Sixty-year-old ‘incurable student’ achieves PhD

Posted on 19th March 2018

A Canadian mother-of-three, who celebrated her 60th birthday just days before her graduation at the University of Chester, says she’s an ‘incurable student’.

Dr Johaina Idriss (centre) with her family.
Dr Johaina Idriss (centre) with her family.

After four years of long-distance study, Johaina Idriss was awarded her PhD at a ceremony at Chester Cathedral on March 16.

Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon – the youngest of 14 children – Johaina was married at 16 and emigrated to Germany with her husband. After a few years there, she went to live in Jordan, where she studied for her high school diploma and graduated in 1990 with a score of 89 per cent.

She said: “I wasn’t able to continue my education when I got married, so I was 32 years old when I graduated from high school. My high score allowed me to enrol at one of the Middle East's best universities, the University of Jordan. I graduated from the College of Food and Agriculture with BSc Honours, and was the top student at my college in 1997.

“My professors kept pushing me to go for my Master’s degree, which I obtained at the age of 42 in 2000. After that, I emigrated to Canada, obtained my certification and became a registered dietitian.

“I worked there for a few years but something was always nagging at me – I love teaching, it's a passion of mine and I knew that one day, that’s what I would like to do.”

Still living in Canada, Johaina applied for a post as a lecturer at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU).  She was working at UAEU, heading-up the institution’s dietetics programme in 2013, when she embarked on her PhD journey.  

For three years, while researching her PhD, she worked as a part-time consultant dietitian for a long-term and rehabilitation hospital. And while writing her thesis, she went back to UAEU as a visiting lecturer – a post she still holds today.

She explained why she chose to study for her PhD at the University of Chester. “A friend of mine introduced me to a Faculty member of the University’s Clinical Sciences and Nutrition department. I did some research and liked what I read about the University.

“At the time, I was still working at the UAEU and wanted a programme that did not require course work, just research,” she said.

Johaina’s PhD thesis was entitled Hygiene Compliance in the Small Independent Restaurant Sector in Abu Dhabi. She explained: “I’d been involved in a discussion on the food handlers' certification process and why the food safety exam pass rate was as low as 40%.  It was evident there is a huge gap between the regulations and their implementation, and I wanted to know why this was happening.

“So I volunteered to work on a project to develop a simplified food safety control management system to implement in small independent restaurants that lack resources to help them improve their compliance with the food safety regulation.

“During that time, the research ideas formed in my mind and I thought it would be interesting to see how effective these new policies and initiatives are in changing the food safety status in these restaurants.”

Johaina's PhD study concerned food hygiene practice in small restaurants, and involved a mix of interviews with ‘the person in charge’ and observations of actual practice.  She compared her data to the expectations of the official programmes in Abu Dhabi. 

She says her University of Chester experience was ‘wonderful’. “Faculty members, especially my advisors, were extremely helpful and put me at ease. My tutor, Professor Stephen Fallows, made me feel that anything can be done, and that a little bit of thinking things through can solve any problems. My visits to Campus and the University’s Department of Clinical Sciences and Nutrition were always pleasant and exciting.”

Johaina currently lives in Al Ain in Abu Dhabi, and plans to continue her academic career. She said: “Now that I have my PhD, I’d like to progress my career at an academic institution – the highlight of my days is when I stand in a classroom and shape young minds.

“However, I am an incurable student! I’ve always loved learning and I live by a quote by Socrates, who said: ‘The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance’. 

“To me, knowledge is power and a responsibility – we need to know so we can affect change, and we need to spread the word, whatever the platform we choose.  And who knows – I might find myself another learning project to start in the near future.”

Professor Stephen Fallows said: “To gain a PhD at the age of 59 is an incredible achievement and was only possible because of Johaina’s dedication.

“Johaina’s research was conducted in Abu Dhabi and required information to be provided to her participants in five languages – English, Arabic, Malayalam, Hindi, and Urdu and last year, she had her PhD viva (oral) examination and, coincidentally, this was on her eldest child’s birthday.

“There cannot be many mothers who have their PhD viva on their son’s 42nd birthday!”