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Rendezvous in the Mediterranean

Chemistry symposium in Malta promotes cooperation in troubled Middle East

January 12, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 2

French Nobel Laureate Jean-Marie Lehn delivers a plenary lecture.
French Nobel Laureate Jean-Marie Lehn delivers a plenary lecture.

A five-day meeting in malta last month brought together 35 scientists from 10 Middle Eastern nations to discuss research and education in the chemical sciences in the region.

"You are putting science to the service of humanity by seeking how to convert frontiers into bridges in the troubled region of the Middle East through research and education," observed Guido de Marco, president of Malta, in a message to participants.

"Collaboration and sharing of information among scientists of this region can make a world of a difference," de Marco added. "You can lead the change, and you can be successful where politicians seem to be failing. Improving the standards of living of the peoples living in this region is, after all, the best way to fight terrorism."

The conference, "Frontiers of Chemical Sciences: Research & Education in the Middle East," was organized by the International Activities Committee of the American Chemical Society and cosponsored by the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in the U.K. Invitees included top-level scientists from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"The political and economic climate currently shared by the Middle Eastern nations is grave," noted the symposium organizers. "Events in the region burst into violence almost daily, consuming lives and resources while threatening a far wider conflagration.

"A general desire to improve the quality of life and political stability in the Middle East could be addressed by identifying unique opportunities for collaboration among chemical scientists to solve environmental and educational problems," they added.

Planning for the invitation-only conference started in 2002 and took into account the sensitivities of the region and the need for heightened security during the meeting. The organizing committee decided, for example, not to publicize the conference in advance.

"THE MEETING is a dream come true," said Zafra M. Lerman, professor of chemistry at Columbia College, Chicago, who chaired the organizing committee. "I'd like to see the meeting as the first in a series of similar conferences," she said at the opening ceremony.

Paul H. L. Walter, past president of ACS, welcomed participants on behalf of the society. While it might seem obvious, he said, what people really want at a scientific meeting is the chance to meet. "A meeting gives the opportunity for face-to-face interactions," he said. "More detailed, immediate, and focused science can be discussed than would be possible in a journal. Collaborations can be arranged, faceless names can become colleagues, and colleagues can become friends."

E. Ann Nalley, chemistry professor at Cameron University, Lawton, Okla., who represented ACS's board of directors at the conference, underlined the aims of the meeting in her greetings at the ceremony.

"Together we can catalyze the scientific interactions that are essential to the progress and welfare of all people, no matter where we live, no matter what language we speak, no matter what our ideology," Nalley said. "Certainly, many here share common problems in the areas of research and education. This week will give us an opportunity to discuss those problems and look for solutions to our mutual benefit. This is an opportunity that we cannot afford to let slip out of our grasp."


According to Stanley Langer, manager of international affairs at RSC, the symposium was unique and groundbreaking. "Until the opening reception, it was not clear whether all the invitees would overcome the considerable difficulties associated with travel, visas, and permissions, for example," he noted. "However, such worries proved groundless."

IUPAC President Pieter Steyn, who is a research director at the University of Stellenbosch, in South Africa, pointed out that the union is committed to better living through chemistry in all parts of the world, including the Middle East. However, the region is not well represented in IUPAC. Only four countries represented at the Malta conference--Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, and Turkey--are members of IUPAC. "We would like to explore ways of getting more countries from the Middle East into IUPAC," he said.

Each morning and afternoon session of the main part of the conference started with a plenary lecture by a Nobel Laureate. Among the lectures was one by Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, a physics professor at the College of France, Paris. He won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics with Stanford University's Steven Chu and William D. Phillips of the National Institute of Standards & Technology for the development of methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light.

"I strongly believe in using science to promote peace and mutual understanding," said Cohen-Tannoudji, a native of Constantine, Algeria, who received his primary and secondary school education in Algiers. In 1953, he moved to Paris where he studied mathematics and physics at Ecole Normale Supérieure. Between 1988 and 1995, Cohen-Tannoudji and his group in Paris developed techniques using laser beams to cool helium atoms to within a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero.

The lecture sessions at the Malta symposium were followed by working-group sessions on topics related to the scientific and education challenges of the Middle East. Topics included materials and polymer science; cultural heritage and preservation of antiquities; and environment, water, and renewable energy.

"The Middle East is a region with an arid climate, scarce water resources, stark disparities between rich and poor, rapid urbanization, and rapid population growth," noted Khalil H. Mancy, emeritus professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Mancy, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, was manager of a project in the late 1990s that aimed to make a scientific evaluation of the environmental impact of existing and future sources of urban, industrial, and agricultural pollution in the Israeli-Palestinian "Mountain Aquifer" area. The main part of the aquifer drains from the mountain ridges of the West Bank into Israel and toward the Mediterranean Sea. The project involved teams of Israeli and Palestinian scientists.

"The aquifer is a vital water resource that is shared by Israelis and Palestinians," Mancy told C&EN. However, more water is being taken out of the aquifer than is going in, and pollution inputs into the aquifer are increasing. The final project report called for carefully planned joint Israeli-Palestinian management of the shared water resources.

