UCR MAGAZINE (SPRING 2023) - Katayoon “Katie” Dehesh once had to make an impossible choice: leave her Persian homeland forever to pursue a life of science or stay near family and give up her passion for independence. She knew leaving Iran would not be easy, and she’d have to build her life again from scratch. Nevertheless, she persisted — and countless numbers of female scientists, particularly those in the Middle East, are better off today because of it.
From a young age, Dehesh held an interest in plants that grow in soils with “unimaginably high salt content.” High salinity can cut the growth of crop plants by as much as 50% and is made worse by climate change. Motivated to find potential solutions to this problem, Dehesh earned a doctorate in plant stress biology at the University of Sussex in England in 1977. She then returned to Iran for an assistant professorship at the National University in Tehran.
However, soon after accepting the position, Dehesh was banned from traveling abroad. All women in Iran with medical or doctoral degrees would soon be required to serve in the military. In 1980, just as the Iran-Iraq War began, she “heard the bells of revolution” and fled the country. Landing in Germany, she became the only foreigner and only woman at the time to obtain a tenure-track position at Kiel University. Her list of achievements has only grown since then.
Today, Dehesh is the director of UCR’s Institute for Integrative Genome Biology and a distinguished professor of molecular biochemistry. She is using her role at UCR and other organizations to help women grow in their careers.
In 2020, Dehesh was elected president of the American Society of Plant Biologists, or ASPB, a group whose membership spans six continents. As president, she convinced King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia to fund a workshop at the 2021 ASPB international meeting. This workshop enabled scientists from Israel and Arab countries to discuss common agricultural problems and paved the way for collaboration on climate-induced crop growing challenges facing the Middle East. Following the workshop, Dehesh spent a month in Saudi Arabia visiting the women’s university in Riyadh.
“The building exteriors were like Star Trek, out of this world gleaming marble structures connected by trains,” Dehesh said. “But I was brokenhearted to see inside that the laboratories were just labs in name only. There was not enough research equipment there. The buildings were beautiful, but sadly, like empty shells.”
She left the university determined to change those facades. Dehesh traveled all over the country, visiting women at universities in Riyadh and Jeddah and empowering them with information, ideas, and connections with scientists in other parts of the world. On her travels, Dehesh also met with Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and a powerful voice for women in her country. The two agreed to join forces and plan to work together on projects that will improve the lives of Saudi women.
Dehesh gave talks in Saudi Arabia about women in science and used examples of women in the Western world including Vera Rubin and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, two pioneering scientists who were both denied a Nobel Prize. Rubin, an astronomer, co-discovered dark matter in galaxies but died in 2016 after waiting over 45 years for a prize that never came. Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars — neutron stars that can be detected on Earth. The discovery earned the Nobel Prize in 1974, but she was not one of the winners. These cautionary tales inspired her audiences, who are well positioned to keep history from repeating itself. With Saudi society becoming more egalitarian, Dehesh believes the time is ripe for her to be a part of the social renaissance that is taking place in the country, and by extension in the rest of the Middle East.
“My first trip to the country in 2018, I was not allowed to dine in a restaurant. But restaurants there are run by women now,” Dehesh said.
Fast forward to 2023, and the ASPB has now finalized a formal partnership with the Saudi Botanical Society, a group founded by environmental advocate Munira Al Hazani to protect native plants from extinction. That partnership is attracting funding for an international conference of male and female scientists from Arab countries and helping increase access to critical resources.
Moving forward, Dehesh hopes to start a program at UCR’s Metabolomics Core Facility that would enable Saudi women to receive training on campus using cutting-edge biochemistry equipment. The program would initially focus on analysis of Saudi coffee, improving it for survival in a hotter, drier world.
“Coffee is the pride of the country and one of the biggest agricultural products that Saudi Arabia is known for,” Dehesh said. “It is a marker of the culture there.”
Through the training, the visiting scientists would enrich UCR’s culture while opening up opportunities to bring knowledge and newer equipment back to Saudi women’s laboratories, she said.
“We just need to crack the door open a little bit for them, and slowly but surely, things will change,” Dehesh said. “A camel first puts its nose in a tent. Then its neck, and soon its whole body.”
Because of the challenges she faced earlier in her career, Dehesh aims to use the remainder of her professional life to make a difference for other women all over the globe.
“Nationality is irrelevant to me. I want to cover the spectrum and empower women everywhere,” she said.
“Nationality is irrelevant to me. I want to cover the spectrum and empower women everywhere.”
To that end, she has also advocated for professional recognition of Germany’s female scientists. In 2017, Dehesh was elected to the the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina — a rare achievement for a woman. Last year, she successfully advocated for the election of another woman.
“It was a big fight and required a lot of negotiation, but she’s in — and no one can take that away from her now,” Dehesh said.
In 2022, women made up only 34% of the science and engineering workforce in the U.S. An eternal optimist, Dehesh believes the vision of a more equal playing field for women can be realized if she and other likeminded individuals are dedicated enough. As a child, when the pressures of being a girl got to be too much for her, she said she would close her eyes and dream of traveling to a place away from discrimination, where women can live happily. She will never stop fighting for that dream.
“Sisterhood is powerful,” she said. “And I believe women can make the biggest difference in solving our planet’s toughest problems. After all, we shake the cradle with one hand and with the other, we shake the world.”