Along Beirut’s Corniche boardwalk, a fresh breeze off the rugged Lebanese coastline mixes with air sweeping down from a mountainous forest to lift the fumes from the city’s notorious traffic. Now and again, a hint of shisha, the sweet tobacco smoked in water pipes throughout the entire Middle East, wafts by.
Shisha smoke, air pollution, and the chemistry of Lebanon’s natural products are all on the research agenda of Najat Aoun Saliba, a chemist at the American University of Beirut (AUB). One of 13 American Chemical Society members in Lebanon, Saliba returned to the country in 2001 after spending 12 years in the U.S., where she completed an M.S. at California State University, Long Beach; a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Southern California; and a postdoc at the University of California, Irvine.
“Initially I had two competing drives,” Saliba says. “Part of me wanted to stay in the U.S., and part of me wanted to come back home to Lebanon.” But she made a conscious decision to focus her research on local issues. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to return to Beirut, then I want to study things that really affect the country.’ ”
One of her first projects in Lebanon was to measure the amount of particulate matter in Beirut’s air. Saliba found that the levels of these compounds were twice what the World Health Organization deemed to be safe. Until then, particulate air quality measurements had not been done in the country, says Mazen Al-Ghoul, chair of the chemistry department at AUB.
In 2002, Saliba helped establish the Ibsar Nature Conservation Center for Sustainable Futures, an AUB institute that does research and public outreach related to Lebanon’s biodiversity. She currently directs the center and leads projects evaluating potential medicinal properties of the country’s plant and marine extracts.
Saliba is also involved in a U.S. National Institutes of Health-sponsored project to study the health effects of smoking shisha. Although many of the carcinogenic properties of tobacco smoke are well-known, Saliba is working with colleagues in the U.S. to examine how sweeteners added to the tobacco change the properties of the inhaled smoke. They report that compounds such as addictive acetaldehydes and toxic formaldehyde are found in higher quantities in shisha smoke than in cigarette smoke.
Research in Saliba’s lab and others across the country is typically done by professors themselves, by hired research assistants, or by undergraduate and master’s students. Currently, no Ph.D. programs in chemistry exist in Lebanon, although several universities in the country are working to reinstate the degree. During the country’s civil war, which began in the mid-1970s and ended in 1990, many local universities, including AUB, discontinued their Ph.D. programs as a result of a lack of funding, lack of students, and little access to basic research supplies.
The long civil war and more recent conflicts, such as the 2006 war with Israel, have lasting practical consequences on Lebanese scientists: Many Western companies will not ship certain chemicals that could be used to make weapons into the country. Some of these chemicals—such as acetic anhydride or even acetone—are essential to synthetic chemistry labs, and researchers in the region must go through extensive bureaucracy to import them. Even chemicals that are not considered problematic are hard to get. “Whenever we want to order chemicals, it takes three months to get a bottle of reagent that could come by overnight delivery in the U.S.,” Saliba says.
Convincing students to study chemistry is also a challenge. “Students ask me, ‘What can I do with a chemistry degree?’ Right now they can teach high school chemistry or leave the country for higher education,” Saliba says. With no chemical or pharmaceutical industry in Lebanon, job prospects for chemists are extremely limited. But Saliba hopes that, spurred by spin-offs from natural product research done at the Ibsar institute and across the country, a biotech industry will grow in Lebanon and entice students who study abroad to eventually return home, as she did.
This series celebrating the International Year of Chemistry offers a window into the lives of ACS members around the world.