Afghanistan's medical physicist and an award-winning innovator

By Kiomars Barakzai
May 17, 2019

Meet Dr. Shakardokht Jafari.  Born in Daykundi, Afghanistan and raised as a refugee in Iran before returning to Afghanistan’s Kabul Medical University as an assistant professor and then completing her Master degree and doctoral studies in the UK, she became a medical physicist and an award-winning innovator after developing an effective and low-cost method of measuring a medical dose radiation.

Interview by Afghanistan Now’s Kiomars Barakzai

Q: What was your key driving force to become an entrepreneur? What problem were you trying to solve?

 A:  The idea came to me when I started working on my PhD project. During my research I realised that the proportion of the overall cancer patient’s survival was near 50%. This share is equivalent to 8% of some sort of cancers. While working in the radiotherapy department as a physicist, I came to realise that there is a 10 to 25% failure in our own radiotherapy treatments. The major reason for this failure was the lack of a feedback system that would enable us to analyse whether the radiation dose is correctly targeted and received by the tumour and not the healthy organs around the tumour. As puzzled as I was, a thought triggered in my mind as to whether I can find or create a very small radiation detector that could be put into the patient’s body to enable us to clearly see what actually happens during the treatment delivery.

Initially,I looked at optical fibers and found them unpractical in a clinical environment, contrary to what the original research had assumed. So I looked at alternatives with similar material properties and suddenly remembered jewellery beads, which have similar properties in comparison to optical fibers. The reason why I thought of jewellery beads is because I wanted something more accessible, simple, robust and affordable. I have worked in Afghanistan and I know how hard it is when people want something that is not accessible or suitable for that working environment. So I wanted something that had all these criteria. That is why I came up with the idea of jewellery beads; they are cheap, robust and easily available in mass quantities. So I put them to test and to my surprise, the jewellery beads proved to be performing more efficiently than optical fibres when tested in terms of radiation detection properties.

I was overwhelmed by the popularity my detectors received. I started receiving requests from other radiotherapy centres and research groups, on whether they could try samples of my detectors in their research. The University of Surrey, where I was studying at the time, encouraged me to commercialise my product. Thus, in the final year of my PhD, I set up a company to commercialise this radiation detector.

However, although the radiation detectors worked quite well, the readout and data analysis process was time consuming and not suitable for busy environments. Therefore, I designed a fully automated reader for the glass bead thermoluminescent detectors. This is essentially what the product is now based on. In the process of commercialising, I was presented with the “Women in Innovation Award”because of my innovative ideas and the layers of commercialisation I was aspiring to integrate within the marketing of the product.

Q: How has being an entrepreneur affected your family life?

A: It has affected my family life a lot, especially my time for children. There was a lot of compromise! My husband had to quit his job in Afghanistan and come with our children to support me during my studies. In fact, he practically became a ‘house-husband’ and, a financial supporter. We lived in a studio flat which was around 8 meter squared and that was all the space in which we all lived. It was a challenging period of my life.  It was not easy to find a balance.

One of my greatest concerns was that I would not be able to fulfil my duties towards my children and be a good mother. But, thankfully, on the contrary, my children often come to me and say “we are so grateful and we are so proud that you are our mother” -  that gives me complete satisfaction!

Q: How do you define success?

A: Not waiting and praying for a dream to come true but instead taking control and actively making them happen! I define success as the feeling of fulfilment iny our life. When you look back at the chapters of your life, it is important that page-by-page you’re happy with what you have done and the way you have spent your time. We are born only once, and we only get one chance, so it is so important that we taste fulfilment in our life. I think when you make your dreams come true, it’s a joyful feeling.

Q: You left Afghanistan as a child for Iran. Can you tell us a little bit more on why and when you left Afghanistan?  

