Mustafa El-Sayed: A life in detail
For one of Egypt's most honoured scientists, the tiny can contain the secrets of the great
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El-Sayed's son, Ivan, at his wedding; El-Sayed with different members of his family in Cairo in the old days
In 2008, Professor Mustafa El-Sayed was awarded the US National Medal of Science -- America's highest honour in the field of science -- for "his seminal and creative contributions to our understanding of the electronic and optical properties of nano-materials and to their applications in nano- catalysis and nano-medicine, for his humanitarian efforts of exchange among countries and for his role in developing the scientific leadership of tomorrow."
He was the first Arab and Egyptian scientist to gain the distinction.
Today, El-Sayed is Julius Brown Chair and Regents Professor and Director of the Laser Dynamics Laboratory at Georgia University in Atlanta in the US. In addition to the 2008 award, he is also well known for the spectroscopy law named after him and he has been nominated for a Nobel Prize.
Distinctions awarded to him include the 2002 Irving Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics from the American Chemical Society and the 1990 King Faisal International Prize in Sciences. He was elected a member of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1980 for his work on applying laser spectroscopic techniques to the study of properties and behaviour on the nano-scale, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a member of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Third World Academy of Science.
El-Sayed was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Physical Chemistry for 25 years (1980-2005) and served as US editor of the International Review in Physical Chemistry. He has some 500 publications in major scientific journals to his name and has supervised over 70 PhD students and 35 postdoctoral fellows, many of whom now hold prestigious posts in the scientific community.
However, despite this impressive career, El-Sayed is also well known for his politeness and simplicity. Born in 1933 in Zefta in the Gharbiya governorate, the youngest child of a mathematics teacher, El-Sayed received his primary and secondary education in the town in which he was born. One of seven siblings whose parents died when he was just 10 years old, El-Sayed was raised by his older brother Mohamed and his wife.
"My brother Mohamed was a great man, and his great love for me gives me serenity and trust in myself. Moreover, I was surrounded by the love of my family. However, my parents' deaths led me to think at that young age of life and death. I lived for many years believing that they would come back to me, because I thought they could not just have gone like that, leaving me alone. However, being an orphan made me stronger."
As is often the case in the lives of great men, fortune played a role in transforming the future El-Sayed had planned for himself. At the outset, he refused to join a faculty of science because he would have been obliged to study for five years and then look for a job. If, on the other hand, he joined the Higher Institute of Teachers he would be appointed a teacher immediately upon graduation.
However, three months into El-Sayed's stint at the Higher Institute of Teachers, the students organised a sit-in demanding that the institute be turned into a full faculty. The then minister of education, Taha Hussein, approved their demand, and the new faculty became affiliated with Ain Shams University.
"When that happened, and when I knew that Ain Shams Faculty of Science, which had just opened, was asking for trainee teachers, I decided to join the new Faculty and work hard to be a teacher," El-Sayed explains.
"In 1953, I graduated from the Faculty of Science and was appointed a teacher in the faculty as I had obtained the highest grades of the only four students. In my opinion, I received the best possible education, at the time better even than that in the US, because the Faculty of Science was newly established. I owe a lot to my professors, with whom I had daily personal contact. I used to spend my whole day at the university, either in lectures or in labs conducting experiments," he remembers.
"Four months after graduation, I was at the home of a friend waiting to go to the cinema. Sitting in the living room, I found a copy of Al-Ahram, and, picking it up, I read an ad from Florida University offering fellowships in the US in my field. I applied for one and managed to get it."
In 1954, El-Sayed travelled to the US and successfully passed four sets of exams in order to be deemed equivalent to other students. "I remember that my professors told me that I was the first foreign student to succeed in these exams, as most had to study extra courses before passing. This was in large part due to the teaching I received from my professors in Egypt," El-Sayed says.
He spent four years as a fellow at Florida University, during which time he married. "At that time there were not many Arab or Muslim women in Florida to choose from, and my wife was an American from a conservative family," he explains. After finishing his fellowship, El-Sayed was keen to return to Egypt in order to raise his children according to Egyptian traditions and be near to his family.
"My wife supported me, and I never avoided living in Egypt. I returned in 1958 and worked at Ain Shams for a monthly salary of LE15, which was very low even at that time. I had two children to support, and therefore my wife tried to find a job to help support the family. She applied to almost 200 foreign companies, but most of them were about to close and leave the country owing to Gamal Abdel-Nasser's policy of nationalising the private and foreign sectors," he says.
Realising that it was impossible for the family to remain in Egypt, El-Sayed returned to the US, where he worked in some of the most prestigious American universities, including Yale, Harvard, the University of California and the University of Georgia. "Each university offered me the best facilities in terms of labs, finance and salaries. Meanwhile, we had five children." Today, El-Sayed's children Laila and Tarek work in the field of industrial chemistry and engineering, while Dorya works in business and administration, Ivan is a doctor, and Gamal tragically died when he was just 20 years old.
"I was busy with my research, and my wife provided me with everything I needed to help me concentrate on my work. She shouldered the task of raising the children. Though she had a higher certificate, she preferred not to work in order to look after me and the children," El-Sayed says.
