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Pakistani scientist, Bilquees Gul, has made her country a leader in salt-tolerant plants.

[MANILA] Pakistani scientist Bilquees Gul’s research is helping put her country on the map for outstanding capacity in sustainable halophyte (salt-tolerant plant) use at a time when global freshwater shortages and sea level rise are causing salinisation of highly productive agro-ecosystems such as the Mekong Delta and the Nile Delta.
 
Last year, Gul, director of the Dr. Muhammad Ajmal Khan Institute of Sustainable Halophyte Utilization, University of Karachi, became the first female editor-in-chief of the most comprehensive set of research published on saline ecosystems and salt-water use. The series, called The Sabkha Ecosystems of the World, has significant global relevance considering that saltwater makes up 97 per cent of the world’s water supply.
 
Born and raised in one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, Gul has particular interest in screening coastal halophytes or salt-tolerant plants for the purposes of biofuel, biodiesel, edible oil, medicines and essential oils. Her research is helping to achieve the SDGs, particularly SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), and 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy).
 
In this interview with SciDev.Net, Gul talks about how and why advancing the SDGs and ecosystem resilience are important given the additional burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, how her work supports local vulnerable communities, particularly Pakistani women, and offers advice to young female students who are planning to pursue careers in science and technology.

“Cultivation of halophytes with salty water for economic purposes would reduce pressure on existing clean freshwater resources and spare them for direct human consumption”

Bilquees Gul

Your work on halophytes supports the SDGs. How and why is advancing the SDGs and ecosystem resilience all the more important given the additional burden of the COVID-19 pandemic?

When it comes to Zero Hunger, salinisation of lands and dwindling freshwater resources owing to global climate change are now seriously challenging conventional agriculture to ensure food security for the fast growing human population, which is expected to reach pass nine billion by 2050. This has led to a surge in research to improve salinity tolerance of crops. However, many halophytes have already been reported as potential crops for saline lands and some are even cultivated on commercial scale, such as the grain crop quinoa. We are working on several halophytes, including Panicum turgidum, which is potentially sustainable cattle feed alternative to maize. Hence, promoting halophyte research and commercial cultivation could be a sustainable means to support SDG 2 that aims to achieve zero hunger in the world.  
 
Freshwater scarcity is, in many parts of the world, emerging as a major bottleneck, since agriculture is a major consumer. Cultivation of halophytes with salty water for economic purposes would reduce pressure on existing clean freshwater resources and spare them for direct human consumption. Hence, halophyte cultivation can indirectly contribute to achieving SDG 6 on clean water. We also believe that use of halophytes can strongly contribute towards achieving SDG 7 on clean energy. Due to the coronavirus lockdowns, people are facing income loss worldwide, affecting their capacity to buy food, access clean water and other amenities. Achieving the SDGs, especially 2, 6 and 7 will directly benefit vulnerable communities and humanity in general.  
 

Pakistan faces a severe water crisis. How does your work affect vulnerable communities particularly women facing this issue in your country?

Pakistan is a water-scarce country in general. The lack of freshwater and inability to sustainably use rainwater for the benefit of society is affecting food and water security in the country, especially for rural populations. Women and children are the most affected, as they are mostly involved in the management of agricultural fields, fetching clean water for drinking from remote areas and taking care of livestock
 
We believe that the cultivation of halophytes on saline lands with underground salty water will not only help achieve food security in the form of food, fodder and fuel but will also reduce pressure on fresh water currently consumed in agriculture, thereby sparing it for direct human consumption.

Bilquees Gul - photo insert
Bilquees Gul believes that cultivating halophytes will help ensure food security.
Photo credit: Bilquees Gul. 

Last year, you became the first female editor-in-chief of the most comprehensive set of research published on saline ecosystems and salt-water utilisation. What was the editing process like and what lessons did you take away from the experience?

The journey to where I am now was not an easy one. I had to overcome many societal barriers” along the way, be it the disadvantage of being an independent woman in a male-dominated society or the gender gap that existed in the field of sciences – this is something which still largely persists.  
 
While editing the comprehensive series of research on saline ecosystems might be a lot of work, it is the kind of work I enjoy. It also came with an opportunity to share new research ideas to a much larger audience. Editing was a learning process for me because I often find things that dont seem quite right to me, but I was not sure whats wrong either. As an editor-in-chief, I feel no less ecstatic when people take an interest in learning from something you have created.
 

Throughout your career, what were some of the main challenges you faced as a female Asian scientist in a male-dominated industry? How did you overcome these challenges? 

There are many cultural expectations connected to South Asian women around the globe, I would argue. The perspective of South Asian women in media has only recently started to shift, that too at glacier pace. Certain ideologies were placed with women in South Asia, ideologies which are credited to previous colonisers through centuries of oppression and brainwashing. These sediments of history have seeped through to our times and I and my female colleagues are no strangers to them.

“Gone are the days when women stay silent over such behaviour. No longer am I conforming to the norms set by a male- dominated society and no longer are we willing to be oppressed by the male gaze. The future is female and I believe there is no stopping it”

Bilquees Gul

It was a journey for me from start to finish. I was lucky to have a family which prioritised my education more than my marriage and ensured that I got my Ph.D on a scholarship in the US. Once I started my career, many assumptions were placed on me solely because of my gender identity as a woman, for example, that I am incapable of handling leadership positions or that I am too naïve or too emotional to handle challenges. In a toxic, male-dominated society, such opinions are the norm and every working woman in Pakistan has to fight it at some point. Personally, I distanced myself from toxic and manipulative individuals as I believe they are not worth my time.  Gone are the days when women stay silent over such behaviour. No longer am I conforming to the norms set by a male- dominated society and no longer are we willing to be oppressed by the male gaze. The future is female and I believe there is no stopping it.

What advice do you have for young female students who plan to pursue careers in science and technology? And to young female scientists just starting their careers?

Women have the potential to become great scientists, like Marie Curie, Barbara McClintock, etc., But that potential is yet to be realised, optimally. Today, women account for only 30 per cent of the worlds researchers and even lower percentages at higher decision-making levels. The reasons are cultural and social. In various societies, despite propaganda to the contrary, women still have to attain equal rights and be treated as equal members of society. In addition, women are expected to achieve excellence in science without compromising their conventional role within family and society. The only engine of change may be education and realisation of their rights as women. One needs to fight for rights with the knowledge that it is going to be a long-drawn battle and that the existing system will yield gradually under continued and relentless pressure. I would like to see women in developing countries take their well-deserved roles in science. They must not be apologetic nor ask for concessions for being women, but rather take it as a challenge and try to be better than their male colleagues. I know it is not easy for women given the compulsions of society. However, initially, they have to work hard and gradually things will ease out for them and for the generation to come. Take one step at a time. Slow and steady wins the race. I wish all women in science, particularly those from developing countries, will become role models for others.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.