Visiting scholar Rana Dajani

March 19, 2020
Visiting scholar discusses her genetic research on trauma, work on literacy

By any measure, Rana Dajani is an accomplished leader, both as a biologist and a social entrepreneur. The 2019-21 Zuzana Simoniova Cmelikova Visiting Scholar at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies traverses the world, giving presentations on her genetic research and on her social entrepreneurial work related to We Love Reading, a literacy nonprofit she founded in her homeland of Jordan.

In January, Dajani was named an Ashoka Fellow for her leadership of We Love Reading, which employs an evidence-based, grassroots model to promote the love of reading among children and youth in more than 55 countries. A professor of biology and biotechnology at The Hashemite University in Jordan, she received the Science, Technology, and Innovation Award from the United Nations in 2019. Arabian Business named her one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Women.”

The following narrative in Dajani’s own words is excerpted from a February interview in which she donned five scarves—an analogy to wearing different hats—to illustrate the five roles she plays in her life.

“The first scarf represents my most important role, the role of mother to my four children, now all adults. Parenthood is an irreplaceable role that we don’t always value enough. It is one of the best things we can give society.

“The second scarf symbolizes my role as an educator. I was a school teacher for 10 years and have been a university professor since 2005. I love teaching. I am currently writing a book about how to teach critical thinking, something I am experimenting with in my Jepson School classes.

“My third role is that of scientist. I’m a pioneer in understanding cells and molecules and how they communicate and work. My scientific research focuses on two areas, the first being the genetic study of Jordan’s Circassian and Chechen subpopulations. These two ethnic groups settled in Jordan 150 years ago after fleeing Russian persecution. Because they have maintained their ethnic purity, they are ideal populations for genetic study.

“Secondly, I research the impact of trauma on Syrian refugees by studying their behavior, physiology, and genetics to try to uncover how people can build resilience. I am half Syrian myself. I am currently collaborating with colleagues from Yale and the University of Florida on a study of the epigenetics of transgenerational trauma in Syrian refugees.

“This fourth scarf represents my role as a social entrepreneur who started We Love Reading. Although Jordan has a high literacy rate—around 98 percent—I noticed that children were reading only what they were required to read. I wanted to instill a love of reading in children to ensure they would become lifelong learners and changemakers.

“Reading aloud to children is key to developing their love of reading because it develops feelings of love and security. I started a storytelling circle in my mosque, which eventually led to the founding of We Love Reading.

“We train adults how to read aloud as an art and promote a culture of reading and writing. Not only do children embrace reading, but the adult volunteer readers develop an entrepreneurial spirit that helps them in other aspects of their lives.

“Finally, my fifth scarf stands for my role as a feminist. I’d like to see a paradigm shift in how we look at women’s equality. Rather than ask how we can get more women in the workplace, ask what it is women really want. The answer could be different across cultures, continents, and peoples.

“Everyone is different. We should respect and trust people and help them achieve their dreams.”


Read this New York Times story on how Dajani’s reading program is helping refugee children.

Watch this TEDx Talk by Dajani on We Love Reading.

Watch this TEDx Talk by Dajani on how to pursue gender equity.