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Science & Technology

November 15, 2010
Volume 88, Number 46
pp. 44-45

Intangible Rewards

Engaging with chemists of the developing world is a responsibility that brings deep satisfaction

Maureen Rouhi

Maureen Rouhi/C&EN
Postcards From Jordan Popularly known as the “Treasury,” this elaborate ruin is the centerpiece of Petra, Jordan’s stunning ancient rock city.
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Maureen Rouhi/C&EN
Maha Rashed Abdalhah (left), a graduate student at the University of Jordan, discusses her work on anticancer natural products with Salah Akkal, a chemistry professor at the University of Algeria.
Maureen Rouhi/C&EN
Perusing the abstract book, Harvard Medical School’s Jon Clardy (center) was among the packed audience during the opening ceremony.
Maureen Rouhi/C&EN
Musa Nazer, fondly called the father of Jordanian chemistry, welcomes participants during the opening ceremony.
Maureen Rouhi/C&EN
Participants take a break at the courtyard of the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center, in the Dead Sea, Jordan.
Maureen Rouhi/C&EN
University of Jordan students entertained participants with music and songs.
Maureen Rouhi/C&EN
Chu-Huang (Mendel) Chen (right) with San Thang, coinventor of reversible addition-fragmentation chain transfer (RAFT) polymerization pose before a huge portrait of Jordan's late King Hussein.
Maureen Rouhi/C&EN
Fabian Dayrit described characteristics of virgin coconut oil.

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About 600 people from 60 countries met at the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center, in the Dead Sea, Jordan, in early October for the 11th Eurasia Conference on Chemical Sciences. The meeting marked the first time an Arabian country hosted the international gathering. For the chemists of Jordan, bringing chemistry luminaries to their home turf had numerous obvious rewards—from the prestige of successfully staging a complex event to the chance to showcase not only their science but also their hospitality and culture.

To a casual observer, however, the rewards of such meetings for chemists of the developed world may not be so obvious. Although the meeting featured three Nobel Laureates and other eminent chemists, their talks mostly reviewed past work, much of which had already appeared in the pages of C&EN. Most of the new work came from participants from developing countries. As scientifically solid as the studies are, they are not of the breakthrough kind that moves the science forward, or in a different direction, and grabs headlines.

For a science news reporter like me, the type of new work discussed at conferences such as this one in Jordan presents a dilemma. Nothing of what I heard—and I caught only a tiny fraction of the oral and poster presentations—could compete for newsworthiness against material C&EN editors usually consider for coverage. But leading-edge science, according to attendees, is not the point. The point is face-to-face engagement and the deep satisfaction and surprising opportunities it can bring, including perhaps the chance to unlearn stereotypes.

Maureen Rouhi/C&EN

“One of the old professors [an international participant] told us that he thought he’ll find difficulty in communication due to a language barrier,” Hiba Zalloum told C&EN. One of many Jordanian chemists at the conference, Zalloum is a drug discovery researcher at the Hamdi Mango Center for Scientific Research of the University of Jordan. “He also said his wife refused to join him because she thinks we are living in a war and our area isn’t safe,” Zalloum continued. “I wish we’ve reflected a good image of Arabs and Muslims in this conference,” Zalloum told C&EN, to dispel some people’s notion that Jordanians may be “terrorists and behind other cultures.”

Specialist meetings of specific fields is where breakthrough results likely would be described first, said Fabian M. Dayrit, the dean of the School of Science & Engineering at Ateneo de Manila University, in the Philippines, and a member of the 11th Eurasia’s international organizing committee. “Unfortunately, only a few of the papers from such meetings would be relevant to my needs” as a researcher addressing problems unique to a developing country, he added.

Dayrit received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University. He worked on carbon-carbon coupling, but realizing that “organometallic chemistry research just couldn’t be done at home,” he began a research program centered on coconuts. “About 30% of rural Filipinos depend on the coconut and yet not enough Filipino scientists do serious R&D work on it,” he told C&EN. “This is a field that has a lot of potential for social impact.” Conferences such as the Eurasia series, he said, “provide lots of opportunities for learning and linkage” among participants from developing countries, who often struggle under conditions of limited resources.

