Off hours: Dubai scientist paints a busy picture

Ismahane Elouafi is director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), an international non-profit agricultural research centre which seeks to find solutions to the problems of food and water security in the wider region. From ICBA’s headquarters in Dubai’s Academic City, Ms Elouafi, 44, who is Moroccan-Canadian, manages agricultural research projects currently being undertaken in Bahrain, Morocco and Qatar, as well as the UAE.

How do you spend your weekend?

Mostly with my girls, who are aged seven and one. I’m also catching up on emails on my BlackBerry – but mostly when they’re asleep. I’m trying to discipline myself to spend time with my girls at weekends. My seven year-old loves gymnastics, swimming and play areas, and she tends to dictate the agenda. Whatever time is left is for the small one.


How did you become a director general?

I was a scientist for a very long time, and loved it. But when I emigrated to Canada in 2004 (as a visiting scientist at McGill University), I realised there were so many other young PhD graduates in molecular biology. The competition was very high. I got a chance to move into management within the federal system as senior science adviser to the assistant deputy minister of research at the AAFC (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). I did it at first to understand how things are seen from the office of the big bosses. But then I ended up enjoying it. I really liked looking at things from the top, because it gives you bigger picture than when you’re looking at the world with your microscope in your lap. As a scientist, we tend to become very specialised, but when you zoom out, you see things completely differently. A headhunter contacted me about this position at ICBA, and I moved to Dubai to start my job in 2012. I manage the scientists better than a lawyer or businessman, who has no idea what science means. But I still let the scientists pick my brain and make me think about the things I’ve studied.

What was the lowest point in your career? People don’t want to hear the word harassment but I think there is always a bit, especially if you are successful and don’t want to play the role written in the script for you. That’s where professional ethics in a working environment are extremely important, so no one can undermine any woman. I am a strong person so I have been able to defend myself, but there have been a few moments in my life where I’ve thought ‘if this happened to one of my daughters, that would make me really, really mad’. I feel that women are fragile by nature and in the system that we have, they are more fragile. Every organisation has to have a very strong code of ethics and check that it’s being implemented.

What advice would you offer others starting out in your business?

My advice to young ladies would be to believe in yourself, forget about the inhibitors that you have faced over the years, step back once in a while and look at the big picture to see whether what you’re doing is right for you. Are you doing it well? Always critique yourself and retain an ability to see yourself from outside yourself. And remember you are not worth less than a man at all, by any measure.

What’s your go-to gadget?

I mostly use my BlackBerry for work. I spend a lot of time answering emails on it – on a plane, in the middle of the night, in a car, wherever – it takes up a big proportion of my day. Sometimes, my daughter will look me and say “mama you’re not listening to me”.

What’s your most indulgent habit?

I love to paint, it’s a great relief to be able to mix colours and make up a story in a painting. I do mostly landscape pictures. I don’t sell them – my house is full of them now and my husband hates it. But my daughter loves it, because l also like to paint portraits of her.

What do you have on your desk at work?

A picture of my girls, and lots of papers and pens because I do a lot of signing. I also have a lot of stuff to read. If I take a break, I’ll read an article about statistics, women’s empowerment or genetics.

What can’t you live without?

My family. It doesn’t matter where I am, I need them.

How do you achieve a work-life balance?

I am struggling with it. Especially with my youngest. I spend a lot of time on overnight flights so I can have the meeting the next day and come home, instead of having the luxury of flying by day then resting. There are all these struggles and logistics around it. I work when they are asleep in the evenings, then start working again before they wake the next morning.

If you could swap jobs with anyone, who would it be and why?

An artist. I’d paint all the time. That’s absolutely my retirement plan.

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