia Elfekih: Tunisian researcher in Antarctica for the first time

Samia Elfekih proudly waves the Tunisian flag over the frozen lands of the South Pole

Samia Elfekih is a biosafety researcher on a scientific expedition, becomes the first Tunisian to reach the South Pole.

In an interview with TunisianMonitorOnlie, she explained that the three-week expedition is part of the Homeward Bound Program, which supports women leaders in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

Samia Elfekih expressed her pride at being the first Tunisian woman to set foot on this extremely cold and isolated land, stressing the importance and necessity of supporting Tunisia’s public education system.

Samia Elfekih is currently based in Australia, where she works as part of a scientific team studying ways to combat infectious diseases that still claim many victims in many parts of the world.

Here is the Interview:

You are the first Tunisian woman to set foot in the frozen Antarctic. What are the goals of the trip? What did you discover during the trip?

The Homeward Bound Program is a year-long woman in a leadership program that culminates into a three-week expedition to Antarctica to raise awareness against climate change and emphasize the role played by women in fighting climate change and global warming. During this expedition, I discovered that the effects of global warming, pollution and the current state of our planet are more disastrous than I ever imagined or expected.

What did you discover during the trip? Describe the adventure, its pros and cons?

I discovered the beauty of nature, it is the first time in my life that I find myself in such breathtaking scenery. I remember going with our expedition team on a silent cruise on a zodiac navigating the glaciers and all we could see is water, ice and jumping penguins. It was a spiritual experience for me where I felt close to nature and I felt an incredible sensation of inner peace. I remember how during this silent cruise, I was reflecting on my purpose in my life, my future career orientation and how can I help to make of this world a better place to be and all suddenly, things became so clear in my head and I felt an incredible sensation of gratitude! I felt grateful for the people in my life: my family, my country of origin: Tunisia, the country that adopted me with open arms: Australia and all my mentors that helped me become a woman leader in my field of expertise.

 The expedition to the South Pole included 32 women researchers, are you the only Arab woman?

The Homeward Bound leadership program culminated in a three-week expedition to Antarctica that included 100 women from 33 nationalities around the globe. I am the first and only Arab woman that was selected for this high-prestigious program and I truly hope, I won’t be the last, I hope my participation will inspire more Tunisian and Arab women to join this adventure and enhance their leadership potential.

 You are currently working on the Health and Biosafety team in Australia, and you are one of the researchers who are fighting to eradicate infectious diseases such as malaria and various diseases caused by mosquito bites that affect the lives of millions of people in the world, tell us about this experience?

Why did you choose this scientific specialization?

I am a scientist and science is driven by two principles: curiosity and a strong drive to make an impact in this world. These two traits define who I am! I have always wanted to develop skills in research fields where I can make an impact in this world and build a legacy. Working on vector-borne diseases means helping bring solutions to health problems affecting hundreds of millions of people around the world and alleviate human suffering.

 What are Samia Elfekih’s scientific concerns and what are your ambitions in this field?

I am worried that the world continues to ignore the alarming effects of climate change because we don’t have a plan B, this is the only planet we have and we should take massive action to protect it and adapt to global warming effects and make sure it doesn’t become worse.

 What are the diseases that most provoke you and you are always looking for radical solutions? Do you think we are in a healthy developed world?

 Vector-borne diseases are my biggest concern. I started my career as an entomologist and I know that mosquitoes are very dangerous pests capable of transmitting a wide range of diseases. With increasing effects of climate change, the spread of mosquitoes is also on the rise which means diseases like dengue fever and malaria can spread faster around the globe. Nowadays, with such lack of equality and increasing poverty, lack of effective policies to address global warming, we are witnessing a world with decaying public health especially in the least developing countries.

Tell us about your beginnings in Tunisia, your studies, your observations, your hobbies, did you study in private or public schools, and does public education in Tunisia enable students to reach advanced levels of education?

I studied in public schools in Tunisia and I come from a family that worships education. My mother is a teacher of mathematics, my dad is an engineer. My parents raised me and my two sisters. I became an international scientist and my sisters are also women leaders, a bank manager and a medical doctor. In my family, we were raised to embrace challenges and treat people around us with respect, kindness and empathy. I remember I went through hardships in my life and at some point, and this was a challenge that made me appreciate what I have achieved now. I was very lucky to have had amazing professors and teachers in Tunisia who believed in me and wanted to me to succeed and become who I am today. I know they are very proud of me and my achievements.

 I love reading, I read in an average of three books a week between fiction, philosophy or business development books. I am also passionate about modern art and always make sure to attend art exhibitions especially that I travel a lot between Melbourne, New York, London and Tokyo. I was very lucky recently; I had the opportunity to see the famous Edward munch painting the scream during a business trip to Tokyo. My favourite artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat and I never miss a chance to attend an art exhibition when I have a chance especially if it is about neo-expressionism.

 I believe the younger generations of Tunisian students can go far if as mentioned earlier, they adopt the right mindset from the beginning. If they focus on being constructive and focus on building something bigger than their own personal ambitions, then positive change will start to happen and the whole community will benefit from it.

 Let us imagine that you are the Minister of Education. What are the first changes you are making to advance the field of education?

I will strongly build a culture of unity, empathy and team spirit. Everything starts with building the right mindset and the younger generations of Tunisian scientists and entrepreneurs need to understand that they are working to build something that is bigger than them, they need to be aware that building a legacy, promoting Tunisia and the MENA region comes first and subsequently they will fulfil their personal ambitions. We need to change the individualistic mindset to a more team-oriented vision of the future of science and education in Tunisia. This change in mindset goes deeper than just raising the Tunisian flag or simply saying that we love our country, it goes beyond words and needs to translate into a massive change in everyday behaviour. On another level, I would also promote fields of study that rely on manual skills and high technical expertise, I think it’s about time for the younger generations of Tunisia to understand that these careers (manual work) is highly needed and they should use these skills to build startups and promote the culture of entrepreneurship that is already very strong in Tunisia.

 We bring you back to the South Pole. What are your most important discoveries?

I had the opportunity to discover the natural landscape and the diversity of penguins, birds, seals and whales in Antarctica. It was also great to visit the Argentinean and Chinese research stations.

How did you deal with the low temperature? How did you spend your time while on the ship during the discovery trip?

We were advised on specific clothing clear suitable for Antarctica climate, so I was well prepared for the expedition. Our time on the ship was divided between attending leadership training sessions with our facilitators and also getting to know other women leaders from other countries. I had the great opportunity to meet a medical doctor from New Zealand, she is a Maori (the indigenous population of New Zealand). It was an incredible opportunity to learn more about Maori people and their customs, their culture. I also shared a cabin with an American captain in the army; she is a hurricane chaser and an incredible woman leader. I learned a lot from these women’s leadership stories and this trip transformed me!

Australia’s fires and animal deaths, what is the effect of this on humans?

Apart from losing biodiversity and creating disequilibrium in the ecosystem on the long term, the bushfires in Australia are causing a serious problem of air pollution, increased morbidity in smoke-affected regions and subsequently affecting the carbon cycle. They indirectly affect the physical and mental health of Australian populations that will be trying to build again the infrastructure lost during the bushfires.

TunisianMonitorOnline (Interviewed by Douha Essaafi)

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