Our Benefactress

The Harvard Scholars at Risk Program is deeply grateful to Dr. Aida Nureddin, whose generous bequest has provided sanctuary to SAR fellows for the past two years, and continued to provide support for the SAR program for years to come. Dr. Nureddin passed away on October 1, 2013, and on April 27, 2015 the SAR program honored her bequest at the Harvard Faculty Club, with a dinner shared by current and former SAR fellows, SAR committee members, and some of the many members of the Harvard community who comprise the extended Scholars at Risk family of friends and supporters. The following remembrances of Dr. Nureddin, provided by Andy Nureddin, nephew of Dr. Aida Nureddin, and close friend and colleague Raymond Anchan, were composed in anticipation of that event.

Dr. Aida Nureddin: A Scholar and Humanitarian Remembered

Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us - Samuel Smiles

Aida was born in a Jerusalem on April 15, 1940. The youngest of three siblings and the only girl, she showed early signs of sharp intelligence and an almost limitless capacity for hard work. These traits would be the hallmark of the rest of her life. She entered school at a very young age, starting her schooling at the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion in the Old City of Jerusalem. The school was one of the oldest and most venerable learning institutions in an old and venerable city.

Perhaps Aida's lifelong appreciation of history and human endeavour was formed by her environment: our family lived in an ancestral home that is over 500 years old; Aida walked the ancient streets of Jerusalem, including the Via Dolorosa, several times a day; and her school was the site of the Ecce-Homo, where are Pontius Pilate presented a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his Crucifixion. You just can't top that kind of setting.

Aida graduated high school at the young age of 15. She had won a scholarship to the University of Missouri at Kansas City. For a young girl from a traditional family in the Holy Land, who was not even old enough to travel on her own, this might as well have been a schooling opportunity on the surface of the moon. For most people' this would have been the end of the story. Enter Aida's mother, my grand mother: she was a wiry widow not quite 5' tall, who had raised her three kids in constant economic hardship and had what we would call today a will of steel. Despite the unfathomable distance and cultural equivalent to outer-space that she would be sending her daughter into, she devised a plan to overcome Aida's young age: for her first year in College, Aida would stay with the Holy Sisters of Sion at her Seminary in Kansas City. Hardly the setting for wild Saturday nights!

Aida got her Bachelor's in Chemistry in 1962 and promptly returned home to serve her beloved Jerusalem and it's inhabitants. For three years, she worked as a Lab technician at the Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, helping set new standards for medical labs and diagnostic testing. But her yearning for more science set her on her way again, and she left for Vanderbilt University where she characteristically did not settle for the next step on the ladder. She instead earned her Doctorate in one fell swoop and went on to become a Post-doctoral Fellow at Cambridge University in the UK before joining the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota. All this before she turned thirty. In 1987, she came back to the US and in 1988 settled in Boston.

Over the years, Aida would go on from one Academic and Scientific achievement to the next. But that is not how her family remembered her. Although she could be stern when needed, she was the most thoughtful person I have ever met: thoughtful in that deep way that leaves you cherishing every conversation and every contact you had with her for years to come. She had a keen sense of humor, and in sharp contrast to the stereotypes of a scientist, she was incredibly adventurous.

I remember her visiting us many years back and asking me to take her flying over Niagara Falls. Mindful not to get her airsick, I was very careful with my turns over the Falls. Frustrated that she could not take the right picture, she turned to me and said "do you normally fly like an old lady or are you trying to impress me?!"

The one thing she loved more than her scientific research was her family, and she did not hesitate to sacrifice the former for the latter. When her mom needed care due to her illness, Aida dropped everything, including a coveted position at the Mayo Clinic to be with her, probably setting her career back many years in the process. When my own dad was diagnosed with cancer, she brought him here, home to some of the world's best doctors to treat him. Her love of her family spanned generations: her grand nephews and nieces were her pride and joy, and she managed to remember the comings and goings of each one of them, sending thoughtful cards or gifts for this graduation or that achievement, never missing a beat.