"The project was an example of successful collaboration," Mancy told C&EN. Since the breakdown of peace and the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, however, work on the project has stopped, he added.

"Further scientific cooperation is needed to protect existing water resources and to develop membrane technology and other techniques for desalination and wastewater reuse," he said.

There is also a water crisis in the Gaza Strip, according to Amer Marei Alsawalha, professor of geochemistry at Al-Quds University, East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority.

Jordanian representatives included (from left): Isa Khubeis, vice president of Al-Balqa' Applied University; Sultan T. Abu-Orabi, chemistry professor at Jordan's Irbid National University and president of the Arab Union of Chemists; Yarmouk University associate professor of microbiology and molecular biology Hanan I. Malkawi; and Afif M. Seyam, a chemistry professor at the University of Jordan, Amman.
Jordanian representatives included (from left): Isa Khubeis, vice president of Al-Balqa' Applied University; Sultan T. Abu-Orabi, chemistry professor at Jordan's Irbid National University and president of the Arab Union of Chemists; Yarmouk University associate professor of microbiology and molecular biology Hanan I. Malkawi; and Afif M. Seyam, a chemistry professor at the University of Jordan, Amman.

THE GAZA STRIP has a population of around 1.2 million that is expected to grow to 2.5 million over the next decade, Alsawalha noted in a poster at the meeting. The only source of water in the Gaza Strip is a fragile and shallow coastal aquifer system that is deteriorating because of a rise in salinity and nitrate levels. Only 10% of the total exploited water in the area is considered freshwater. Moreover, the total annual outflow of water from the coastal aquifer in the Gaza Strip for municipal, agricultural, and other purposes is more than 150 million m3 compared with a total inflow of just over 120 million m3. Therefore, the annual water deficit in the Gaza Strip is around 30 million m3.

Alsawalha and Israeli and French coworkers recently carried out a project to examine the water quality problem. Groundwater samples collected from wells in the Gaza Strip and in Israel were analyzed at laboratories at Al-Quds University, at Ben Gurion University in Israel, and in France. They showed that the salinity has three major causes: a lateral flow of saline groundwater across the border with Israel, seawater intrusion, and infiltration of polluted water with high nitrate concentrations.

"If the present situation continues, the aquifer will be depleted during the next decade," Alsawalha observed.

The problem can be solved, he suggested, by introducing techniques for desalinating brackish water and seawater and for increasing the recharge of treated wastewater into the aquifer, by reducing pumping inside the Gaza Strip, and by adopting joint management of the aquifer system with Israel.

"Water is a key issue in the region," remarked Yitzhak Apeloig, chemistry professor and president of Technion--Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. "Whatever one does can affect the other side, so there is a strong need to cooperate."

Technion's Stephen & Nancy Grand Water Research Institute is carrying out a number of desalination and wastewater treatment projects that involve cooperation with Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian scientists and institutes.

ONE SUCH PROJECT, which started last year, focuses on membrane technologies--microfiltration, ultrafiltration, and reverse osmosis--for treating wastewater and reusing it for agricultural production. The project aims to introduce and adapt small-scale plants and examine the technical and economic feasibility of using them to produce effluent of sufficient quality for unrestricted irrigation. The project is supported by the Middle East Region Cooperation Program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID-MERC). The program promotes cooperation in the region through R&D activity.

"It is important that projects involving cooperation between Israel and its neighbors are carried out under the auspices of a third body, such as USAID-MERC or the European Union," Apeloig told C&EN.

Other scientists in the region also presented work on water-related topics. For example, Hani N. Khoury, professor of geology at the University of Jordan, Amman, described the mineralogy of waters having unusually high hydroxide alkalinity that discharge into the Maqarin area in north Jordan. The waters have a pH of around 12.5; are saturated with calcium sulfate; and have elevated concentrations of metals such as potassium and sodium, as well as the trace elements chromium, selenium, molybdenum, and rhenium.

"The mineralogy in Maqarin is comparable to that of cement clinker and to hydrated cement products," Khoury noted.

Whereas freshwater is a scarce resource in the Middle East, the region has an abundance of another resource--energy in the form of sunlight. David Cahen, professor of chemistry and materials research, and coworkers at Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, are carrying out research on poly- and nanocrystalline materials for solar cells.

"Molecular adsorption on semiconductor surfaces such as silicon, gallium arsenide, and zinc oxide can change their electrical properties such as electron affinity," he observed.

Cahen's group, for example, has used transmission and surface photovoltage spectroscopies to evaluate the performance of solar cells. These cells contain a film, deposited on conducting glass, of mesoporous nanoparticulate TiO2 on which are co-adsorbed various dicarboxylic acid derivatives with different dipole moments and commonly used light-harvesting ruthenium dyes.

Abed Rabbo

At the Malta meeting, Cahen and Alfred Abed Rabbo, director of the Water & Soil Environmental Research Unit at Bethlehem University, West Bank, discussed the possibility of developing a joint project to use this type of high-surface-area TiO2 for water purification.

"When exposed to sunlight, TiO2 has the power to release hydroxyl radicals from water," Abed Rabbo told C&EN. "The radicals inhibit microbial action. The idea is to develop a simple system, for example, a TiO2-coated membrane, for use in domestic situations."

