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SCIENCE HERO:
DILFUZA EGAMBERDIYEVA
by Wendy Jewell

Dilfuza Egamberdiyeva
UNESCO and L'Oreal Paris have just awarded their 2006 Fellowships to honor, fund and encourage extraordinary Women in Science. The research projects this year focus on the preservation of biodiversity, the understanding of life, the use of new detection methods to optimize diagnoses, and the surveillance of ecosystems. One of these new UNESCO-L'OREAL Fellows is ecocitizen Dilfuza Egamberdiyeva, an Environmental Microbiologist from Uzbekistan. She has a PhD in agriculture from Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany and is head of the Plant Microbe Interactions Lab at Tashkent State University of Agriculture in Uzbekistan. Her goal is to turn poor salinated soil, contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals, into fertile and healthy soil capable of producing sustainable crops once more. The soil in her home country of Uzbekistan got very contaminated due to decades of the production of cotton crops during the era of the Soviet Union. According to Dilfuza, "Cotton production requires extensive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers accompanied by over irrigation of the fields. This eventually led to the drying up by half of the Aral Sea and resulted in such widespread soil damage that other crops are compromised. Because plants are under saline or water imbalance, they become more vulnerable to diseases caused by pathogenic fungi. It is clear that the situation could be largely improved by replacing the chemicals with environmentally friendly biologicals…biofertilizers."

Dilfuza and colleague checking salination of soil.
Winning this award allows Dilfuza to go forward with her research project that aims to produce microbes for the control of plant diseases and to evaluate the possibilities of converting them into products that are ecologically safe. And to assist in the production of healthy food under extreme conditions such as in Uzbekistan and other parts of the world. She explained, "At the end of my project, the selected strain will be grown and formulated on a large scale; the "product" will be tested on plants in the field in different regions of Uzbekistan. These products will also help with crop productivity which is becoming an important issue due to the rapid increase in world population…they will all need food." Because the advanced molecular techniques used in life sciences are not yet available in Uzbekistan, Dilfuza will be fulfilling her research at the Clusius Laboratory at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Dilfuza explained, "This lab will help me to master molecular biology techniques and apply them in our lab back home." This Fellowship will also act as a catalyst for other women in Uzbekistan to go into science. Dilfuza has already been approached by some women and girls in her country, to be their mentor…to help them follow in her footsteps.

Dilfuza did not always know she would be a scientist but she always had very good grades in all her subjects. Her hobbies included reading and studying. She told me, "I will always remember my days as a young student because I was studying all time, day and night. They were hard times, as we were still under Soviet rule and there were obstacles to my pursuing science. I had no mentors, limited access to literature and no international scientific network to draw from. After the Independence of Uzbekistan, the doors opened to the world and many foundations and organizations worked hard to improve education, especially in the sciences." Dilfuza decided to study abroad for her PhD and, armed with great marks, was lucky enough to get a Scholarship to study in Germany. She only spoke Russian but quickly learned German while taking classes in Berlin.


Dilfuza and her science mentors

Like many successful people, Dilfuza now has wonderful mentors. She explained that her 'Scientific Father', is Prof. Lugtenberg Ben from Leiden University. She gave him that name because he "always supported my career, financially and mentally. He motivated me and helped me a lot. Because I am from a developing country, it was important to have someone to be able to turn to when I needed support of any kind…someone to show me the way. It gives me great happiness to share any success I have with him." Dilfuza went on to say that her 'Scientific Mother', is Prof. Gafurova Laziza, "who helped me so much when I was having difficulties in Uzbekistan. She helped me to set up a new lab at the University of Agriculture, where I established the study of soil ecology and improvement of soil health using new biotechnological approaches." But also of great importance to Dilfuza are her father and mother, who always supported their daughter's quest for bringing much needed scientific innovations to her country of Uzbekistan. Dilfuza explained, "You must consider the cultural background of my country, where many people think women should put family first and career and work second. My parents helped me with my family by giving me time to be busy with my experiments and complete my research. They allowed me to do what I love…science. They helped me to be able to create some useful things for our generation that people will benefit from as well as making their lives easier."

Map of Uzbekistan (UNEP.org)

Dilfuza chose a career in scientific research for many reasons…all connected to the environment, especially the soil. She was acutely aware of its connection to hungry children, poor health of people, dead animals, man-made deserts, contaminated water and increased infant and maternal mortality rates. She said, "If we do not care for the soil, the problems of malnutrition, disease, water contamination, and poor crops will only increase. My grandfather loved gardening and many times I saw him smell the soil. I was a very small girl and asked him why he did this. He told me, 'when people get old they are very close to the soil…they understand the soil. The human body is created from the soil and when the body dies it goes back to the soil. Remember…never put waste into the soil…it will cry. Respect the soil and care for it. There are many millions of people under your feet helping to feed you.' His words stayed with me and helped propel me into my present study of soil ecology, biology and agriculture."

Dilfuza considers climate change to be the biggest environmental problem globally and is distressed that the world is not paying enough attention to fixing this looming catastrophe. She said, "We should all realize that the environment has no borders, that each country should take care of their own part of the earth."

Dilfuza's hero is her mother. "My mother had 5 children and spent her whole life giving us an education, taking care of us, helping us grow up and supporting our careers. She managed everything…work, house, husband, children and grandchildren, too. I wish to be like her. Strong, motivated and full of energy."

Dilfuza and her daughter.
So this mother and scientist, who listens to Whitney Houston, loves books, especially about herbal medicine, nutrition and longevity…would like to be remembered for her scientific discoveries or achievements, and also some useful technology that people will benefit from.

Her biggest dream? "Peace in the world." AND "Also my dream is to show the world the Science from Uzbekistan."

If DILFUZA EGAMBERDIYEVA had the attention of the world for 10 minutes, this is what she'd say. "I would say to the world…Stop All War and Enjoy your life. Because our life is not so long, so use this beautiful Gift from God to love the world and her people. Help each other. Care for and protect our EARTH together. Support science and bring more educated wise women into leading a country too. Because we are women first, we think about the children and peace at home and on earth."



Written by Wendy Jewell
Photos courtesy of L'Oreal, Paris, Dilfuza Egamberdiyeva, UNEP.org
Last changed on: 3/24/2006 1:27:39 PM

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is working to create the conditions for genuine dialogue based upon respect for shared values and the dignity of each civilization and culture.

L'Oreal for Women In Science: L'Oreal partners with UNESCO each year to honor and financially support women in science.

Avicenna was the most influential of all Islamic philosopher-scientists. He wrote on medicine as well as geometry, astronomy, arithmetic and music.

Leiden University in the Netherlands: Biological research in Leiden is very good to excellent, and socially extremely relevant. This is the conclusion of an international commission of colleagues, who visited the Institute of Biology in Leiden (IBL) in September 2005. The commission examined criteria such as quality, production, scientific and social-economic impact and evaluated whether the research would have future benefits.

Journey to Planet Earth: Stories of Hope -- Uzbekistan: This PBS series explores the fragile relationship between people and the world they inhabit. Read more about how the Aral Sea, the fourth largest inland body of water, became the site of what the United Nations calls man's greatest ecological disaster.

This story was made possible by a grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

 

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