El-Sayed's marriage lasted for almost half a century, his wife dying some four years ago from cancer after struggling with the disease for five years. During this time El-Sayed also suffered greatly, the grief over the loss of his wife motivating him to work in cancer research.
"Her cancer was not diagnosed early, and when we first discovered it the physicians told her that she had been suffering from it for two years and had another five years to live. I had worked in nano-technology since graduation, but it was only after the death of my beloved wife that I started to think seriously of using it in treating cancer," he says sadly.
According to El-Sayed, he managed to do so with the help of a team of 70 researchers, and after two years of hard work the team developed an effective treatment for skin cancer using "gold nanorods". Though so far only tested on animals and some human cells, the treatment can kill cancer cells that appear under the microscope as light spots, leaving healthy cells unharmed.
"My task as a researcher ended after testing the treatment on animals. The next step is to test the treatment on humans," El Sayed says. His son Ivan, a professor of tumour surgery at the University of California, took part in initial efforts to apply the new treatment to cancerous cells in humans, and El-Sayed is watching closely.
The treatment will not normally be available for at least seven years after the US Food and Drug Administration, the only authority issuing licences for the use of new medicines or treatments on humans in the US, approves it.
However, El-Sayed notes that the technique could be available sooner in China, as most of the researchers on the team were Chinese. He believes that China will lead the world in scientific research in the years to come. It already spends billions of dollars on research and sends thousands of students to study in the US each year. "The coming scientific technology will emerge from Asia," he emphasises.
As for Egypt, El-Sayed says there are creative and even genius-like minds in the country, but that it does little to encourage them.
"Scientific research is not only a matter of minds. Just as important is providing the millions of dollars for labs and equipment and for the salaries necessary for researchers. How can you expect creative work from a researcher whose mind is preoccupied with the price of bread, or with petrol for his car, or with the other expenses of life?"
"Academics in the faculties of science in Egypt spend eight hours a day lecturing. They need to be free for at least two semesters to conduct research. There should be two systems: one for teaching and another for conducting research. Scientific researchers also need to travel frequently abroad to attend seminars and conferences."
Egypt, El-Sayed says, has much to learn from the Arab Gulf countries. These countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have realised that the oil is expected to run out in 40 to 50 years, and therefore are investing money in scientific research. "Scientific research in Saudi Arabia is progressing rapidly," he says, "because the Saudi government has allocated $1 billion annually for such research. Each researcher who has a valuable proposal for scientific research is given $5 million over five years for research and salaries," El-Sayed maintains.
El-Sayed holds that another impediment to scientific research in Egypt is the system of education as a whole. University and school education in Egypt is "disastrous" because it depends on teaching students to learn by heart and not to think for themselves.
"Computers can store information better than humans, but computers cannot think. Any civilisation or development in any country is based on thinking. Education in Egypt is overwhelmed with the excessive accumulation of useless information in the minds of students who do not understand most of it, but learn by heart in order to succeed in exams, which, moreover, are commonly overwhelmed with cheating."
El-Sayed describes the situation in the faculties of science in Egyptian universities as being even worse, because students do not gain skills or practical training. Many do not even know where the library is. Moreover, there are too many students, the labs are in a very bad condition, and the syllabuses are out of date. "Students in Egyptian universities are still studying according to syllabuses that have long ceased to be taught elsewhere in the world," he says.
El-Sayed believes that spending money on scientific research is an investment in the future, because it will improve social and economic conditions in the long run. "Industries in Egypt will never improve if we do not improve our scientific research. Unemployment will increase, and we will import most of what we need and cease to export anything. We have to provide a reasonable budget for scientific research immediately, particularly because the population is increasing and resources are decreasing," he warns.
El-Sayed adds that US President Barack Obama has decreased most national expenses in the US following the financial crisis, apart from that for scientific research. This he has increased, believing that scientific research will be key to weathering the crisis.
El-Sayed nominated the Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zewail for the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, he himself, he says, has never thought about being nominated for or of receiving the prize. "I am working hard for human beings and not for a Nobel Prize, which should be given to those that discover the genetic causes of cancer," he says.
El-Sayed's main aim today is to continue developing treatments for cancer, especially for the poor who cannot afford expensive treatments. His new cancer treatment is potentially cheap, he says, since one gram of gold could treat 1,000 patients, even if the cost of equipment, physicians and nursing will increase the expense.
The World Health Organisation expects that by 2030 the number of cancer patients will reach 75 million. International statistics reveal that 50 per cent of men who live to the age of 70 will be diagnosed with cancer, while one third of women of that age will suffer the same.
El-Sayed says that cancer has existed since the era of the Pharaohs and that it is due to genetic causes. "Now I am working on new research to enter the cancer cell itself in order to discover its secrets, particularly what makes a healthy cell become cancerous. Finding out exactly what goes on in infected cells should help us to find a way to stop the occurrence of disease from the very beginning," he says.
Asked what lies at the root of his own success, this renowned scientist attributes what he has accomplished to the blessings of God and to working over 15 hours daily throughout his career.
Interview by Sahar El-Bahr