A: I left Afghanistan during the Soviet war. Our village was bombed and many people migrated. I was six years old back then. We travelled through mountainous areas and the desert in order to seek refuge. I lost my 18 months old sister on the way due to lack of access to medical treatment and healthy water. It took us six months to get to the Iranian borders. We crossed the border and lived inIran as refugees. I started school in Iran and was lucky to have been issued an identity card which allowed me to do so. I was lucky because at a later point in time these ID cards were banned, leaving many children without access to education. This was an ongoing problem for more than 30 years until last year.Afghan refugees resorted to setting up home-schooling programs, which were eventually shut down because they were not allowed by the law.


Q: What levels of education did u complete in Iran? Was it difficult as a refugee?

In Iran, I went to primary, secondary, and high school and then university. It was very challenging, given the cultural background and biased treatment towards women at the time. My family also did not want me to pursue a higher education as they deemed it was worthless. However,I was persistent to pursue my dreams and so I continued with my education and that upset my father. During that period, my father did not speak to me for three years. I was pursuing my studies without my dad’s permission and was preparing for my entrance exams which would allow me to get into university. I studied in the bathroom, or in the corner of the garden when everyone else was asleep.I had to do this with a lantern I made myself, out of a syrup bottle which I put oil in. It was the only way I could achieve my dreams! The changing point was when I passed the Konkor (entry to university) exam, my father’s mindset completely changed. I proved that I could in fact pursue an education as both a female and a refugee while respecting family’s principles. I was the only girl that year that managed to get into public university from my town.  I suddenly became well-known in the town and everyone was congratulating my parents. Finally, my father embraced me and we had our long-awaited reunion.

After my undergraduate degree, I went back to Afghanistan and joined the KabulMedical University as an Assistant Professor. I worked there from 2003 until2010. In addition to my work at the University, I was also a supervisor for the radiology department in the French Medical Institute for Children. It was there that we introduced CT scans for the first time to the public. We also introduced MRIs and computerised radiography. I created a training course for14 radiotherapists to enable them to operate the machines. This led to requests from other professors and teachers of the institute to provide training courses outside the hospital. Besides those two achievements, I also helped with re-establishing the High Commission of Atomic Energy in Afghanistan. And I also started to oversee projects from the international atomic energy agency (IAEA). I was leading the project of re-establishment of radiotherapy center in Aliabat inKabul. This was until 2012, when I handed it over to my colleague who was inAfghanistan, because the counterpart needed to be based there.

Q Do you continue to work with the medical professionals in Afghanistan? Where do you think you, and others like yourself in the diaspora, can contribute?

A: Yes, we collaborate with each other. For instance, I help them prepare all the radiation shielding calculations and send back to Kabul Medical University. This was in 2015. I think we as diaspora can contribute now on a higher level. We can secure and develop international collaborations. We also need more missions to teach medical expertise.  Before this period of time, it was not quite possible from inside the country, but now we have greater access to resources.

Workshop on the establishment of the Cancer Control Centre in Afghanistan - the International Atomic EnergyAgency-Vienna 

Q: Have you seen progress in Afghanistan, especially since the departure of the Taliban?

A: Yes, I see a lot of progress, especially when you look at how many girls are going to university in proportion to boys, which was not possible during Taliban control. I can also see a lot of change in the mind-sets of the families, especially towards the education of not only boys, but also girls-and this is really promising.

In terms of the medical field, I see changes in accessibility after the fall of the Taliban. A lot of specialists came back to Afghanistan and started to establish their own specialisations and work in the field. But more recently, I can see that people have started leaving the country again. I can give a lot of examples of great surgeons and radiologists who have left the country for better opportunities, especially in the fields where we have few experts.

Q: There is a rising young generation in Afghanistan, what would you want to tell them? How do you think we can best support this generation together?

A: The main obstacle for me when I came to the UK was confidence, so if we raise the new generation with confidence - they can do it! There is no difference really between them and a young student or researcher from theWestern world, apart from the fact that developed countries have had access to technology. I want to highlight that individuals who have experienced poverty may have challenges with access to technology and fancy equipment, but indeed they have greater capacity to understand real-life obstacles.  This is an advantage: have facing great adversities allows for a deeper insight towards solutions. This along with belief in oneself.