Keen to continue her studies abroad, Hayat Sindi told her father some good news: She had been accepted at a prestigious university in London. Her traditional Muslim father said it would tarnish the family name for a young woman to live overseas alone. “He told me, ‘Over my dead body,’” Sindi recalls. Still, she persuaded him, and off she went to England.
The truth is, she hadn’t been accepted at any university. When she landed in London as a teenager in 1991, she says, she spoke only Arabic, no English. “My first night there, I went to a youth hostel,” she says. “I was in an attic room. I panicked. I looked at my plane tickets—my father had bought a return ticket. I thought, I’ll go home tomorrow.” Instead she went to an Islamic cultural center and got a translator to help her meet with college officials. “They told me, ‘You’re crazy,’” she says. “I was naive. I thought they would just let me in.”
After a year spent cramming on English and studying to pass the “A-levels,” the U.K.’s college-admission courses, she got herself in to King’s College, where she graduated in 1995 with a degree in pharmacology. She went on to get a Ph.D. in biotechnology from Cambridge in 2001. She says her family didn’t learn about her lie until years later, when they were surprised to hear her mention it in a speech.
“My father was worried that, when I lived abroad alone, I would ruin the family honor,” she says. But in time he boasted to the neighbors, like any proud father. “When he died,” she says, “I found newspaper clippings about me under his pillow.”
Sindi is known in scientific circles for her “social innovation,” as she calls it, such as co-founding a group at Harvard to develop a new technique for using tiny, cheap slips of paper and a drop of blood or saliva to diagnose liver disease, and perhaps eventually AIDS—potentially replacing costly lab tests. The technology, while still being tested, has the potential to save lives across the developing world.