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Mental Health in Academia| Naziha Mroueh and the challenges of looking different

Intro: Hello, my name is Andreia Correia and I am part of LYRIS, an online advanced training school and we invite you to

Re-Think Science with us.

In this first series of our podcast, we aim to open a discussion about Mental Health and Academia as a way to reflect on the current academic research culture and how it affects each one of us.

Hang your lab coat and come with us!

AC: Hello everyone, welcome to the very first episode of Re-Think Science podcast by LYRIS.

Today, we have Naziha Mroueh.

Naziha comes from Lebanon, and she is currently doing her PhD in Germany. Coming from the Middle East to Europe and being religious can, unfortunately, still bring extra challenges even in the academic background.

Hi Naziha!

NM: Hi Andreia!

AC: Thank you so much for accepting our invitation for this podcast.

NM: Thank you for having me. It is my pleasure to participate in such a nice, new and revolutionary podcast for science.

AC: Thank you for saying that. Could you start by giving us a brief summary of your path?

NM: Of course! So, I finished high school in 2013. Something like this. Then, I did my bachelors in Lebanon in the Lebanese University, which is a public university in the capital of Beirut, where I studied Biology. Then, I did the first year in masters, it was Applied Biological Sciences. Which is more or less of a general master so that you can specialize further in the second year of masters. At the time I decided that I might want to consider opportunities to go abroad because I wanted to do a PhD. I decided to go to France, to a city called Montpellier, in the South, where I studied Cancer Biology as a part of an international masters. So, I spend about a year and a half in France and after that I came to Germany to do the PhD in Genetics, in Cologne.

AC: Where we met.

NM: Yes.

AC: So, starting from the beginning. Why did you take the decision to leave Lebanon for your masters? So, why couldn't you pursue your dreams in Lebanon?

NM: So, as you might imagine, that in a country like Lebanon, the resources for science and for doing research are very much limited. If you really want to pursue a PhD, you would have to do it abroad, because you just have labs that are not equipped to support scientists or to support any extensive research, or you have to go (I don't know) to a private university, which would be insanely expensive. So, I had basically my goal set that I want to do a PhD, and if you want to do a PhD or if you want to guarantee at least to have a chance to be chosen as a candidate for the PhD, you should do your masters abroad. At the time I was seeing that in Lebanon shots are not so good and maybe things are not so much fair, so, I decided to take my destiny into my own hands. I was checking online for masters that would be English and that would be international, and I saw this masters that was being advertised as international master in Cancer Biology. I contacted the director, and we had an interview, and it went very well. I also applied to a fellowship. I got the fellowship and I decided that I would go to France and study Cancer Biology.

"I decided to take my destiny into my own hands" - NM

AC: So, in France what were the biggest challenges that you had to face? So, it is a big transition coming from Middle East to Europe. Language barriers, cultural barriers… How was this transition for you? How difficult was for you to adapt?

NM: Of course, when you move to a different country that, you know moving by itself especially to a different continent, is a huge challenge. But my main challenge, I would say, is that I obviously come from a religious background. I wear the scarf and I was going to a country, which is clearly secular and everything. You are not allowed to show signs of any religion when you are working in public institutions, and that includes research or if you are working for the university. So, the first thing I realized was that my chances to find an internship would not be as easy as I thought, and my obstacle was that I was a religious person. It was not really a scientific obstacle I would say.

AC: So, which kind of problems did you have during your applications?

NM: My first problem was to find an internship. So, I went there and I was going to do 2 semesters. The first one would be the theoretical part, during which the students are supposed to do interviews and go to a lab where they want to do their master thesis. As I started applying to labs and doing interviews or talking to researchers, I realized that my scarf is a huge obstacle, and they cannot accept me simply because I'm wearing it. So, there is this one time that I was invited to an interview. It was my very first interview, I remember. It happened to be at the hospital because there, especially in cancer biology, you have a lot of labs inside hospitals. I went to the lab, I met with the researcher, I met with the team, we spent almost an hour discussing. He showed me the lab, everything was going so well, until at the end he told me “I think you're a good student, but I have the problem that you are wearing the scarf. As you can see that we are literally inside of the hospital, so you simply cannot be here”. And he said “I'm sorry but there's nothing I can do about it. You have to find a lab somewhere else”. Of course, at that time I was very shocked. I was very disappointed because then I felt that I'm losing the chance, I might lose the chance of finishing my academic year, which for me at the time was a nightmare. I left my country, and I had a purpose and I've always been working towards a goal. I never had at that time where I had doing nothing because it was out of my own hands. There's nothing I could do about it. And that was very scary.

