“Researching is problem solving. I was here to learn how to solve problem. If that is not what you do here I am not interested”. These are the words she confidently said to a supervisor when he told her that the research that was being done at the institution didn’t aim for the third world. And the same answer got her to join the institution in which she made one of the biggest discoveries considered in chemical research.
She is an inspiring Eritrean woman who worked towards achieving her dream of making a difference to the world through research. Not only did she have to face racism and its outcomes, but she fought to make it to achieve her dreams as a single mother too.
During her research to analyze features that might cause cancer in our environment, Dr. Eden Tareke shock the world with a discovery she made, with very limited resources, on how Acrylamide chemical is formed in heated food.
Having left her country as a teenager, Dr. Eden has always had the burning love of her country and people. She cannot wait to make other discoveries with Eritrean scientists from Eritrea. Q&A invites the brilliant Dr. Eden to share her story with our readers.
- Thank you for joining us, Dr., would you please tell our readers something about yourself?
My parents were both teachers. And I sure can say that they are the ones that influenced me to be attentive and good in my studies. Especially my dad, he was a history teacher and played a huge role in my life. He wanted me to be good in my studies and shine. He also had the love of his country and people. It always pained him to see brilliant students go to join the armed struggle. He once told us, “Almost all of my students are going to the battlefields to free this country. All the good students that had bright future and opportunity in life. Some of them might come back and some of them might not. I want you to make me a promise to be good at your school and fulfil the responsibility of those good students who are sacrificing their lives and opportunities.” This was something that motivated me to work hard in my studies and dream big. I didn’t learn for myself; I learned to keep the promise my father made me carry to serve my country. But that was another kind of strength for me to be good at my studies.
I had the dream to solve the world starvation, as there was starvation worldwide at the time. I got my degree in nutritional chemistry. Then, I continued to get my licentiate examination ph. Lic , on background Carcinogens in 1998. Afterwards, I did my PhD at the department for environmental chemistry, Stockholm university, SU, “identification and origin of potential background carcinogens: endogenous isoprene and oxiranes, dietary-acrylamide”. Also, I did my post-doctoral research, at the Oak Ridge Institute for science and Education, food and drug Administration/ National Center for toxicological Research.
- What was your schooling like outside your country?
It was challenging. I have experienced the racism and its outcomes first hand. I have never been discriminated in my life before. I was confused on what was happening. I grew up respected and honored for my parents were highly respected teachers. In my high school, I was the only black student in my class; for that I suffered a lot. The students didn’t want to sit or partner up with me for any kind of school projects. So I decided that I should just focus on my studies and stop caring about who is going to work with me or sit with me. The sad thing is this kind of discrimination continued until the last time I came here, which is almost my whole life. But I had an aim; I was learning to serve my country, and that motivated me even more to keep going.
- The discoveries you made on Acrylamide formed in heated food…
I was working as a laboratory assistant at the beginning. Afterwards, my professor came and told me that it is better for me to do research since I was already doing it. And that is when I started to do chemical research. That wasn’t easy, especially since I am a black woman from the third world, also a single mother. But my passion was above all the obstacles I was facing. I had a dream to chase.
Anyways, the research I did had already been started at the institution I joined. My projects focused on the features that can cause cancer in our environment, anything that we eat, drink or breathe. My theory was that, if measure chemicals are causing cancer, low molecular chemicals can also contribute to the background in cancer. Of course, I didn’t get an immediate answer on it. But that didn’t stop me from working hard on it. It took time for me to get the results.
At the time I was working on my projects, an accident of a bridge occurred where an Acrylamide chemical leaked in the area. As a result, animals were paralyzed and numerous fishes died. So we had to do an examination to find out what happened. As expected, the important projects were given to other colleagues, who, of course, aren’t black. I was given a less important project. Well, at least that is what they thought.
I had a specialty of method development, so it was easy for me to develop a method to examine the animals that were affected by the incident. I modified the method I used on humans and applied them on animals. So I figured out that the animals which lived closer to humans had high level of acrylamide on their system as they get heated up food from the humans. And for those animals who lived far, it was less.
So, of course, it all was connected with my previous project I was working on. And that is how I came to find a sensational discovery that the heated food has a high level of acrylamide. Acrylamide is a highly regulated chemical in the world as is a neurotoxic. I discovered that heated food can create the chemical and can be consumed without our knowledge. And this shocked the world. Of course, there are many companies that profited from selling French fries and any heated food. It was going to have economic implications.
The discovery was considered one of the biggest discoveries ever made. My supervisor wanted to call the press conference soon. I objected to hold a press conference soon, as I wanted to do more research concerning it. I continued to study what kind of food it can be created, from and the results were on carbohydrate food.
While I was in the middle of my research, I lost my fiancé’ and had to come to Eritrea for the funeral. That is when my supervisor played the trick. She called to inform me that they were going to hold a press conference without me, saying that they cannot hold it on any longer. I had to make an emergency trip and I wasn’t included in the press conference. In fact, I don’t think that they even included my name till the last minute when they heard I was making it back.
- Does it have to do with racism?
Definitely. They weren’t happy, that a black Eritrean woman made this huge discovery without their help. They didn’t want to let the world know who made the discovery. That is what happens to all the black people. That is one of the many reasons I wanted to participate at the press conference. Not only did I deserve to be there, but I wanted to represent all the black people who make a big difference in the world but couldn’t. Even though I didn’t represent myself at the conference, I was there and they all talked about my discovery. The discovery was given attention by numerous media outlets. A professor and chief physician at the Karolinska hospital once wrote about me saying, “ ……the Swedish National Food Administration acted unskillfully and also came close to jeopardizing her defense of her doctoral thesis while at the same time they tried to grab some of the honor of her discovery”.
- You are also a single mother…
Yes. It is hard to raise kids and work hard to get your masters or PhD. However, they both were my strengths, a positive addition to my life. I was scared that I might be selfish, that I wasn’t going to be able to give all the motherly time my daughters deserved.
But I managed to do well. I never studied when I was around my daughters till they went to sleep. I spent all night studying till the morning and I went to school. If there is a will, you can manage to do anything you want.
One time there was an instrument I wanted to use for my research but a colleague of mine, who was also my completion, told me not to use his materials for any of my research. One time he asked me to teach the university students, and I asked to use his materials in return. I remember it was my daughter’s birth day on the weekends. He knew that; however, he told me to do my research on the weekends. It was a long project that I had to prove; it was almost impossible to be done in just two-three days. However, I had to do it. I moved in with my daughter to the lab for two days and managed to finish it in time. I hope to do a further research on my remaining thesis. I hope to do a discovery from here. It would be great if I could do it from here. However, despite all the obstacles I have faced, my researches are successful. I constantly am engaged in various chemical research, I am very passionate about it. Also, I have the high citing of my research papers. Which is a big thing for a scientist.
But most of all, for my acrylamide on heated food, a research section have been opened in universities around the world. This, I consider one of my biggest achievements.
- Now that you are back, what do you plan to do?
I was fortunate enough to do an inventory on the country’s laboratory and had the chance to meet talented and potential students. For that reason, even if I am not able to do a new discovery here, I want to produce brilliant students who will.
- Anything you want to say at last?
As a female, I have faced challenges. I was married at a young age and got divorced which can be considered as a challenge. I lost some one I love who is the father of my daughter and my fiancé. Most of all, though, facing an emotional challenge due to racism. And I had to do it all while raising my two daughters. This didn’t stop me. It even motivated me to work hard to get to where I want.
And to every young Eritreans, life is short and do everything in your power to get the best of it. Now is the time to learn and be productive. Thank you for having me; it is a pleasure.