Science Shines Light in the Middle East: Gihan Kamel at TEDxCERN (Transcript)

I’m a woman, thanks to God. A Muslim, an Egyptian scientist. And I’ve just moved from Italy to Jordan to work in an international research center called SESAME.

SESAME aims to motivate scientific excellence in the Middle East, as it aims to bridge the gaps between people living in this politically conflicting region. So I’m here to let you know about the two aspects of the project. SESAME project comes from a scientific fascination with light. For thousands of years, understanding our universe remained restricted with what we were able to see with our eyes, and later, with what we were able to see with tools such as microscopes.

Hundreds of mysteries were revealed, yet, seeing the invisible was, and still is, not an easy task. To see more is our inspiration to explore and to develop, and is our way to live and to survive. This motivates scientists to develop and construct super microscopes known as accelerators, that have different shapes, forms, and technologies, aiming at spotting matter down to its atoms. The one I’m working on is called synchrotron light source. The technology has potential applications in life, in material science, physics, chemistry, biology, and many others.

It’s so beautiful to see beyond the hidden unknowns, to answer so many questions about what lies inside us and around us, to view the past, the present, and to preview the future, and most importantly, to break a rule. So besides science, and inspired by CERN, SESAME also aims to connect people living in a boiling spot. Just imagine, to bring you closer, Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Turkish people sitting at the same table not to negotiate about politics, borders, or peace treaties, but instead, to talk about scientific collaborations. Annual meetings bring together scientists of the Middle East together with experts in one place. They simply think science.

And when science talks, they listen. They may be still sitting as labeled groups each representing a country, but at least for a few hours they are looking in the same direction to the same speaker, regardless of the political situation outside the conference room, regardless of the nationality or the religion of the speaker. Exactly as we’re doing now. In their own way, they are creating a certain kind of peace. You can’t find it outside.

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And this happens one meeting in a year and one step at a time. I got to see this during my first visit to SESAME in the 2005 annual meeting. Like anyone else who knows very well the volcanic nature of that part of the planet Earth, best known as the Middle East, I had my doubts. It was an adventure, and it didn’t mean just a scientific conference, it meant something different. It was a usual scene to see participants from the Middle East gathering and chatting with experts in coffee breaks.

The science presented during the meeting was impressive, but honestly, being in one place with those supposedly conflicting groups of people, was adding something so much bigger. It was adding a challenge. By the end of that meeting, I decided that I have to be a part of this community. And I did after 10 years In 2012, I represented Egypt in the SESAME Executive Committee, and earlier this year an Infrared Beamline Scientist at SESAME job was announced.

Even with my huge interest in the project, it took me three weeks of thinking to apply or not to apply, and that was the question. Because to attend a meeting is so much different than taking on a position. To accept it means you’ll have to burn all the labels: nationality, religion, culture, and gender. And what you might do freely will now become essential and obligation. I finally applied and I was selected for the job that I began only a couple of months ago.

As it represents a new challenge in my scientific career in which I hope to help break through science borders, it also shapes my personal interest in breaking other kinds of borders, borders defined by labels. Working at SESAME means to drop your personal views. I had a habit of taking the flag of Egypt wherever I go. On my way to SESAME I broke that rule and left it at home, because I know that in SESAME my flag will be a label. Upon traveling to Italy to work on my PhD, a colleague asked me, “What is the religion of your Italian supervisor?” And I answered, “Why should I care about his religion if my PhD is in Physics?”

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And returning with a PhD in biophysics, I was asked, “To whom do you belong now? To the physicists or the biologists?” And my answer was, “To the corridor leading to both.” That’s a funny situation, but it also gives you an image of how people keep creating borders and adding rules. There’s one more label I carry: I’m a woman. Being the only female scientist at SESAME so far puts pressure every day and a challenge to prove: yes, Arab women can do this. To be a Muslim Arab woman working in the field of science and technology is not convincing for many.

The field is already difficult and it was difficult enough in Italy. But, by adding an Arab country with a particular picture of a female scientist wearing jeans, a veil, putting a helmet, doing experiments, handling tools, sometimes you notice something like laughs and winks, like, “Seriously, are you able to do this?” The answer is, “Yes.” I can also change the tires. So to be a movie star, you just have to be an Arab woman scientist. You only have to try to move a heavy object or try to fill the Dewar with liquid nitrogen, and you’ll find all the eyes are looking at you.

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