Only a person who did not put heart and mind to the Eurasia conference would not have benefited from it, said Chu-Huang (Mendel) Chen. Chen is director of vascular and medicinal research at the Wafic Said Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratories of the Texas Heart Institute, in Houston. What he gained from participating, he said, came in many forms, from chatting leisurely with Nobel Laureates about not only science but also life, to meeting potential collaborators, to the opportunity to “know the Arabian world by feeling and living it.”

The country Jordan “is one of the richest in the world in terms of natural beauty and historical importance,” Chen said. “Naturally, what Jordan can provide to the participants is unbelievably generous,” he continued, citing the Dead Sea, on whose Jordanian shore the conference took place, and the stunning ancient rock city of Petra. But above all, Chen said, “the richest resource of countries like Jordan is their people.

“Through the polite manner and eagerness to excel of the young people, you sense personally their patience and mental readiness. Their enthusiasm has reminded me of the duty of an educator and the responsibility of being ready to teach the young no matter where they are or are from.” In addition, Chen said, scientists from the developed world need “to learn from the local people in order to know the best way they might offer assistance, if assistance is needed. The only way to achieve that is to go to their countries, to touch their land, and to meet their people.”

Surprisingly, Chen observed, people in developing countries like Jordan may have more to offer than they need to gain from outsiders. They may need modern technology, research resources, and the freedom to think beyond the boundaries framed by their teachers. But the wisdom they cultivate from working under conditions of relative hardship often generates fresh approaches to problems that could benefit scientists practicing in relatively more developed countries, he said.

Maureen Rouhi/C&EN

Given the myriad technologies to access scientific information now, “the significance of passing on new results at meetings has diminished,” said Geoffrey A. Cordell, professor emeritus of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “It has been superseded by students desiring to learn the applications of new technologies to their work.” Meetings such as the Eurasia conference “are so important for bringing people together” for the kind of engagement that helps everyone apply new knowledge to their unique circumstances, he said.

After retiring eight years ago at the age of 55, Cordell has been traveling widely to work on problems of his choosing and to assist groups around the world in developing research programs in natural products. “It is always such an honor to be invited to a meeting in a developing country,” he told C&EN. “At this stage of my career, it is much more important for me to share my experiences in research, in research development and administration, and in career development with individual students and faculty, with departments and with universities, in various parts of the world,” than to add another publication to a curriculum vitae, he said.

“I receive great pleasure in encouraging young scientists to be passionate about their science and to feel their energy and enthusiasm in return,” Cordell added. “I like to meet young scientists from developing countries who are eagerly seeking advice, who are trying to find collaborators, and who demonstrate that within their limitations of access to facilities are doing the best they can.”

Cordell also professes a strong sense of responsibility to honor invitations from hosts in predominantly Muslim countries. “It is vital for U.S. scientists to obviate the separation between Muslim and non-Muslim scientists,” he said. “It is one of our responsibilities not to let religious or political issues come in the way of cultivating and promoting science. … It is an important part of being an ally for people whose circumstances are less fortunate, although their views of the world may be different.”

Furthermore, it is important for scientists from the developed world to be seen by Muslim scientists as standing separate from the views of radical groups who promote various forms of Islamophobia and receive a lot of headlines, Cordell said. “Muslims all over the world,” he explained, “read and hear these headlines, and hear these negative comments and stereotypical assertions, and think that they are widely held views, rather than those of a ­minority.”

For these reasons, “more funding is needed to promote the involvement of U.S. scientists in international meetings in developing countries,” Cordell said. “Developed-world science must assist scientists in less fortunate countries address water, economic, agricultural, pollution, social, and health care issues that are core inhibiting factors for their growth,” he asserted. “Visiting developing countries, talking to their scientists, and acquiring a sense of the issues they are trying to address will lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the challenges that we are facing as a human race.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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