AC: And frustrating, I guess, because it limited what your choices as well. So, you came to have choices and in the end your choices were very funneled.

NM: Exactly.

AC: So, first of all, did you have a picture in your applications? How did the process of application, so, if I guess if the person would have saw your picture before wouldn't even have invited to this interview? Or how did it go?

NM: Yes, so at the beginning I didn't really have my picture on my CV because I thought that maybe that would minimize my chances. I'm not sure, actually I think at the beginning I had my picture, and I wasn't getting interviews too much, and after this one interview I realized that this could be the reason. So, I removed my picture and then I started getting you know responses at least and invitations for up interviews: I had the international background, I showed very well proficiency in English and I was really trying to write the professional cover letter and was really trying to write a professional CV. And I was not understanding why am I not even getting an interview. It didn't make sense to me at the beginning, but then I realized and, indeed, when I removed my picture I started getting interviews.

"I removed my picture and then I started getting you know responses at least and invitations for up interviews" -NM

AC: So, nobody prepared you for this, even the person that was responsible for the masters?

NM: I mean, I did hear about it before I went to France, of course because it was a bit known. But I chose this international master because it was really aimed at people from outside of Europe, specifically. And the fellowship that they got was specifically for people from outside of Europe to help them progress in science. And when I actually did the interview with the director of the master, I specifically asked her this, and she said that it shouldn't be a problem. I mean even the director herself (I think she wasn't French even maybe that's why) she didn't like emphasis too much on it. And after I started sending out the applications, and getting very few responses, I actually had another discussion with her and she said that I'm aware, but I do not think that you will not find the lab. I'm sure that you will find the lab, you just need to keep looking. And it's actually what I did.

AC: And how did it go?

NM: Of course, I didn't stop applying for labs but I was also very much lucky enough to find a lab, which it was an excellent lab that hosted international students all the time. They even had many students, before, that came from Lebanon and they wear the scarf. So, they were completely cool with it. I never felt that there was the slightest discrimination because they were just used to it. And I ended up having a very nice time. I learned a lot from the lab and I maintain my relationship with most of the people in the lab until today.

AC: I also see a problem here. I don't know if you want to comment about it or not. The problem here is not your religious background, it is the fact that you show it because you wear the scarf. But who wears the scarf are women not the men. So, in your case, a student coming from Lebanon that would be a male, wouldn’t have such problems.

NM: Exactly. It's just that the people see you wearing the scarf and they automatically have this idea that you're oppressed. They don't know you, they don't know anything about your country. I bet that if you ask them to point your country on the map, they will not be able to do it my. And they would even disregard that you are a highly educated person. You move to another continent completely by yourself at a very young age, and they stick to the stereotype. Why? Because you're a woman. I mean, I think if you would dedicate like 10 minutes to talk to the person, you can easily realize whether this person is closed minded or not. I hope that I don't give this impression after conversations.

"You move to another continent completely by yourself at a very young age, and they stick to the stereotype. Why? Because you're a woman." - NM

AC: So, you finished your masters and then you decided to move to Germany. Was this decision, of moving country again, because you had this experience in France or you have other reasons to do it as well.

NM: I would say that as I said at the beginning, I went to France and the idea of pursuing a PhD was always in my head. And as I started applying to labs, for the master thesis, I realized that my road would be filled with obstacles, and I started perceiving how the PhD applications would go. And then I was immediately confronted with the realization that my chances of finding a PhD contract in France is very hard. So, I have to start looking somewhere else, and I have to apply to other countries. Yes, it was a bit scary because it meant that, yet again, I had to go through everything again: moving to a foreign country again, not knowing anyone again, foreign language again. It was very frustrating for me, but I really wanted to do a PhD. I couldn't just give up on it because I just have to move again. When you really want something, you have to work hard for it. And of course, Germany is very well known for its opportunities, especially in this scientific domain, and compared to France, where the chances are very much limited because the funding is very much limited and you have a lot of very good people who at the end just don't have a position. It's just the way it is. So, if you wanted to pursue research, you have to expand your circle of looking.

AC: Yeah, I have to say that it's really admirable. You never thought that Lebanon would stop you, France would stop you…

NM: Actually, you just reminded me, indeed. I don't know that if you may know this or not, but you have a lot of people from Lebanon going to France to do their studies. So, when I went to France I had, what you say like, a group of people who helped me. I had the girl who picked me from the airport and, because I didn't speak French, she really helped me. Because you have this Institute Français that sends students there, and there is a lot of Lebanese students there. When I started considering moving to Germany my parents were completely against it. They said: “you will be completely on your own, no, you're not allowed”. I said “I don't care, I'm applying if I find a position I'm moving to Germany, full stop”.

