Nomination to global shortlist of influential women a happy surprise to U of A alumna

Mais Aljunaidy, ’18 PhD, recognized by Athena40 for inspiring young women to pursue their academic goals.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 08 March 2021

Mais Aljunaidy, ’18 PhD, was shocked to discover she is on a shortlist of 120 of the most forward-thinking, influential women from all over the world, rubbing shoulders with such internationally renowned figures as Greta Thunberg, Amal Clooney and Oprah Winfrey.

“I was so surprised! I’ve always thought I’m just a normal, ordinary person, but I’m happy to know that I’m inspiring the people around me,” says Aljunaidy, who was nominated to the inaugural Athena40 Global List in the category of “women-led solutions,” which recognizes scientists, academics, doctors and social entrepreneurs whose work is pioneering in improving people’s lives.

The Global List aims to raise the profile of new female role models around the world, and Aljunaidy was shortlisted by the organization’s team of 58 international judges for inspiring young women from developing countries to achieve the highest level of education.

Syrian-Canadian Aljunaidy was born and raised in Syria, whose conservative society is not typically supportive of young girls’ ambitions toward higher education, she explains. But, with the encouragement of her family and her own unstoppable enthusiasm for science, Aljunaidy grew up to become a physician and obtain both a master’s degree from Manchester University and a PhD from the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology here in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

“I always loved science and I always wanted to publish things that everyone in the world could read and benefit from,” says Aljunaidy. She cites her mother, a teacher, as her strongest role model, always pushing her to study hard and do her best.

Support and encouragement from role models have always been key to Aljunaidy’s success, and helped her balance a very busy life. When she arrived in Edmonton to begin her PhD she had one son, and during the five years she was pursuing the degree her family with husband Mohamad Nadim Adi, an architect and interior designer, grew to include two more boys.

“Of course, it’s not easy,” she says with a laugh. “It’s hard to balance family and work.” Aljunaidy has never been afraid to ask for what she needs and draw clear boundaries between work and fun, and even though she doesn’t have daughters to inspire, she’s proud to have shown her sons from an early age the example of a strong, confident woman who speaks her mind and loves her work as much as she loves her family.

“In my home, it’s established that males and females are equal; both have the right to work and to study,” she says. “When I have work, I make it clear that I need my space and our children learned early to respect this.” And when work time is over, Aljunaidy is fully present to her boys, taking them to soccer, celebrating birthdays and spending quiet time with them at bedtime.

Aljunaidy worked in Sandra Davidge’s lab during her PhD, focusing on the lifelong effects of pregnancy complications on the cardiovascular health of children. But during maternity leave after graduation she began to ponder a completely different path.

Her husband, Mohamad Nadim Adi, an architect and interior designer, was working on building codes for people suffering with dementia. With up to half of the world’s population suffering with anxiety or depression, Aljunaidy—also a physician with experience working in mental health and some research in schizophrenia—wondered if there might be a way to address those issues through improved building codes.

The built environment has the power to trigger or prevent mental-health problems, she says. Sudden loud sounds and tight spaces can induce panic attacks in PTSD sufferers; people with dementia can mistake shadows for holes in the floor, making a trek down a shadowy hallway a terrifying prospect. And, with the ongoing pandemic, this is an area of research that has become even more timely, with so many people working in spaces at home that were not designed for productivity or clear thinking.

Aljunaidy and her husband are now at Turkey’s Bilkent University, working on how to improve mental health through the physical environment. “There are so many small features that we think are OK, but they are not OK for everyone—and they are so easy to change,” she says.

To Aljunaidy, her pivot from pregnancy complications to building codes and mental health represents the wonderful interdisciplinary possibilities in research. “In science, you can always connect a lot of disciplines,” she says. “There are always bridges.” It also fulfils her in a deep and meaningful way. “If I can save someone’s life, help them have better mental health, that means everything to me; it’s all I want,” she says.

Being recognized as a role model to young women also means the world to Aljunaidy. Her career path sets a shining example of how to approach health research—with a curious mind, open to where opportunity leads and always with the goal of improving lives.

When asked what she would say to a young girl growing up, as she did, in a society that offers few options for female success, Aljunaidy says, “Look for support. Just one person can be enough to give you the courage you need. Never be afraid to say what you need and what you want. If you have a family, and you want to pursue your work, don’t let anyone tell you you have to choose. You can do both. Be brave.”