Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
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Hassan Moawad
 
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Hassan Moawad:

Science of the times

The tinkling of test tubes is music to his ears, breaking scientific barriers his favourite pastime

Profile by Nevine Khalil


It is impossible for Hassan Moawad to pursue his reading right now: his schedule is too tight and his responsibilities too time-consuming. When there's more time, maybe he'll even use the extra hours to probe his elusive musical talent. "I think I have some potential for music, but it never actually came to the surface," he says, and bursts out laughing. "I have a musical ear and can memorise tunes quickly, but there is no time to polish this talent and make it functional." He could start in the comfort of his white-washed, spacious office, which has very good acoustics.

To meet Moawad , the director of the Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications (MUCSAT), you have to go to the pyramids -- that is, the sterile, concrete-and-glass pyramids at New Borg Al-Arab outside Alexandria, the heart of the embryo MUCSAT, which promises to be the springboard for Egypt's scientific research revolution. Moawad is a little camera shy ("I wasn't prepared for photography," he blushes), but quickly adapts to a new experience, as he has done so many times before.

He has an opinion on everything -- not quite the stereotypical reclusive scientist who only finds comfort in his laboratory among glass beakers and specimens. But Moawad understands why his peers are reserved in their conversations with laypeople (or lay reporters). Scientists in general lack the skills of publicity and dissemination; "they think: 'So what if I tell people? They will not understand my language. I won't talk to them, instead I'll publish my findings in a journal where they will be more appreciated'." To him, this does not do justice to the capacity of scientists and their work.

Never leaving anything to theory, Moawad came to this conclusion from hands-on experience when he was involved in publishing the first magazine of the National Research Centre (NRC) in 1977. He helped dig up information on a community of 7,000 scientists and their research, simplifying it for publication. "When I interviewed scientists, they couldn't help but tell me about their work in very scientific terms, and I had to modify this for easy reading," he says. "There's a lot of research, but it's not easy to make it simple and accessible to the general public." Moawad believes that bridging the gap between scientists and society, and simplifying science for the general public, is "one of the hottest areas" that must be addressed in Egypt. "In general, scientists are not very motivated to talk to journalists," he adds with a smirk.

So if public recognition is not a priority for scientists, and they don't all want to be household names like Nobel laureate Ahmed Zuweil, how can they be rewarded for their work? "Fulfilment comes from publishing your research in prestigious journals," he said. "I will always be happy to show this to my colleagues and cite it in other publications." Appreciation among the scientific community is a reward in itself.

Moawad has had his fair share of awards and recognition. Publishing some 83 research papers so far and participating in numerous national, regional and international conferences, he was awarded the State Advancement Award for Agricultural Sciences in 1986; the Scientific Excellence Award for Professors of the National Research Centre in 1987; the World Recognition Award from the World Cultural Council in Mexico in 1991; and the Medal of Excellence in 1995. He is also an honorary member of nearly a dozen specialised bodies, boards, societies and committees in his field, and has thrown in a handful of articles on biology and biochemistry translated from Russian to Arabic.

But Moawad is not a prisoner of his scientific ivory tower, and is at ease interacting with anybody and everybody. An unassuming man nearing his 60th birthday, he slumps in his chair but is highly focused, with an engaging smile and a strong sense of purpose. He is no lab rat, and prides himself in staying in touch with the "real" world through interaction with people on the street: "talking to people, discussing issues, being with them, listening to their problems, probing their minds. You cannot isolate yourself, you have to get your experience on the street," he asserts.

Dividing his time between MUCSAT and the old campus in Dekheila, which houses MUCSAT's Technology Capabilities Development Centre (TCDC) and the administrative departments, Moawad is always on the move. Leaving his residence in Agami at 7:30 in the morning, he goes to TCDC to finish up some paperwork, and then heads to New Borg Al-Arab to talk science, meet people and discuss programmes, projects and workshops. After a lunch break at home in the afternoon and a brief siesta ("I can regenerate my body with a 15-minute nap," he says proudly), he's back at the Dekheila offices for more paperwork in the evening.

"I never sit here," he confided, looking around his office at the top of the pyramid. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done in a short time, so I keep running here and there." Characteristically taking a modern approach to management, Moawad tours the premises every morning, to show his availability and his first-hand observation of the work. "People immediately feel that we are in this together. It's a joint effort," he explains.

Hassan Moawad
"'Talking to people, discussing issues, being with them, listening to their problems, probing their minds. You cannot isolate yourself, you have to get your experience on the street'"
Since his early years, Moawad has had an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and a curious mind. On his first summer vacation at high school in 1954, he worked on a taftaf (a leisurely carousel train) and "really enjoyed" transporting holidaymakers around Ras Al-Barr; the next summer, he worked at a pharmacy where he "learned a lot about medicine;" during his last summer as a teenager in the Delta city of Damietta, he learnt how to "take a bulk of wood and turn it into something beautiful" at a carpenter's shop. After high school, Moawad -- whose father and mother were a civil servant at the Ministry of Education and a teacher at a Greek school, respectively -- was a free man.

"Here's some money, do what you want," the father told the third born of his six children, packing him off to Cairo with LE20 to seek his fortune in the capital. Since then, Moawad has not kept still. He landed the post of director of MUCSAT three years ago, but may not be there much longer because he's up for retirement next November.

But that's fine, he's itching to plunge back into his greatest passion. "Ahhh, research," he sighs wistfully, looking forward to another decade of hard work. "It's very, very difficult with this administrative job. I miss my field of specialisation and like to talk about it all the time," he adds with a mischievous smile, like a small boy who's been grounded but knows this is only temporary. Recently he's developed a habit of randomly "snatching" researchers from corridors to sit and talk science in his office. "It makes me so happy," he chuckles with a twinkle in his eye. But this practice is not only for his own benefit; he believes that young scientists lack experience, and through such conversation he can transfer his knowledge to them. "When I finish my job here, the first thing I will do is go to a prominent institution, interact with scientists and catch up in my area of research," he promises.

