Volume 86 Issue 4 | Web Exclusive
Issue Date: January 28, 2008

Workshops Promote Chemical Bonding Among Young Middle Eastern Scientists

Department: Science & Technology
Some of the bioinorganic workshop participants take a break in front of a Petra archaeological site.
Credit: Marina Radoul
Some of the bioinorganic workshop participants take a break in front of a Petra archaeological site.
Credit: Marina Radoul

WHEREAS the Malta Conference series brings established Middle Eastern researchers together, Nobel Laureate and Cornell University chemistry professor Roald Hoffmann has done the same for younger Arab and Israeli scientists by organizing several smaller chemistry-intense workshops in the region.

"Following two successful conferences in Malta," Hoffmann notes, "I wanted to take the spirit of the Malta meetings to another level—to pull in young people, perhaps the future leaders of their profession."

Hoffmann taught the first workshop on electronic structure and bonding in molecules in early 2006 in Petra, Jordan. Last year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor Stephen J. Lippard led one on bioinorganic chemistry in Petra, while chemistry professors George Whitesides of Harvard University and Ralph Nuzzo of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, directed a nanochemistry and nanofabrication workshop in Alexandria, Egypt. Each event hosted a dozen or so young scientists—from graduate students to assistant professors, between the ages of 22 and 38—from 10 Middle East regions, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Yemen, and Jordan.

"It was one of the strongest experiences in my life—I can still feel it," says Adi Salomon, a former graduate student at Weizmann Institute of Science who is now a postdoc at the Louis Pasteur University, in Strasbourg, France. "We had a full program. We would be up early and then working until 10 PM. After that—and it wasn't in the program—we would stay up until 2 AM talking about religion, the situation in the Middle East, everything. The atmosphere was so good. At the end, one Iranian guy gave me a CD of Iranian music because we would probably not see each other again."

Hoffmann says the grueling six-day schedule was all part of the plan. The idea was to mix extra hard work and useful knowledge through the common language of science, he says. "These are the ingredients to camaraderie. We also had them cook together and share music with each other."

The workshops were, however, not without obstacles. Hoffmann had to choose locations where Israelis could travel, and many of the Iranian participants had difficulties getting visas. On a more cultural tangent, some of the Israelis and Arabs had never spoken to one another in a social situation before.

Mohammad H. Al-Sayah, an assistant professor of chemistry at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, says the nanotechnology workshop he attended was "a great opportunity to learn from top experts in the field and to meet young talent from the Middle East." Al-Sayah tells C&EN that he hopes similar meetings will happen with more frequency in the region.

Hoffmann got the initial funding to run the three workshops through the National Science Foundation, and he is now looking for sustainable funding to run two to four such workshops a year. "We want the best young chemists of the Middle East to meet each other, to learn, learn of their differences, yet use their common passion for science as a bond on the long road to mutual understanding."


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