Shattering the Glass Ceiling with Dr. Dalia Al-Zebdeh: Slamming Stereotypes and Breaking Barriers

I first met Dalia when we were both students at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. I was a chemical engineering undergrad and she was a biomedical engineering grad student. To be honest with you, I don’t even know how on earth we started talking, but we hit it off instantaneously. She has been a source of inspiration and guidance for me ever since.

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After I finished my master’s at Cornell and returned to Wayne State to teach, I was so happy that Dalia and I would be back together again, even though she was not far from graduating with her doctorate and would soon be leaving. Still, the time I had with my friend was invaluable.

To other people, we seem like an unlikely pair of friends. We’re both women in engineering, so that part makes sense as to why we stuck by each other’s sides. But here’s the “funny” part: she is a Palestinian Muslim, and I am a former Christian, soon-to-be Jewish woman. To most people, especially to those within our own circles, that combination does not yield friendship. Thankfully, we’ve proved them wrong.

Having grown up in a very sheltered and conservative environment, I had little knowledge of religion, culture, and political beliefs outside of my own (or rather my family’s). Meeting Dalia was like a breach in the dam of my own ignorance.

I was curious about her life and beliefs as a Muslim woman, and she encouraged me to ask as many questions as I wanted. I told her about the second-hand information I’d received about Islam and the Quran, and she patiently and very kindly corrected those statements, reminding me that there will always be people in every belief system who are extremists but to not judge the whole system based on a few exceptions. Dalia was one of a handful of people who opened my eyes to the world around me.

We would speak at length about our respective faiths, amazed at how many similarities exist between them, and even took on the Palestine/Israel subject, something many people from opposite sides will avoid like the Plague. However, we have enough respect for each other to hear and take to heart what the other person has to say. I learned to see things through her eyes, which has been a blessing for me. And the more I learned about her, the more inspired I became.

Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, which sadly resulted in harsh treatment, Dalia moved to Jordan where she pursued her undergraduate degree at Jordan University for Science and Technology before moving to the U.S. for her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. Her dissertation focused on hepatic tissue engineering, which deals with using healthy liver tissue to regrow the liver instead of undergoing a transplant. After completing her post-doctoral research at the Kornberg School of Dentistry at Temple University, she moved to research at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. There she is fulfilling the dream she has always had: “make human implants and organs to help people who have no other options.”

When I asked her what was the source of her inspiration for pursuing this field, she told me that in her home country, she is the source of inspiration. This did not surprise me, though. Here is a woman who was born in a land that, sadly, most of the world doesn’t even recognize as its own country. Not long after moving with her family to Jordan, she had to leave them behind in order to accomplish her goals…alone.

I’m lucky. My parents live an hour away from me, and I can visit them most weekends. And if I can’t visit them, I can easily call them without having to consider a time difference. If I’m having a bad day or just need someone to listen to me, talking to Mom or Dad is a cinch.

Not so for Dalia.

I have so much respect and admiration for people who move here from other countries. Not only are they navigating a new language, but also they are trying to adjust to a new cultural dynamic, both popular and academic. I had considered moving to Israel for my Ph.D. but figured that starting life in a new country six thousand miles away from home with a seven-hour time difference and jumping back into a demanding graduate program would not work well in my favor. Yet Dalia has made it work for her.

I asked her if she found it difficult to be a Muslim in the U.S., especially in this post-9/11 era. She said that while she was comfortable in the Detroit/Dearborn area, which has a high concentration of Muslims, she feels she stands out more outside of the metro-Detroit area, especially at job interviews. She has expressed her concern over being rejected for positions for which she is well-suited because her hijab makes it clear she is a Muslim. I wish I could reassure her by saying, “It’s 2019! People are so much more educated now.”

But, unfortunately, that is not the case.

Just last year, Electroimpact paid almost a $500,000 settlement because its founder refused to hire Muslims, whom he considered to be “terrorists.” In Sweden, a woman won a lawsuit over being discriminated against because she wouldn’t shake the male interviewer’s hand. A court ruled in another Muslim woman’s favor when she was passed over for a job at Abercrombie and Fitch because she wears a hijab. These court cases all occurred within the last four years. Clearly, we are not as well educated as we should be.

But through the family separation, the new culture, and the lingering prejudice, Dalia has made herself invaluable in her field of research and carries herself with an air of confidence and grace. I have been blessed not only by her friendship but also by the truly genuine and dedicated example she personifies.