‘Challenge yourselves’ urges Honorary Fellow Dr Hayat Sindi  

Left to right: Vice Principal Barbara Blacklaws, Honorary Fellow Dr Hayat Sindi and Principal Alison Rose

Distinguished Saudi scientist and Newnham alumna Dr Hayat Sindi attended a ceremony to mark her Honorary Fellowship at Newnham last week and challenged her audience to be bold in pursuing social innovation to solve global problems. 

Dr Sindi studied for a PhD in Biotechnology at Newnham before pushing herself out of her comfort zone to study commercialisation of science and technology at Harvard Business School. She has gone on to set up a string of companies which have developed low cost, easy to use devices for use in countries with poor medical infrastructure. 

When she studied at Harvard, Dr Sindi needed to draw on all her reserves of resilience. She said: “I felt stupid for the first few months, I was out of my comfort zone, but I kept going. Then when I set up [my first company] I had to resist people who said: ‘make a profit first, then you can help people.’ I said ‘no’.” 

Instead Dr Sindi co-founded and led the non-profit organisation Diagnostics For All: a program to create affordable diagnostic devices for millions of people in impoverished regions.   

Dr Sindi was clear that she wanted to pursue innovation for social good and cited pioneering women and organisations that had inspired her. They included sisters Meriem and Fatima el-Fihria, who is credited with founding a mosque which became the first university, in the ninth century; and the Open University.  

“Science was born to solve problems. We need to keep humanity evolving. People say how have you developed so many ideas? Listen to people – they know what they need. We listen to people to understand what is possible. I have seen MRIs sent to help hospitals where there is no electricity! Millions of people still have no clean water. You need to understand the limits and customise the science to people’s way of life.” 

One social innovation she was pleased to share was persuading female doctors back into practice to run telediagnosis clinics to support people in poorer areas of Pakistan. 

She was clear, too, on the benefits that a clear sense of purpose can bring, sharing a story about medical students who were inspired by visits to support villages in Africa where they could make a real difference. 

“We need to challenge the talent, push out of our comfort zones. Change the mindset. Some scientists could have a far more tangible impact,” she said. 

Dr Sindi is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Sciences, with a special remit for girls’ and women’s education. In 2018 she was listed as one of the BBC’s ‘Top 100 Women’. 

After her talk on Living Through Innovation there was a short ceremony in recognition of her Newnham College Honorary Fellowship. Newnham College Principal Alison Rose thanked Dr Sindi for her “honesty about the persistence and courage she had needed to succeed.” 

Photo shows, left to right: Vice Principal Barbara Blacklaws, Honorary Fellow Dr Hayat Sindi and Principal Alison Rose. Photograph: Dasha Tenditna.