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Analytical Chemistry

Scientist-Diplomat Extraordinaire

Straddling the U.S. and Middle East, Priestley Medalist Ahmed H. Zewail thrives at the interface of science, culture, and international affairs

by Mitch Jacoby
March 28, 2011 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 89, ISSUE 13

Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN


Scientist-Diplomat Extraordinaire

Even by Ahmed H. Zewail’s standards, the intensity of the past month or so has been off the charts.

Zewail, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at California Institute of Technology, is no stranger to keeping a relentless and high-profile work and meeting schedule. What with the demands of leading a busy research group, traveling the globe to lecture about science and education, and meeting over the years with presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, and even the pope, Zewail—who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and now serves in President Barack Obama’s Administration as the Middle East science envoy—has seen plenty of headline-making action.

Nonetheless, this year’s Priestley Medalist, who is known internationally for his pioneering femtosecond spectroscopy work and for ultrafast electron microscopy imaging, says the history he personally participated in and witnessed unfolding before him last month in his native Egypt “is by any measure, the most momentous event in my life.”

Even before millions of demonstrators took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities in late January and early February, calling for longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step aside, Zewail had been planning to spend time in Egypt. As Middle East science envoy and a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology, Zewail had represented the U.S. in the past year on trips to Egypt, Qatar, Dubai, and Turkey. His schedule called for him to return again to Egypt to continue promoting scientific and educational collaborations designed to foster friendlier relations in support of U.S. diplomacy in that region.

But when the popular uprising began to take hold in Egypt, Zewail sprang into action—not as a U.S. government representative, but rather as a concerned citizen.

“I made it very clear that I was coming to Egypt as an Egyptian citizen to help my mother country,” says Zewail, who holds dual citizenship.

Before leaving for Egypt, he quickly prepared statements that were broadcast on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Egyptian television, and he wrote opinion pieces that were published in the New York Times and the Times of London declaring that superficial and cosmetic changes to Egypt’s power structure simply wouldn’t cut it. Fundamental change is what’s needed, Zewail said via those media outlets, and he respectfully but directly urged Mr. Mubarak to step down immediately.

Credit: Courtesy of Ahmed Zewail (both)
Even as a youngster, seen here dressed for a formal photo at age 12 and at age 10 relaxing on the beach in Alexandria with his father (below), Zewail was motivated to one day become “Dr. Ahmed,” as the sign on the bedroom door of his youth predicted.
Credit: Courtesy of Ahmed Zewail (both)
Even as a youngster, seen here dressed for a formal photo at age 12 and at age 10 relaxing on the beach in Alexandria with his father (below), Zewail was motivated to one day become “Dr. Ahmed,” as the sign on the bedroom door of his youth predicted.

Upon Arriving in Cairo, Zewail kept a fast-paced schedule as he continued to deliver that message in public forums. “I was mainly trying to give moral support, especially to Egypt’s energized youth, who simply thirst for democracy and a new Egypt,” he says. He did so by holding interviews with numerous news organizations, including BBC and CNN, and appearing on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” and “PBS NewsHour.” In addition, he served as an unofficial mediator, spending long hours meeting with various youth leaders, protest organizers, activists, and young academics and presenting their views to high-ranking ministers and to Omar Suleiman, who briefly held the post of Egypt’s vice president last month.

As the events of early February played out in Cairo, and especially as news of Mubarak’s resignation on Feb. 11 sparked major celebrations, the media was abuzz with speculation about who might become Egypt’s next president.

Journalists, bloggers, and even science enthusiasts who were closely following the story, drew up short lists of likely candidates that often included Zewail’s name.

After a meeting that Zewail held with young Egyptian researchers, Nature Middle East posted a blog entry announcing that Zewail had reconsidered his oft-stated intention to remain in science and stay away from high office—and was now thinking about running for the presidency.

But in a recent interview with C&EN, Zewail emphasized that he does not really want to become president of Egypt. “I have always said I can serve both Egypt and the world more effectively as a scientist, and that is my preference,” he asserted. Yet out of a sense of duty and respect for his fellow Egyptians, Zewail is cautious not to reject too hastily the barrage of requests he says he has received by phone, e-mail, and in person, urging him to consider becoming Egypt’s president.

As the Arab world’s only science Nobel Laureate, Zewail is accorded rock-star status in the Middle East. Students and young people pack auditoriums to hear him speak. For example, last July, more than 5,000 people gathered at the Alexandria Library to hear Zewail speak, according to newspaper and blog accounts of the event. One of his televised addresses, delivered last year from Cairo and broadcast across the Arab world, drew some 30 million viewers, Zewail says, citing information given to him by the satellite station’s chief executive officer. Margaret Warner of “PBS NewsHour” recently likened interviewing Zewail in downtown Cairo to “sitting in public with Bono and Einstein combined,” referring to the lead singer of Irish superband U2.

