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When Dr. Lama Tarayrah-Ibraheim talks about her life, she often calls herself “unboxed.” Early on, she got a taste of what it’s like to not fit in with her surroundings, growing up in the Mount of Olives (At-Tur) neighborhood of East Jerusalem in a mixed-faith family – her father is a Muslim, her mother, a Christian – in a society that puts a premium on strong religious identity. Her parents, who had met when both worked as nurses in a Jerusalem hospital, tried to instill in their six children a sense of identity aside from religion – including as Palestinian Arabs and through academic excellence.
Lama’s father was particularly adamant that his three daughters receive a first-rate education. “He used to say that the world allows men to become whatever they want, whereas women have to fight for it,” Lama recalls.
After graduating at age eighteen from an all-girls Catholic school in Jerusalem, Lama received a scholarship to study biophysics at Brigham Young University in Utah, in the United States. “Science was for me a way of getting away from stereotypes, of becoming ‘unboxed’ – to be judged for what I’m capable of achieving, and not by my gender or ethnic origin,” she says.
She pursued graduate studies in developmental biology at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Her topic: germline stem cell development in fruit flies. She was fascinated by the process that she calls “a miracle,” in which a single fertilized cell is transformed into a highly complex organism consisting of multiple specialized cells and organs.
""Science was for me a way of getting away from stereotypes, of becoming ‘unboxed’ – to be judged for what I’m capable of achieving, and not by my gender or ethnic origin"
When at age twenty-seven she earned her PhD, she turned down offers of academic positions in the United States. Opting instead to return to Israel to be near her family and friends, she embarked on postdoctoral studies in the lab of Prof. Eli Arama at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Of the several research projects that he suggested, she chose to investigate the mysterious death of primordial germ cells in the fruit fly embryo. In the course of five years of research, she and colleagues have managed to unravel the unusual way in which these cells perish, called parthanatos – a term derived from Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology. The study’s results, published in the journal Nature Communications, may lead to more effective ways of killing cancer cells, or, alternatively, they may help block unwanted cell death caused by ischemic stroke or neurodegenerative diseases.
Tarayrah-Ibraheim is currently continuing her research in Arama’s lab, but in the future she hopes to establish her own lab in one of the Palestinian universities. “Because scientific research in Palestinian universities lags behind, I can have a bigger impact there than at an Israeli university,” she says. “I’d like to introduce young Palestinian students to developmental biology research, to push them to defy stereotypes and to realize their full potential through academic achievement.”
Tarayrah-Ibraheim’s personal life also provides plenty of opportunities for her to battle stereotypes. After returning from the United States, she married Osama Ibraheim, an Israeli-Arab lawyer who has two children from a previous marriage to a Jewish woman. “I fell in love not only with my husband but with his two kids as well,” she says. They now live in Jerusalem with their two-year-old son – the only Arab family in a Jewish neighborhood in the western part of the city –and they and Osama’s first wife share custody of the two older children, who attend a Jewish-Arab school near Beit Safafa.
“At the end of every day, my husband and I ask ourselves if we did OK today in teaching our kids how to be the best human beings they can be,” Tarayrah-Ibraheim says. “Looking twenty years ahead, I’d like to see them happy, fulfilled – and, above all, free from any boundaries society may try to impose upon them. Then I will say we’ve succeeded.”