Date: Feb 19, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Lebanese named 2019 female science laureate
Emily Lewis| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: Najat Saliba is one of the world’s leading atmospheric chemists, renowned for her research analyzing the carcinogenic materials emitted through smoking shisha. After years of work at the American University of Beirut, the professor has this year been awarded the International Award for Women in Science, making her the first Lebanon-based researcher to receive the accolade.

“I think this award is very important as it highlights all the hard work done in science in Lebanon,” Saliba told The Daily Star.

“For 20 years I have been working silently in my lab trying to raise awareness of women’s achievements in science ... but this award will bring that hard work into the light.”

Since 1998, the award has been presented annually by UNESCO and cosmetics company L’Oreal to female scientists representing one of five regions: Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia Pacific and Africa and the Arab states.

Three of the fellowship’s previous laureates - Ada Yonath, Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Christiane Nusslei-Volhard - have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in science.

Saliba is a leading researcher on the composition of polluted air and a recognized expert in identifying toxic and carcinogenic substances emitted by nicotine products such as shisha and electronic cigarettes.

She was the first to report that e-cigarettes can generate carbon monoxide, contrary to popular belief. She also established the first database of major atmospheric pollutants in Lebanon, and demonstrated open incineration of the country’s waste has multiplied the toxic content of air by 1,500 percent.

Beyond her laboratory research and teaching responsibilities, Saliba heads AUB’s Nature Conservation Center, which promotes the protection of Lebanon’s natural landscape, including work on solid waste management and improving water quality.

As the winner of the 2019 award, Saliba said she felt the heavy weight of responsibility to represent female scientists from across African and Arab nations. “It’s overwhelming,” she said, “there are a lot of women in all these countries who ... haven’t had the opportunity to showcase their work.”

According to statistics published by UNESCO, the average proportion of women in science is 29 percent worldwide, while in Arab nations, this figure rises to 39 percent.

Myanmar tops the table for women’s representation in the field of science, with women making up 86 percent of researchers. UNESCO has not yet published statistics for Lebanon, but Saliba said in her 14-strong chemistry department, she is one of only two female professors.

When it comes to the demographics of her classes, Saliba said there has been an encouraging steady increase in the proportion of female students taking chemistry and chemical engineering classes.

“More girls are interested in engineering and continuing onto master’s in chemistry,” she said.

“This makes me very proud.”

When trying to inspire her students to embark on a career in chemistry, Saliba invites them to relate the discipline to their own personal interests. “Chemistry is cosmetics, and chemistry is fireworks,” she tells them.

However, Saliba lamented “the brain drain” phenomenon - with talented students moving abroad to continue their careers in science due to a lack of research infrastructure and funding opportunities at home in Lebanon.

“How will they come back if we don’t have good research labs?”

Lebanese scientists, she said, “deserve to be promoted, and their labs deserve to be funded.”

The winners of the International Award for Women in Science each receive a grant of 100,000 euros ($113,000) and will travel to Paris for an award ceremony at UNESCO’s headquarters on March. 14, where 15 “rising talents” in scientific research will also be honored.

More excitingly, Saliba said, will be the opportunity to present her research to world-leading scientists at the French Academy of Sciences and mingle with the other winners.

“I can’t wait to meet the other ladies ... I’m sure they have a lot to share,” she said.

Saliba is already seeing the impact of the award on her female students, saying it has inspired some of them to chase their dreams. When one joint physics-mechanical engineering student came to her for advice about which major to pursue, the professor told her to follow her gut.

“Look at me,” Saliba told her, “my parents didn’t want me to do chemistry, they wanted me to do medicine instead. But I said, ‘this is not me, I want to do what is good for me.’”

Encouraging more women to enter science and politics is one of Saliba’s passions and she hopes to continue working with the L’Oreal program to do this in the future.

The recent appointment of four female ministers to Lebanon’s Cabinet is “uplifting,” she said. “Women can induce change much faster.”