The world of Islam holds intellectual achievement in very high regard, Zewail says, explaining the likely source of his popularity. Underscoring that point, he quotes a lofty Arabic expression, al-‘ilm nur, meaning “knowledge (or science) is light,” and another one comparing ‘ilm, knowledge or science, to water and air, the essentials of life. So in a culture with a tradition of praising academic excellence so highly, especially one that in recent memory has witnessed so few of its members rise to international prominence for scholarship, Zewail stands out.

But with that popularity comes responsibility—and Zewail feels it strongly. That’s why he cannot bring himself to summarily and carelessly brush off throngs of Egyptians calling for him to become president, even though he has no desire to hold that office. “In this historic moment, when people have died for such an important cause and Egyptians are asking me to help by becoming president, it’s my duty, at the very least, to think about it,” he says. But until now, that’s as far as it has gone.

That same sense of duty and a desire to help people better themselves are what drive Zewail to continue globe-trotting, especially to Muslim-majority countries, where he promotes education reform and investment in science. He knows he has given “the man and woman on the street” hope that those improvements will come, he says, because they tell him of their newfound optimism and shared desire to strengthen their countries’ educational systems. Their governments, however, have thus far been less responsive to Zewail’s encouragement and have remained reluctant to substantially increase allocations for education and science.

Even before becoming a U.S. science envoy, Zewail was busy trying to raise awareness of the importance of obtaining a rigorous education and establishing solid science and technology bases in developing countries. In lectures and in written opinion pieces, for example, he called upon developed nations not only to provide financial aid for these causes, but to become partners with the recipients and provide them with expertise, educational guidance, and implementation plans (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/35071136). He also helped bring prestige to highly committed young people by setting aside part of his Nobel Prize winnings to establish three prizes. Two are awarded annually by the American University in Cairo for outstanding academic performance in science and service to society. A third one is presented at the Cairo Opera House each year for achievements and creativity in the arts.

Credit: Courtesy of Ahmed Zewail
This 1999 photo captures the Zewail family, Nabeel (in his father’s arms), Hani (sitting with his mother, Dema), and Zewail daughters, Amani (left) and Maha, boating down Egypt’s famous river.
Credit: Courtesy of Ahmed Zewail
This 1999 photo captures the Zewail family, Nabeel (in his father’s arms), Hani (sitting with his mother, Dema), and Zewail daughters, Amani (left) and Maha, boating down Egypt’s famous river.

Long before any of those efforts in education took shape, Zewail was shaping his own education. Had this year’s Priestley Medalist been honored for “developing revolutionary methods for the study of ultrafast processes in chemistry, biology, and materials science” in any year other than this one—a year in which a key chapter in the history of his native Egypt and the Middle East is being rewritten—this biographical sketch might well have started with the little sign posted by the medalist’s parents on the door of young Zewail’s bedroom naming the serious schoolboy who slept and studied there “Dr. Ahmed.” For even when Zewail was a little kid, his parents recognized and encouraged their son’s inquisitiveness and passion for learning. “If I got a 98 out of 100 on a test,” Zewail recalls fondly, “my father would scold me playfully, ‘Ya-bni, my son, what about the other two points?’ ”

And so it was that Zewail’s drive to earn top scores in school continued throughout his younger years in his hometown, Disuq, and in nearby Alexandria, where he went on to attend university. There, as a science student majoring in chemistry, Zewail’s academic performance distinguished him as the highest-ranked student in his class and qualified him to serve thereafter as a mu’id, or demonstrator, equivalent to a teaching or research assistant. That position, which just seven chemistry students in a class of roughly 500 managed to attain, was a big deal because if a mu’id earned a Ph.D., the university would offer him or her a position as a professor.

Eager to pursue a career in academia, Zewail completed his master’s study at the University of Alexandria and applied to U.S. schools to do Ph.D. work. He was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, and after clearing countless hoops and hurdles imposed by Egyptian bureaucracy, he finally set off for the U.S. in 1969. He had little cash in hand and equally little command of the English language, and he soon found that he was in for one giant culture shock.

Although he had passed all of his courses with flying colors, Zewail’s science education in Egypt was very traditional and didn’t cover much quantum mechanics, group theory, or other topics in modern chemistry and physics needed for the foray into spectroscopy on which he was embarking. Likewise, he had had little experience with lasers and advanced instrumentation up to that time. But learning science was his forte, and in no time he came up to speed. Acclimating to American culture was an entirely different story.

Picture a 20-something, well-groomed, conservative Arab man in a starched white shirt, pressed dress pants, and coat and tie walking around the campus of a U.S. university in the free-spirited days of 1969. Surrounded by fellow grad students sporting colorful T-shirts and jeans with holes, Zewail wasn’t quite sure what to make of the curious dress habits of the young people in his strange new world.

