Food allergy is part of me: adapted from Episode 1 from the podcast Allergies with Ayah
Updated: Feb 14
My story is a story of identity. Having food allergies awakened my scientific curiosity, paved education journey and propelled me into a fascinating career. More importantly having food allergies has become an integral part of my identity, it has woven its self into the very fabric that makes me Ayah Wafi. I want to share how having food allergies which can be extremely hard at times and limiting in many cases (specially as a child I found it very distressing) but how having this condition has given me confidence and a sense of purpose.
I was roughly 3 years old when my mom discovered that I had food allergies. My mom and her friend were in the kitchen eating kiwi’s. As many children I was curious and wanted to try everything my mom was eating. My mom handed me some kiwi and I began eating it around 2 minutes after eating this fruit I started to develop symptoms of an allergic reaction. My lips started swelling, my face went red and a rash started to develop all over my body. My mom’s friend at the time instantly recognised that I was having an allergic reaction and luckily had some antihistamine syrup on her. I was given this medicine and my reaction subsided.
After this my mom took me to the doctors who referred me to an allergy clinic. They conducted skin prick tests on me to diagnose me with probable food allergy to a variety of foods including kiwi, tree nuts, peanut and sesame seeds and eggs. My allergy to eggs went away as a grew older but the remaining persisted. At that time clinicians said that my allergies were mild thus prescribed me antihistamine syrup. Over the year’s I would develop more sever allergies to more foods but at this stage this was my “diagnosis”.
Bizarrely, my cousin who was born a few months after me, was diagnosed with same food allergies as me. We were the only people in my family at that time with food allergies and we had the same exact food allergies. We were also the first generation of my family born in the UK. Not surprisingly, this made my parents, auntie and uncle very curious. I remember their conversations vividly. They would discuss the reasons behind why me and my cousin had food allergies. They would read articles online and would postulate their own hypothesis as to the reasons we developed this disease. This ranged from the idea that we were born in the UK and this change in environment could have caused us to develop food allergies. To the idea that my mom didn’t eat nuts whilst pregnant or that both parents have eczema and this could have increased the risk. They also read the hygiene hypothesis and started to make assumptions about their excessive cleaning habitats being linked to increasing the risk of me and my cousin developing food allergies.
As a child I was very scientifically curious and nosey. I would listen in on their conversations and start speculating for myself. I became increasingly curious about why I have food allergies.
Later, my other cousin was born and he was diagnosed with asthma. This made me even more curious. Why is that all my family members thus far are being born with some sort allergic condition? Asthma is an atopic condition very closely linked to food allergy. Growing up I constantly had this this fascination at the back of my head.
When I was in year 11 we learnt about DNA in biology. I loved biology and was mesmerized by DNA and how genes are the building block of life. That summer I did work experience in a hospital. I followed an immunologist around and observed an allergy nurse conducting immunotherapy.
I decided then, that I would take biology chemistry and phycology in my A levels. During this time I learnt even more about genetics and my fasciation grew. I remember thinking that the answer to really understanding why have food allergies is understanding genetics. I chose to study Genetics at the University of Manchester. I remember my allergy nurse telling me that the University of Manchester were world-renowned for their research in food allergy, so this may have influenced my choice too.
I studied an integrated master degree in Genetics. I spend three years studying genetics and a 4th year as a masters research project. My course at Manchester was flexible, and I was encouraged to explore my interests through a variety of optional units. I took optional units such as hematology and immunology to gain a better understanding of the mechanism at play during an allergic reaction. In my third year, we were given a list of several possible supervisors who were willing to take up MSci students. I eagerly searched through this list until I came across a food allergy Professor. Through collaboration with her and two other supervisors, I achieved my dream to research the genetic determinants of IgE-mediated food allergy.
In this project I synthesized a database of potential food allergy susceptibility genes, exploited bioinformatic tools to investigate these genes in a fully genotyped birth cohort, extracted DNA from cell cultures and gained a working understanding of qPCR. Being a part of this lab group was an incredible opportunity to meet like-minded individuals with a passion for researching food hypersensitivity. During my Msci year, I attended the allergy symposium at a hospital and networked with journalists to publish articles on airline food allergy awareness.
After I graduated, I started to volunteer with various charities to raise awareness on food allergies and related hypersensitivity. I also got a job in the allergy regulation field as a risk assessor. What I love about my job role is that I am fully immersed in the science. Having food allergies has allowed me to pave my career journey and given me a sense of identity.
Image description: The photograph is on Ayah, she has long dark brown hair and is smiling at the camera. Sunshine is beaming in her face. She is surrounded by leave.