The Collegian
Friday, June 21, 2024

Rana Dajani: Molecular cell biologist, entrepreneur and mother

<p>Rana Dajani stands outside the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, where she is currently teaching as a Zuzana Simoniova Cmelikova visiting scholar in Leadership and Ethics.</p>

Rana Dajani stands outside the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, where she is currently teaching as a Zuzana Simoniova Cmelikova visiting scholar in Leadership and Ethics.

Rana Dajani has many roles; or as she likes to say in homage to her Islamic heritage, she wears many scarves.

Dajani is the 2019-21  Zuzana Simoniova Cmelikova Visiting Scholar program in Leadership and Ethics at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. She has received many accolades, including her home country of Jordan's Order of Al Hussein for Distinguished Contributions of the Second Class. Dajani has also received the United Nations' Science, Technology and Innovation Award. 

Yet, the most important scarf she wears is that of being a mother to her four children, she said. 

“That’s usually now my number one thing that I always start [with] when I introduce myself," Dajani said. "Because everybody can replace me in other roles in my life, but being a mother, nobody can replace me."

The second scarf Dajani wears is her role as an educator, she said. Dajani was a schoolteacher for 10 years, she said, and she later became a tenured professor of biology and biotechnology at the Hashemite University in Jordan, according to her bio on the University of Richmond’s website

She has also been a visiting professor at the University of Cambridge, a Fulbright visiting scholar at Yale University and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, according to her bio on UR's website. 

“I’m very excited to meet all the students and see what questions they’ll come up with that are challenging to me and make me scratch my head and go back to the drawing board and engage with them to try to find the answers,” Dajani said.

Last spring, Dajani taught a class at UR called Reimagining Success: Science, Society and Entrepreneurship, which will be offered again next semester, she said.

“Honestly, every time I mention to one of my friends that I took a class called 'Reimagining Success,' they are always shocked that they didn’t hear about that class happening because everybody’s really interested in taking something like that,” Bilal Hindi, a UR '20 graduate who took Dajani's course last spring, said.

Dajani’s goal for the course has been to challenge her students to think outside the box, she said. She had UR students collaborate with students from Hashemite University to write a children’s book about redefining success, she said. 

“I think the main goal behind this hard task was not just to write a book, but also work with someone in a different country, outside of our comfort zone,” Hindi said.

She also challenged her students to create a non-competitive board game where everyone won, she said.

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“Some of [the students] were uncomfortable because they’re used to the normal [class structure], but that was the purpose of the course as well,” Dajani said. “I wanted them to be uncomfortable so that they could go through being uncomfortable and come out on the other side realizing that it’s all about the journey, and you don’t have to worry about the grades in the end. It’s how you changed internally.”

Her class pushed her students to be more active in their community and her energy was contagious, even on a Monday at 9 a.m., Hindi said.

Dajani’s third scarf is her role as a scientist, she said. Dajani earned her doctorate in molecular cell biology from the University of Iowa, according to her bio on UR’s website. Since then, she has researched the genetics of ethnic populations, she said.

Dajani helped discover a new genetic risk factor for diabetes in two subpopulations of Jordan, the Circassians and the Chechens, she said. She also is studying the impact of trauma on Syrian refugees, she said. Dajani looks at the epigenetics of this trauma, or how the expression of the DNA changes as a result of exposure to trauma and whether this can be passed down across generations, she said. For this research, she is collaborating with colleagues from Yale and the University of Florida, according to a UR Newsroom article. 

Dajani said she also studied the relationship between science and religion, paying special attention to the role of evolution in such discussions.

“Islam is based on science,” Dajani said. “It’s based on that we have a brain and we have to use it. So curiosity is core and asking questions is core. It’s all about the scientific method so to me, my religion compels me to ask questions, to try to look for answers, and that’s the whole essence of life. From that, evolution is just one of those answers trying to explain the diversity of life around us.”