A few days after the Malta meeting, Cahen, Abed Rabbo, and coworkers submitted a preproposal for a project on the topic to USAID-MERC.

Around one-third of the 29 posters at the conference focused on water, energy, and environmental topics related to the Middle East.

The Synchrotron light for Experimental Science & Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) facility was the subject of several posters at the meeting; a working-group session; and a lecture by Herman Winick, assistant director of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory and a member of SESAME's beamlines committee.

Nine Middle Eastern governments have become members of SESAME (C&EN, Nov. 10, 2003, page 48). Construction of the synchrotron started this summer at Al-Balqa' Applied University in Jordan. The facility is scheduled to open in 2007 or early 2008.


Research in the life sciences, especially biology, biochemistry, and biophysics, accounts for more than half of the research carried out using synchrotron light, according to Said A. Assaf, director general of the Arafat National Scientific Center for Applied Research in Ramallah, and director of the Arab Scientific Institute for Research & Transfer of Technology, El-Bireh, West Bank.

"The Palestinian Authority, which is a signatory founding member of SESAME, is designated by the Synchrotron SESAME Council operating under the auspices of UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization] to become a host site for the Middle East Life Sciences Institute for Research," Assaf observed.

"The West Bank and the Gaza Strip have 12 universities and many colleges," he added. "Five of the Palestinian universities have M.S. graduate life sciences programs with various biological and medical units. Life sciences research and applications are urgently needed for Middle East development, and a life sciences institute for research in Palestine is badly needed for the region. This institute will hopefully serve as a bridge for peace through science in the Middle East region in the future."

One of the major problems with carrying out research in the region is the lack of state-of-the-art equipment. For example, in Jordan, which has eight state and 12 private universities, scientists often send samples abroad for analysis. "We have various types of electron microscopes, X-ray diffractometers, NMR, and mass spectrometers," Khoury explained in a discussion session. "But some of the equipment is old."

THE PROBLEM is particularly acute in the Palestinian Authority, according to Alsawalha. "We lack infrastructure and financial support," he told C&EN. "In some months, we only receive half of our salary, and in good months we get 70%. Students cannot afford to pay their fees, but we cannot throw them out. So we have no money for instruments.

"We would welcome donations of old instruments in good condition, for example, functioning NMR and atomic absorption spectrometers, X-ray diffractometers, and gas-liquid chromatography apparatus," Alsawalha said. "We are isolated from the world, so we need help from the international scientific community to help our situation and to survive."


Science education in the Middle East accounted for half a dozen or so posters at the symposium and was one of the subjects addressed in the working-group sessions. "There are a number of problems in the Middle East, and unfortunately science and science education usually receive the lowest priority," said Venice K. Gouda, former minister of state for scientific research in Egypt.

"In Egypt, for example, we need to promote science in daily life and to encourage people to appreciate science and technology," she told C&EN. "More books on science and technology in Arabic, at different levels, would be a tremendous help to improve our economy and culture."


Scientists in many Middle Eastern countries do not have the ready access to the scientific literature that their counterparts in the U.S. and Europe do. "Most universities in the region do not have electronic access to journals," observed Fawwaz Jumean, professor of chemistry at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. "At my university, we do have substantial electronic access, but most others have to get hard copies."

Even so, the scientific output of some countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, although small, has increased significantly over recent years. "According to the Iranian Information & Scientific Documents Center, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Science, Research & Technology, Iran's share of papers published in chemistry journals was 0.14% of the world total for the period 1993–97," said Mehdi Jalali-Heravi, chemistry professor at Sharif University of Technology, in Iran. From 1998 to 2002, however, Iran's share grew to 0.44%, or 2,199 papers.

Jalali-Heravi noted that Iran has 32 university departments that carry out teaching and research in chemistry. "Doctoral programs in chemistry are common practice in many universities," he said. In addition, there are several research centers involved in applied chemistry that are affiliated with the Ministry of Science, Research & Technology.

One of the aims of the Malta meeting was to capture the attention of national governments in the Middle East by attracting distinguished scientists from the region who could influence national policy in their own countries and help develop international cooperation.

"The advantage of this type of meeting is that people who do not normally speak together can sit down and talk," observed Moshe Deutsch, professor of physics at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. "Connections are made between people in the highest tiers of the scientific establishment," he continued. "These people are respected and are able to influence policy by talking to people at political levels in government."

The consensus of symposium participants, judging by comments made to C&EN, was that the meeting exceeded expectations. RSC's Langer noted that the meeting consisted of "truly wonderful talks, discussions, and private interactions."

According to the Weizmann Institute's Ron Naaman, a professor of chemical physics, the meeting demonstrated that science is not just a profession, it is a culture. "Science makes it easy for people from different cultures and different countries to get on well together," he said.

Jumean from the American University of Sharjah echoed these views. "This meeting has been a great success," he told C&EN. "Although you may not hear about them, there will be positive repercussions. The participants from the Middle East, the Nobel Laureates, and everyone else here have made a contribution to promoting cooperation and hopefully peace in the Middle East."


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