Gold medal goes to Iraqi microbiologist for top thesis
All graduate students overcome obstacles to complete their degrees, but for Wasan Jema, those obstacles included a dangerous visit to Iraq.
Jema’s studies took her from Calgary to her home country to meet with research partners to build an assessment framework for ecosystem restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshlands – considered by some to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. The research was part of her Royal Roads’ Master of Science in Environment and Management studies.
“Iraq is a war-torn country which has undergone a series of conflicts. I witnessed most of them,” she says.
“I also witnessed two massive environmental disasters that were each caused by a single irrational decision maker – Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. I witnessed the first when Saddam Hussein drained 90% of the Mesopotamian marshlands in order to suppress people involved in the rebellion against him who were hiding there. And Gaddafi’s manmade river project unnecessarily depleted the aquifers under the Sahara.”
A microbiologist with 10 years’ teaching experience, first as a lab instructor at the University of Bagdad and as a lecturer in the School of Medicine at Elmergib University in Libya, Jema says the ecological devastation of her homeland was the motivation for her master’s research.
Royal Roads will recognize Jema’s work with a Governor General’s Gold Medal for the most outstanding thesis or graduate project at the university’s fall convocation ceremony Nov. 10.
“To undertake this internationally important social-ecological study in a country that was literally falling apart around her is an immense achievement and can be extremely valuable for people in Iraq doing this kind of research,” Ling says.
With research participants displaced by the conflict, and infrastructure and Internet disrupted, communication and travel was not only difficult, but dangerous, Jema says.
“The flow of danger from Mosul and lack of security went directly all over Iraq during the ISIS invasion. The security picture changed even in my area of Bagdad, and the bad situation generally in Iraq prevented me from even going outside. I was with my son and it was completely unsafe to go out.”
Beyond the immediate need for personal safety, Jema was also aware of the needs of her research participants.
“I needed to be aware of their religious or cultural affiliations and their points of view. Their privacy and anonymity was important for their safety,” Jema says.
Jema’s study incorporated data from Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources and involved scientists from the University of Basra, Indigenous people and non-governmental organizations, like the Nature Iraq Foundation. The resulting assessment framework can be applied to detect changes in the ecosystem affected by multiple factors, including political disturbance.
When the news arrived she was to receive this year’s Governor General Gold Medal, it came with resolve to carry on her environmental protection work.
“I feel honoured, grateful and privileged, but this is also a big responsibility. I have to continue to do the good work in Iraq, or in any country, to help and to reflect the knowledge I received from Royal Roads,” she says.
“Royal Roads changed the way I see the world and gave me the strength as an Arabic woman to fly back to the land that I love with courage and confidence. This is what Royal Roads did for me.”
Photo credit: Zero Gravity Video Production Inc.