Her role as a scientist helped her become friends with Kelly Lambert, a UR professor of behavioral neuroscience and co-coordinator of the neuroscience program. Lambert said the first time she had met Dajani, who was interested in her research, she had no idea what to expect, but was immediately attracted to Dajani's positivity. 

“We’re from very different cultures and could be perceived as being very different, but what’s been so fun about my friendship with Rana is how much we have in common. We’re almost like science soul sisters and we have great conversations about our love for science," Lambert said.

Dajani’s fourth scarf is her role as a social entrepreneur, she said. Dajani founded the nonprofit We Love Reading in 2006 following her homecoming to Jordan after being abroad for five years, she said. She realized Jordanian children had little access to libraries and many did not love reading, according to the We Love Reading website. 

Dajani found that children who were read to aloud at younger ages grew up to enjoy reading more, she said.

We Love Reading trains volunteers to read to children in their communities in their native languages, Dajani said. The nonprofit also helps volunteers choose a safe location for the readings to take place, whether it be a home, church or mosque, she said. Because of COVID-19, We Love Reading is offering online training in two languages for volunteers, though Dajani said the organization has hoped to offer the training in 10 languages by the end of the year. Then, the volunteers, mostly parents and community members according to the website, can read to the students in-person as a way to keep them engaged with learning.

“What matters is to motivate [the children], that’s all, and what We Love Reading does is exactly that,” Dajani said. “It motivates those children and it also boosts their psychosocial status because they feel better.

"They’re more resilient because they’re sitting with an adult who’s reading to them face-to-face, not through a screen, and that’s so important for mental stress and psychological stress.”

We Love Reading has now spread to 58 countries and has been called a social movement, she said.

“[We Love Reading is] also for the adults who are reading aloud,” Dajani said. “They find their voice figuratively and literally and become leaders in their own right, so they’re not just improving their literacy, but also discovering their own potential to become leaders and entrepreneurs solving their own challenges in their whole community.”

Because she is a scientist, Dajani insisted that We Love Reading have scientists from different fields come to study the program's impact on children's cognitive skills, empathy and parent-child relationships, she said. All this research is peer-reviewed and published in academic journals, she said.

On Sept. 21, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees named Dajani as the regional winner for the Middle East for the Nansen Refugee Award for her work at We Love Reading.

“I felt that this award is not for me,” Dajani said. “It’s for all the We Love Reading ambassadors: men and women and youth and the children around the world. Actually, they are the program so the award is for them in reality, really not for me. It’s celebrating them and what they’ve done and what they’ve gone through.”

Eventually, Dajani hopes that We Love Reading will reach every child and neighborhood so that all children grow up loving to read, which could help them discover their inner potential and the world’s outer potential, she said.

“I love her commitment to going above and beyond that [scientific] discipline to try and make a difference on this earth," Lambert said.

The fifth scarf Dajani wears is that of a feminist, she said. In 2014, Dajani was named one of the 20 most influential women scientists in the Islamic world by the Muslim Science Magazine, she said. Each winner was given a title, and Dajani was named the “Islamic Feminist,” she said. 

Since then, she has been on a mental pilgrimage to try to redefine what that means to her, which is what led her to write her book “Five Scarves: Doing the Impossible — If We Can Reverse Cell Fate, Why Can’t We Redefine Success?” she said.

“In the book, I talk about my [perspective] of what is success to women," Dajani said. "And I redefine it and I realize I’m not an Islamic feminist; I’m just a human being."

In the book, Dajani calls for a new framework for defining success in a way where every individual is celebrated, she said. Dajani is currently working on a book about how women are perceived in different cultures around the world and how success can be measured in different ways among different cultures, she said.

Dajani said she was driven to accomplish so much by her Muslim beliefs, which call for her to not only be responsible for herself and her family but her wider community as well. Any knowledge, skills or insight she can contribute toward the betterment of her community, no matter how big or small, is her responsibility to share with others, she said.

“What matters is that you try, not the results,” Dajani said. “Worst case, nothing happens. Best case, something great happens. Everything I’ve done has been a testimonial to that, one way or another.”

Contact features writer Maeve McCormick at 

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