Aida was also a devoted friend whose bonds of friendship ran a lifetime. This little girl from Jerusalem befriended a Midwestern girl in Kansas City. Almost six decades later, she and her beloved Penny continued their sense of wonder and adventure on a junket to China's famous sites this last summer.

Aida was as dedicated to her career as anyone I have ever known. She loved her work in a way that defies the term. Her work was not simply a job, but her life. I remember she was visiting us in Canada when that terrible day on 9/11 shook the world. With borders closed, and airlines grounded, she and I resorted to trains, busses and taxis to get her back here to her job as she had promised.

Over the past week or so, I have received very touching messages from her colleagues near and far, especially those who most recently worked with her at Brigham and Women's and the Harvard Medical School, expressing their sympathies, but mostly celebrating her humanity. It is this humanity that she will best be remembered for. One example that perhaps best illustrates this is an envelope  discovered after her passing that was sitting next to her bedside table drawer. In it, she had preserved the most precious things to her: those letters of gratitude she received from loving parents in appreciation for her fertility work that made it possible for them to conceive a child and receive that most valuable gift of life. 

--Andy Nureddin

When I learned that Dr. Aida Nureddin had passed suddenly in her sleep, I was shocked at this news as were many others of her family, coworkers and colleagues.  I first met this lovely person in 2005 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), Harvard Medical School (HMS) where she worked in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility (REI) as a senior embryologist.   When one initially met Aida, little would they realize that this humble and quiet woman was in her own right an intellectual giant, humanitarian and passionate academic. Aida came to BWH/HMS by way of the Truman Medical Center, Kansas City, MO in 1987.  She then continued her academic career at BWH/HMS as an embryologist and scientist for over two decades contributing significantly to the development of the fertility treatment program. Her academic endeavors as an embryologist and scientist helped advance fertility treatment options for many generations of patients and help establish the fertility preservation program.

During her over twenty year tenure, Aida was a mentor to many a reproductive endocrinology fellow, obstetrics and gynecology resident-physician and Harvard Medical School student until her retirement.  Unlike many who retire from their jobs, retirement for Aida was just a conduit to allowing her more independent research time, giving her the opportunity to pursue her true passion, academic excellence as a scientist on her own time and terms.  Leading towards formal retirement from her job at BWH, Aida became more involved in stem cell research in my laboratory and was instrumental in helping develop the stem cell program in the department of obstetrics and gynecology. She also mentored scientists engaged in the male-fertility microfluidics research program at the BWH-MIT Bioengineering Division thereby facilitating the publication of multiple manuscripts which were key to obtaining National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for related ongoing research.   

An unheralded part of Dr. Nureddin’s academic journey was her career guidance of many a foreign postdoctoral scientist both scientifically as well as socially.  This probably in part speaks to her desire to support the Harvard Scholars at Risk program. Aida would lend a sympathetic ear to the plight of these foreign trainees,  who were trying to be industrious as scholars while struggling to negotiate immigration hurdles to their training. Perhaps she saw in these young scientists a memory of her trip from the Middle East to the United States and institutions of higher learning.  Aida demonstrated kindness in listening to these trainees while teaching them embryology at the bench-side. In the end the legacy of an educator is the story of their students success.   This indeed is true of Aida’s students. Several students who were trained by Aida today hold academic faulty positions at distinguished universities not only in the specialty of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, but also in the science of Bioengineering.

Aida came from a part of the world where conflict has reigned for several decades.  At a recent reunion of prior fellows who graduated from the BWH/HMS REI program, the division director Dr. Mark Hornstein eulogized Dr. Nureddin by making the poignant observation that he as an American Jew and Aida as an American Palestinian had worked together as colleagues, very productively for nearly two decades; this in itself gave us hope that peace in the Middle East between the Jews and Palestinians is a realistic tangible goal.  Ultimately it is the story of Aida’s academic journey from her native Old Jerusalem to the United States as related by her nephew Mr. Andrew Nureddin, that really helps one obtain a glimpse of her life experiences and develop an appreciation for her desire to support the Harvard Scholars at Risk program.  

– Raymond Anchan