The refined mu’id from the banks of the mighty Nile River was even less sure what to make of their social habits. He smiles now when he recalls how a young man and woman, students in the first lab course he taught, decided right in the middle of running a titration that the time was ideal to start making out. “These two students began kissing, right in front of me, right in front of the whole lab, with passion,” Zewail emphasizes laughingly. “In Egypt, this scene would have been ­impossible.”

The scientific and cultural education Zewail acquired at Penn and later at the University of California, Berkeley, where he conducted postdoctoral research, served him well. Although it would be quite a while before he tried on a pair of jeans—and even then only ones without holes—and a while more before he would come to understand why a man came running past his Berkeley lab one night wearing a mask and nothing else (“streaking” doesn’t translate easily into Arabic), Zewail’s easy manner and charm soon brought many close and long-lasting friendships among people of many nationalities and cultures. And his gift for devising insightful and probing experiments, and for explaining their meaning in simple, straightforward language, soon earned him a reputation as a topnotch scientist.

Within a few years of taking a faculty position at Caltech in 1976, Zewail and his new research group were thoroughly immersed in pushing the limits of molecular dynamics. The team soon developed femtosecond laser methods for exciting sample molecules with a “pump” beam and then quickly probing them with a second light pulse. By carefully tuning the interval between the two pulses, the researchers recorded series of snapshots that captured reactants evolving to products by way of transition states that existed for mere quadrillionths of a second.

Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Zewail’s current research efforts are aimed at advancing ultrafast imaging in biology and materials science via laser-driven electron microscopy methods pioneered by his group.
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN
Zewail’s current research efforts are aimed at advancing ultrafast imaging in biology and materials science via laser-driven electron microscopy methods pioneered by his group.

That body of work, for which Zewail was honored with the Nobel Prize, “has made it possible for us to observe and understand some of the most intimate details of the processes by which substances are transformed,” says Zewail’s Caltech colleague David A. Tirrell. “Ahmed’s work has changed not only what we know about chemical reactions, but what we believe is possible to know,” Tirrell adds.


Years after those pioneering experiments were conducted, Harvard University’s George M. Whitesides still finds it “truly remarkable” that Zewail’s team devised ways to observe dynamics of molecular bonds on a timescale several orders of magnitude shorter than the time required for a bond to vibrate.

Thinking back to the days when some of those key experiments were being carried out, Zewail recalls the period as being “filled with thrilling moments,” adding that the excitement meant he wasn’t sleeping much at that time. Neither were his students.

Jennifer Herek, who joined the Zewail group in 1990 as a graduate student, says the experience was “intense.” Now a physics professor at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, Herek says Zewail “always was so enthusiastic, and motivated us to work hard and long hours.” She recalls the way Zewail engendered a “collective spirit” that inspired the group to get things done. “He often told us we would look back on this time as the best days of our lives.” At the time she wasn’t so sure. “But he was absolutely right,” she acknowledges.

Working in the Zewail group at around the same time as Herek did, Dongping Zhong, now a physics professor at Ohio State University, says that one of the most important lessons he learned from Zewail is that “in order to succeed in science, you have to be passionate about your work.” But that was easy, he adds, because Zewail’s passion for science was “highly contagious.”

Winning a Nobel Prize in 1999 didn’t temper Zewail’s drive to push the frontiers of science. It was around that time that his group was developing ultrafast electron diffraction techniques, which led to the more recent development of four-dimensional electron microscopy. That technique enables the temporal and spatial behavior of matter to be studied directly and simultaneously as events unfold in real time. These latest efforts are spawning new imaging methods that experts say may revolutionize biological and materials sciences because they can provide 3-D views of nanometer-scale objects evolving on the femtosecond timescale (C&EN, June 28, 2010, page 11).

And just as the fame and never-ending list of obligations that come with international scientific recognition didn’t dampen Zewail’s drive to advance science, they also didn’t diminish his care and concern for the welfare of the people in his group. Students and postdocs whose era in Zewail’s group spans from more than 20 years ago to as recently as last year, unanimously agree that their adviser truly cares about them.

For a man like Zewail, who has shown himself to be a concerned citizen of the world, that characterization hardly comes as a surprise. “Ahmed is among the most decent of people,” says Harvard’s Whitesides. He adds, “He’s a warm and dignified man.”



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Margarida Bastos (August 4, 2016 4:52 AM)
I came across his remarkable work when I was working on DNA hydration, studied by neutron scattering. His results were fundamental for the discussion of our paper, as they provided a realy sound insight, from a completelly different technique, and our results were in line with his findings.
Since then, I have followed his work. An amazing scientist!
Mohsin Rasheed (August 4, 2016 7:11 AM)
I am very sad to hear about the death of Dr. Ahmed, his life is a great lesson for all of the young people who are considering scientific study and research, no doubt he was one of the most celebrated geniuses of our time and he would certainly be remembered for a long time for his remarkable contributions in Science.

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