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Her nutrition research is making an impact despite challenges in Middle East

July 13, 2023

By Ian Evans

Dr Haneen Dwaib with a microscope in her lab at Palestine Ahliya University, where she is Chairwoman of the Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics department.

“If you believe in the power of research and if you contribute to humanity, eventually your work will be seen and valued.” — Haneen Dwaib, MPH, PhD, Chairwoman of Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, Palestine Ahliya University; winner of a 2023 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award

Like many researchers, Dr Haneen Dwaibopens in new tab/window wants to make a difference, and she’s finding ways to do that despite the challenges she and her colleagues face.

Having done her PhD in Lebanon at the American University of Beirutopens in new tab/window and now conducting research in Palestine, Haneen is familiar with all the usual challenges of research — credible data, chasing funding, “publish-or-perish” attitudes — compounded by revolutions, occupation, escalating financial inflation, and of course a global pandemic.

She’s also a major advocate of research from the Middle East and believes that the global research system undervalues its contributions: “Through all this in Lebanon and Palestine, we’ve managed to produce high quality, competitive research,” she said. “But it can be challenging to have that research taken seriously because we don’t have access to the same cutting-edge technology as Western researchers, so we need to find other ways to level up our game.”

As Chairwoman of the Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics department at Palestine Ahliya Universityopens in new tab/window, Haneen draws on her background in nutrition and public health to investigate dietary interventions, tackling obesity as a case of disguised hunger:

“I worked in Palestine the whole time I was doing my master’s in both clinical and public health settings, and I really wanted to do translational research,” she explained. “I wanted to advance interventional studies in nutrition in our region. We don’t have the funds to use advanced technology, and we can’t always afford long term research programs, so we look at other ways we can use research to address public health.”

Award-winning research

Some of Haneen’s colleagues do this through drug repurposing, mining data to identify drugs that have already been through clinical trials and which could be redeployed to tackle different health issues. Haneen’s work took her in a different direction as she investigated data that could lead to safe, cheap and effective interventions. That work — which focused on studying the gut microbiota to find non-invasive early detection biomarkers of premature cardiovascular dysfunction and adipose tissue inflammation in pre-diabetic laboratory rats — led to her winning a 2023 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World.

First awarded in 2013, the award is given in partnership by OWSD (Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World)opens in new tab/window and the Elsevier Foundationopens in new tab/window. OWSD convenes a panel of distinguished scientists to select the winners, and the Foundation awards a cash prize for each winner of USD $5,000, as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to attend a major international conference to give them visibility and vital networking opportunities — this time the 2024 Global Food Security conferenceopens in new tab/window. The winners will also have the opportunity to publish their work in STAR Protocolsopens in new tab/window, an open access, peer-reviewed journal from Cell Pressopens in new tab/window the publishes structured, transparent, accessible and repeatable step-by-step experimental and computational protocols from all areas of life, health, earth and physical sciences.

Photo of Dr Haneen Dwaib working in her lab at Palestine Ahliya University, where she is Chairwoman of the Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics department.

Dr Haneen Dwaib in her lab at Palestine Ahliya University.

The need for open data and diversity in research

Working with limited research funds means that Haneen and her colleagues draw on open data sets and open research. It also means Haneen is acutely aware of the limitations of datasets and the importance of diversity in research.

“Every race, every country has their specific circumstances when it comes to health and health research, especially when we talk about the gut biome,” she explained. Differences in diet between one country and another mean that data doesn’t always translate easily from one geography to another.

Haneen continued: “Because of that we need to have our own practical methods and means to study and implement research, we can’t rely solely on what is coming out of other countries on this topic. And we believe in making it open because we want this research to be translational, and therefore it needs to be accessible for the general population. We don’t always have access to the same funding or technologies as other countries, but we have to be able to do our own research.”

But funding for that research can be hard to come by, even when the requirements are low, Haneen said. “When I returned to Palestine last year, challenges were greater than they’ve ever been because we don’t have institutional research, we’re living under occupation and funders have different priorities. Even when I’m asking for $4,000 for our own research for a small project, you hear that it’s not a priority for funders, or they don’t want to fund clinical research here because they don’t realize we can do clinical research as well as we actually can.”

The downside of “publish or perish”

The challenges faced by certain countries are made more difficult by the competitive nature of global research, Haneen said.

“The emphasis on ‘publish or perish’ is unfair to be honest. It seems to me that it takes science from being something purposeful to just having to publish, to compete and just be there in the system. It leads a greater focus on whether you’re using some new tool or some new method, rather than the ideas that you’re solving or the challenges you are presenting.”

Haneen also noted that the publish-or-perish model can lead to behavior that diminishes confidence in research:

It can drive people to fabricate data — take the example of the Norwegian doctor Jon Sudbøopens in new tab/window, who had been forging data for 20 years in Norway, in one of the most affluent countries in the world. That’s the kind of thing that gets encouraged when the emphasis is on how much you publish.

The Confidence in Research initiative

Science and its practice are undergoing rapid change, from how scientists collaborate and conduct research to how it is disseminated and communicated. The pandemic appears to have accelerated some longer-term shifts: the urgency of the global health crisis spurred open science and data sharing with rapid evidence assessments, broadening access to research; effective, virtual collaboration among academic researchers and corporate R&D as well as interdisciplinary collaboration drove the extraordinary pace of innovation and breakthroughs. Elsevier’s survey findings from before the pandemic already suggest that scientists are finding it difficult to verify and validate research they encounter. The pandemic may have further exacerbated these pressures, making it harder for researchers to judge the reliability of research on which to build, and more complex and challenging to communicate their own research.   

To support the research community in navigating this new landscape and to understand the impact of the pandemic on confidence in scientific research, Elsevier launched this global Confidence in Research collaborationopens in new tab/window project in July 2022. The initiative includes a landmark global survey of 3,000+ researchers conducted by Economist Impactopens in new tab/window — Confidence in research: researchers in the spotlightopens in new tab/window — and proposes a set actions and interventions to support researchers in their efforts to advance knowledge that benefits society.

She also suggested that the system was weighted against researchers in countries that don’t have access to the latest tools and methods:

If I wanted to publish in a top journal, I would have no chance regardless of the quality of my research, or the quality of the ideas, because I don’t use transgenic mice or the latest technology. I think publishers have a role to play here — separating research that has innovative methods from research that has exciting ideas. And we need to take steps to ensure there’s no unconscious bias regarding where the research comes from, so that data from the Middle East or China is not somehow regarded as more suspicious.

“If you believe in the power of research …”

Despite the challenges, however, Haneen draws inspiration from the way that research can change lives.

“If you believe in the power of research and if you contribute to humanity, eventually your work will be seen and valued. It can be tough — I live in some of the most unjust and unfair domestic circumstances imaginable. A woman with my personality living in the US would be 10 years advanced in her career than where I am.

But I have this idea that hard work pays off and whatever you’re doing will end up in the light. I know not everyone has that hopeless romantic ideation of truth and reality and fairness, but I do believe in it. Also, I’m just really stubborn and I just refuse to let anything bring me down.”

“I have this idea that hard work pays off and whatever you’re doing will end up in the light. I know not everyone has that hopeless romantic ideation of truth and reality and fairness, but I do believe in it. Also, I’m just really stubborn and I just refuse to let anything bring me down.”

Haneen Dwaib, MPH, PhD


Haneen Dwaib , MPH, PhD

Chairwoman, Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics Department at Palestine Ahliya University


Portrait photo of Ian Evans


Ian Evans

Senior Director, Editorial, Content & Brand


Read more about Ian Evans