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First Dean’s Excellence Scholarship winner breaks down barriers to education

Doctoral student Shima Bibi accepts the first CAHNRS Dean’s Excellence Scholarship from Dean Ron Mittelhammer.

Shima Bibi is a pioneer and a scientist. From rural Pakistan to Washington State University, she is pursuing her passion for discovery, working to improve global health and help girls in her home country reach their potential.

The first recipient of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences Dean’s Excellence Scholarship, Bibi will earn her doctorate in food science this fall. She is the first woman in her family and her home village to earn a PhD.

She grew up in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which is under constant watch, and sometimes attack, by the Taliban.

But Bibi’s scientific mind, and desire to use that science to help others, pushed her to harness her courage and break down barriers.

Determined to learn more

“As a child, I was deeply interested in learning new things,” said Bibi, who was raised in a small village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the Northwest Frontier Province. “Curiosity came first. Then I asked, how can I apply my science to help people?”

Growing up, she watched her fellow girls drop out of primary school, while boys stayed in class.

“I realized boys had freedom to realize their dreams, while girls’ desires to succeed were encumbered by societal expectations and gender norms,” Bibi said. “This did not seem right to me. I was determined to make a difference.”

After primary school, she was one of just three girls in her village class to apply and move up to middle school. Her teachers urged Bibi to continue her education, and with the support of her family, she traveled daily to a nearby village to attend a government girls’ high school.

From primary school through high school, Bibi led her classes in grades, and earned the highest score to date at her girls’ high school.

Bibi, in her lab at the School of Food Science, researches how purple potato and raspberry could protect digestive health.

Attending university in the large city of Peshawar, Pakistan, Bibi’s exploration of antibiotic qualities in honey led her to antioxidants—chemicals that protect the body from deterioration, found in foods like berries, purple potatoes and chocolate.

Spurred in part by her father’s bout with an intestinal ailment, Bibi set out to learn how antioxidants affect chronic disease. Winning a Fulbright scholarship, she applied to programs across the United States to find the best place to advance her ideas. The Washington State University–University of Idaho School of Food Science won out.

For the past four years, Bibi has worked alongside advisor Meijun Zhu, associate professor in the School of Food Science.

“Shima braved many hardships to finish her education,” said Zhu. “She comes from a region where fewer than one in ten women learn to read.”

Bibi’s dedication and perseverance helped her break boundaries, both to gain an education at home and to match her peers at WSU, added Zhu.

“She worked hard to reach this level, and has improved dramatically to become one of the top graduate students in my lab,” she said. “I see Shima becoming a leader in the field in Central Asia, and a role model for young people aspiring to a career in food and health.”

Today, Bibi is completing research on the beneficial effects of two antioxidant foods, raspberries and purple potatoes, on digestive health, a critically important research area.

“I want to see if these foods can protect against diseases like colon cancer and colitis,” she said.

First Excellence Scholarship

The CAHNRS Dean’s Excellence Fund was created by many donations over several years. Academic departments nominate students for the award, and the dean of the college chooses one undergraduate and one graduate scholarship recipient annually.

“The Dean’s Excellence Scholarship provides financial support for students who have a passion and determination for their chosen major in the face of hardships and challenges in their personal lives, and who exhibit dedication to applying their knowledge and expertise to assist and improve the lives of others,” said CAHNRS Dean Ron Mittelhammer. “Shima epitomizes these qualities, and CAHNRS is proud to present her with the first award.”

The $1,000 scholarship supports Bibi’s continuing doctoral studies.

A proud Coug, she will return home after graduation as a research officer for Pakistan’s agricultural research service in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There, she aims to improve food security and health in her community.

“In Pakistan, girls are now going to universities and seeking every professional degree,” said Bibi. “I will work for women’s education, and bring shining minds to the forefront. I’m not afraid of any hardship. I’m a Fulbrighter and a Coug, and I have a Fulbright and Coug family all over the globe.”