AC: I see how oppressed you are.

NM: Yes!

AC: Which struggles do you still go through, and which mechanisms did you find to defend yourself from them? And how does that then affect your daily life? Because you are doing a PhD.

NM: As a religious woman in science, who is like in your face screaming “I'm religious”, you can imagine that, just simply by existing or just by standing, you trigger a lot of people. Some people would feel the need to make certain comments or to challenge your intelligence just because you are religious. They might themselves believe in some spirituality, but you being religious is offending them in some reason. And you never avoid getting comments like: “religious people are sheep or something”. Well, you are not even engaging in a discussion with them. You're just simply passing by, doing some experiment, going to get a glass of water, and someone decides today is the day I want to force discussion about religion. So, you can imagine that this can interrupt the flow of your day, or your flow of thoughts, or your peace. This used to affect me a lot. I would immediately be very angry, and, you know, insulted or something. And then, I realized that it's just ruining my mood, the other person doesn't care. They are just doing it probably to purposely to ruining my mood. So now, I just ignore it. If I didn't initiate any discussion, it doesn't concern me. Your ideas just reflect back on you, and you can discuss with yourself. People don't realize that we all have our boundaries and not everyone tolerates things to the same level. I'm sure that people that makes these kinds of comments would not tolerate you making any comments towards them.

"As a religious woman in science, who is like in your face screaming “I'm religious”, you can imagine that, just simply by existing or just by standing, you trigger a lot of people" - NM

AC: You also referred to the term intelligence. Do you think that from being religious people judge your intelligence in science, in scientific environment?

NM: Of course!

AC: Because science and religion cannot coexist?

NM: Yes! I think the first thing people tell you is like “how the hell do you believe in these things?”. Yes, but my friend you also believe in horoscopes, and you tell me about horoscopes the whole day. So, at the end we're just people. No? I mean, we study biology but do we really know the origin of life on earth? Does everybody know? Do we have questions for all their answers? Do we have answers to all questions? No.

AC: Were you trying to justify yourself in the beginning or you never tried this? Or you just were getting angry?

NM: I have to say that it very much depends on the day, because there are days when you're just completely mentally strained. I mean, you're doing a PhD, you're overwhelmed, you have so much and then you have someone that comes and try to provoke you in another way. You just don't want to deal with people, or you would be extremely frustrated, and you just decide to socially cut off these people. And there are days when you're like: ok, I will show you that you are not more intelligent than me. But, at the end, the approach that I'm currently following is that this is my decision, and you need to mind your own business. If you're genuinely interested in knowing, I'm more than happy to answer you, but if your sole purpose is to provoke me then, you know, better luck next time. If we want to know a thing, I think that it's very easy for us to look things up. I don't think it is that hard. We are researchers. When I have a question about something, I either go to a person where I know that they are willing to answer me, or I look it up myself, and then I try to verify my information. People can do better things with their time, especially when you're doing a PhD, I have to say.

AC: So, what would you tell now to the Naziha, in the dorm, in Beirut, with hopes and dreams to go do a PhD someday?

NM: I would tell her that she took all the right steps. She shouldn't regret going abroad, doing a PhD. Because it made her a better person, it made her a mature person, it introduced her to so many cultures and so many mentalities around the world that, you know, in Lebanon she wouldn't have never interacted with. I would tell her that she should keep going because we have a saying that she crossed 2/3 of the way already, so she's close to the finish line. I think now she's a much better scientist and she can produce good science or better science than her younger self. I think it's worth it to keep going.

AC: And finishing in an even more positive note: what is a good day for you in the lab?

NM: A good day for me in the lab… I would say that if my experiments work it's an amazing day, but on normal occasions, I would say that the day where I can accomplish something, no matter how small, that would, you know, accumulate to my progress, then it's a very good day. If people try to not interrupt as I execute my experiments, then that's amazing.

AC: Thank you very much Naziha.

NM: Yeah, it was my pleasure!

AC: Thank you all for listening and come back to the next one. Bye!

NM: Bye bye!

AC: If you are interested in this topic and want to know more about how academics cope with mental health issues, subscribe to our channel. And if you have a story to share with us, contact us through our social media or email. You can find all the links on our home page Thank you for listening and we hope to see you next week.

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