News News 2023 Women in STEM

Interview with Dr Gihan Kamel, Principal Scientist at SESAME

Dr Gihan Kamel, Principal Scientist at SESAME.

Interview by Silvia Fiore, GÉANT

In the brilliant TED talk that you delivered at CERN, you mention that tools, like the “super-microscope” the Synchrotron-light, work to “see the invisible and the hidden unknown” as “it spots matter down to its atoms”, with applications not only in physics but also in biomedicine and archaeology. What attracted you to this world in the first instance?

Synchrotron facilities are known to provide an open and advanced scientific atmosphere that can effortlessly attract scientists in different disciplines and this is what happened to me. The year 2005 represents the birth of a relatively long journey of interest in the world of synchrotron-light facilities where I was introduced to the SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) annual Users’ Meetings. The cutting-edge science presented during the meeting together with the very open environment of discussions and collaborations inspired me and shaped a new path of my future scientific knowledge and that is when I decided to be part of this community.  Imagine an oasis of techniques and tools in one site that can readily lead to comprehensive evidences in basic and applied science as well as providing compulsory solutions and answers to many present and future questions such as medicine, pharmaceuticals, materials science, environment, air, soil, and water pollution, agriculture, energy and climate change, in addition to historical discoveries re-cultural heritage, bioarchaeology and palaeontology.

SESAME has scientists originating from countries that normally do not talk to each other who are however willing to work side by side. What is SESAME’s recipe for such successful science diplomacy?

True. It is becoming evident that unaided diplomacy -or what is called science diplomacy- is not sufficient to resolve the so many problems of the region. On the other hand, similar state of affairs -such as CERN in Europe- communicates to us that the perfect recipe to ensure a successful model of science diplomacy is extremely founded on the excellence of science, not on the pure diplomatic arenas. SESAME is simply and fundamentally relying on this element by producing excellent and state-of-art science, and by endorsing the fact that scientific merit is the major driving force to maintain balanced relations and sound bridges between its conflicting societies.

What about expanding the collaboration opportunities to research institutes and labs in the African continent?

This is already taking place. Several collaborations with some African countries are initiated through regular SESAME Calls for Proposals, or through direct cooperation channels between SESAME scientists and collaborators in African institutions. With this, not only scientific exchange will be ensured, but also societal impact on education and economy will be achieved.

SESAME is also used as a model and inspiration for Africa’s first synchrotron light source. What do you think that the African RRENs and its member NRENs could do in support of this endeavour?

Considering some particular similarities between Africa and the Middle East and its neighbouring regions, and by adding the fact that Africa is the only continent that is left behind without synchrotron-light source, it is quite obvious that SESAME can play a significant role in inspiring and guiding African countries to follow the same example. The first step taken in this regards was by signing a Memorandum of Understanding between SESAME and the African-light Source Foundation in November, 2021. This is to provide various expertise and support, as well as, to help building up the human capacity of both parties by exchanging experiences and knowledge. It is also beneficial here to highlight the fact that having such a large-scale infrastructure is mostly beyond individual capacity or budget of some countries such as the case of many African countries. The first African Synchrotron light source implementation requires extensive resources and assets, so I believe that the first phase in the long ride of such a project is to secure the basic financial support. Hence, I think that the African RRENs/NRENs can deliver powerful support because again establishing such a facility by single countries is essentially demanding unless both man power and financial resources are extensively available together with the required technical and scientific skills. Additionally, one possible and achievable way is by facilitating the international cooperation – that is by being a member or an associate of an already operational facility.

At the International Women’s Day 2017 you were acknowledged by the President of the Italian Republic for your work as the only woman scientist at SESAME. What can you tell us about being an Arab Muslim woman working in physics, in Italy before and now in Jordan?

I can tell that it was always and still is very challenging and stimulating on different levels – yet worthy and rewarding. You constantly need to prove yourself and that you are well experienced and skilled. Most importantly, you need to always maintain good communication skills in addition to loads of patience, hard work, and determination.

Considering your successful example, is the association supporting initiatives to empower other Arab women that aspire to start a similar career? What could the community do to facilitate female representation in STEM?

No one can argue with the fact that many Arab women scientists are somehow constrained and underestimated when it comes to science and engineering fields. Out of the popular limitations in our field is the need to travel to foreign countries to pursue an advanced scientific career path. In this regard, and based on fair surveys and experiences, SESAME is considered by many scientists as an impartial opportunity given to the women scientists in the Middle East and its neighbouring regions to conduct their research in a competent and effective way. It offers different training fellowships and schools, in addition to providing an international atmosphere of mutual fruitful collaborations. The most appreciated concept at SESAME is that the whole thing of accepted projects is judged by the scientific merit and skills not by gender, nationality, or religion.

Thanks, Dr. Gihan, for your inspiring words. To conclude, what advice and message would you give to fellow Arab girls and women?

I have a few basic messages, the most important one is to believe in oneself and that nothing is impossible if you work hard. Challenges are permanently there, ups and downs, obstacles, and closed doors. Yet, there is always a helping hand and there is always a way out. And to understand that rules set by other people are not there to define but to guide; and the moment that those rules go boldly against our dreams and ambitions, that is the moment to break them.


Read more about SESAME’s work on cultural heritage conservation on our blog.

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