ALGIERS—Halima Benbouza, an Algerian biotechnology scholar, has won international recognition both for her work on using plant genetics to improve human health and as a role model for women in science.
While she has been offered high-profile research posts abroad, she has chosen to remain in her native country, where she is focusing on the genetic properties of local crops like dates and olives that may someday prove useful in the fight against cancer.
Benbouza spends many hours each day in her laboratory at the Institute of Veterinary and Agronomic Sciences of the University of Batna documenting the genetic characteristics of hundreds of samples of agricultural products collected from different regions in Algeria.
“I am working on a comprehensive survey of the genetic characteristics of Algerian dates and olives whose characteristics differ from similar agricultural products in other countries, in order to use the results later on in treating cancer,” she said.
Benbouza’s interest in such research comes as a result of her country’s reputation for producing specific types of dates and olives at a time when the incidence of cancer in Algeria is expected to rise sharply. Officials have predicted that the number of new cases diagnosed each year will rise from 44,800 in 2016 to 62,000 in 2025 as a result of various factors, including a trend toward unhealthy eating habits by Algerians, according to government statements.
Benbouza says it’s too early to discuss any specific findings from her latest research. “As a scholar, I don’t like to talk about my work,” she said. “I prefer to wait until accurate results are reached. Then, the results will speak for themselves instead of me.”
A Rising Star in Plant Genetics
Benbouza’s current research at the intersection of plant genetics and human health builds on previous work that has won her international recognition and awards.
In 2014, she was honored by the U.S. State Department’s “Women in Science Hall of Fame” program, which recognizes outstanding women in science throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The program is a global initiative started in 2010 to encourage and support women’s scientific and technological achievements in the region.
“I think the awards I received came at the right time,” she said. “The scholar often feels periods of emptiness and a kind of failure, but such honors come to raise the scholar’s morale to strive and produce more.”
“As a scholar, I don’t like to talk about my work, I prefer to wait until accurate results are reached. Then, the results will speak for themselves instead of me.”Halima Benbouza
an Algerian biotechnology scholar
Among her accomplishments, Benbouza played a key role in establishing a laboratory to discover genetically modified products in plant nutrition, especially in imported foodstuffs and foods of animal origin, because of concerns that those products might cause diseases
In addition to her research work, Benbouza has held several academic and administrative positions. She has worked as a lecturer at the University of Batna 1, east of Algiers. In 2011, she was appointed by the Algerian government as chair of the joint committee between the health and biology sectors.
In 2013, the prime minister appointed her chair of the guidance committee of the Pharmacy and Biotechnology Project in Algeria, in addition to her role in managing the National Center for Biotechnology Research, known as CRBt, in Constantine, also under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
Bouchaala el-Eid, an environment and geology scholar who conducted a number of studies at CRBt while Benbouza was the center’s director, considers her a model of the patience and vigilance necessary to be a successful researcher.
“My research on ways to remove pollutants from valleys, seas and oceans would not have seen the light of day had it not been for the support of Benbouza,” he said. “She is a very careful researcher, trying to find out all the research pieces that were being conducted in the biotechnology research laboratory in Constantine, communicating with researchers continuously, and accompanying them to the last stage of their research.”
Overcoming Cultural Norms
But Benbouza’s own path to a research and academic career has not been strewn with roses. In her hometown of Ain Touta, located in the middle of the Aures Mountains in eastern Algeria, education was not accessible to many girls when she was growing up there in the 1970s, due to the rugged nature of the region and the social norms that enforced a belief that a women’s place should be in the home.
“It was not easy for females at the time to continue studying at secondary and university levels,” said Benbouza. “The Chaoui people (part of the Amazigh, or Berber, culture in eastern Algeria) were keen on getting their girls married, because they believed that marriage is a priority over seeking knowledge. But I was fortunate with my parents and also my teachers, who encouraged me to continue.”
“She is a very careful researcher, trying to find out all the research pieces that were being conducted in the biotechnology research laboratory in Constantine, communicating with researchers continuously, and accompanying them to the last stage of their research.”Bouchaala el-Eid
an environment and geology scholar
Benbouza graduated from the University of Batna’s Faculty of Agricultural Engineering before she went on to Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech, part of the University of Liege, in Belgium, to obtain a master’s degree in biotechnology. In her studies there, she focused on using genetics to improve the therapeutic properties of plant products like cotton seed, so that they could eventually be used as food.
“My research rose from purely humanitarian motives, because of the results of widespread famines in a number of countries in the world, especially in Central Africa,” she said. “So I worked on developing cotton seeds to become a consumer material for humans and animals.”
Benbouza received an invitation from the United States Department of Agriculture to join a similar study that it was overseeing at the time. She contributed to research in the United States that worked toward developing seeds with lower quantities of a harmful compound that limited their use as human food or animal feed.
She received much acclaim for this research, which was widely circulated. Although she had an opportunity to do research in the United States, she preferred to return to Algeria to try to improve the quality and quantity of research there.
Despite her prestigious status today, Benbouza admits that it’s not easy for women to work in science in the Arab region.
“It is difficult for a female Arab scholar to reconcile her scientific and family obligations,” she said. “The researcher is required to make many sacrifices in order to reach leading positions, either by holding positions late in her academic life—that is, when her children grow up and are able to manage their daily affairs—or by making strenuous efforts that will have an impact on her health.”
“I preferred to focus on my career,” she added, “Rather than building my own family.”