After drinking from this fountain of scientific prowess, Moawad will shift gears again and move on to the next intriguing new science of the time. It's a habit he has kept up since he graduated from the Faculty of Agriculture in 1961. In pursuit of all that is new, he juggled specialisations during his career because he sees science as an ongoing process of rejuvenation. "My strategy is that every five years I try to introduce a new technology to Egypt," he says, noting that a new discipline comes into existence nearly every year. "You need to adapt your career to the ongoing advancements in science and strive to stay ahead."

After spending two decades in various specialisations of microbiology and microbial ecology, in 1986 he homed in on molecular biology. With one of his many fellowships, Moawad went to Germany where he learned new techniques and theories. His experience won him a project at the Ministry of Agriculture, where he founded a school for molecular biology in agriculture. A Fulbright Fellowship in 1993 took him to one of the US's most prestigious research institutes, located in Hawaii, where he moved from microbiology basics to biotechnology.

With years of experience in molecular biology and agriculture, specialising in biological nitrogen fixation, he believes leaders in any field "must always be at the frontier of their specialised scientific area." But staying ahead demands certain qualities. Moawad's list includes honesty, dedication, seriousness, the ability to sustain research and time to read. "Honesty in research is fundamental," he cautions. "When you reach results, you shouldn't discard any of them, but instead discuss them, repeat the experiment and avoid bias." Surely cooperation and teamwork are also prerequisites? Not according to Moawad, who has seen some scientists do their best work on their own. "It is appreciated if you can cooperate in the lab or in an institute, but every researcher finds a niche for himself and does his work."

Although always keeping an eye on the future, Moawad is also eager to reminisce about the past. With a sparkle in his eye and a beaming smile, he will recall childhood memories and adventures in laboratories at home and abroad at the drop of a hat, spinning them into anecdotes and hearty chuckles.

At the pharmacy, Moawad was charged with arranging the medications in alphabetical order, which was his first close exposure to the white coats. He made up his mind then and there to pursue a scientific career. The open space, greenery and inviting quarters at Shubra palace were the factors that prompted him to undertake what was to be a long career in agricultural research. In 1957, the once royal residence housed Ain Shams University's Faculty of Agriculture, and was definitely a better place to study than the cramped quarters of the university's Science Faculty in Abbasiya. "I wanted to study medicine more, but I didn't like the building," recalls Moawad. "It was a difficult choice."

So agriculture it was. When he finished his BSc, seven job offers were lined up; but he had only just started his quest. His interests took him far and wide: from the Soviet Union in the 1960s, where he studied microbiology and learned fluent Russian, to the US and Germany since the 1980s. Now he boasts proficiency in modern biotechnology, molecular biology, genetic engineering, microbial ecology, biochemistry and physiology, as well as taxonomy of microorganisms, soil biology and biological nitrogen fixation.

Despite the opportunities and temptation to stay abroad, Moawad always came home. Armed with newly acquired knowledge, he returned to Egypt again and again to benefit his home country and his colleagues. "I used to discuss opportunities abroad with my family, and we always concluded that the best place for us to be is Egypt," he confirms. Moawad's scientific escapades have always been a family affair and have influenced the course of events many times. Take for example his first mission to the Soviet Union in 1961, which, in hindsight, he sees as a blessing in disguise.

In Russia for four years, he and his wife embarked on learning the native language together (a requirement for Moawad because Russian was the language of his studies). His wife was also a graduate in agriculture, but after achieving proficiency in Russian, she switched careers and now heads Ain Shams University's Slavic Languages Department. His three daughters benefited from the family's stopover in the US, improving their language and expanding their horizons. His eldest daughter is a physician working at the NRC; his second, imitating her parents, switched careers from medicine to information technology with a focus on medicine; while his youngest recently completed a BA in linguistics, specialising in Spanish.

But the family's linguistic talents may not have been discovered if Moawad had followed his first instinct of not traveling to Moscow. Immediately after obtaining his BSc, he had applied for a government grant to continue his studies abroad. His countries of choice were the US, Germany or Holland for their reputation, but political conditions at the time meant that the Soviet Union was the only option on offer.

"Nobody wanted to go to Russia," he remembered. "We heard terrible tales of living conditions there, but not much about the high calibre of scientists." When he got there, however, he was happily surprised in the pursuit of his PhD degree (despite the fact that such simple tasks as the laundry required a five-hour trip). "The people were very kind," he said, "and I was lucky because my supervising professor had no [communist] party affiliations."

Now he's pleased with his Soviet Union tenure. "It changed my family's outlook, I learned Russian and what adds to my pleasure is that there I made a new scientific discovery." Moawad discovered a new genus of microorganism, which today is at the centre of much scientific literature. The soil yeast Zygolipomyces was found after long hours spent peering into a microscope. After the discovery, he moved his scope of research to biological nitrogen fixation. "Simplified, this means that there are small microbes which can harness nitrogen from the air and put it in the tissue of the plant, making it grow without extra nitrogen fertiliser and reducing environmental stress," he quickly volunteers. "This is very important, and a lot of countries were interested in it."

Earning Egypt a good name in this field, Moawad was awarded a research grant at the US National Academy of Science, as were another 10 scientists from around the world. The Egyptian team published some 15 research articles and were promoted for their work on the project. Now, back to the future. Moawad is charged with attracting the eager minds of young scientists and keeping them here in Egypt. "I want to propel junior scientists into the field," he states enthusiastically. Junior scientist, of course, means someone who has already earned a PhD, showed distinction in the field, and is at the threshold of his or her career. "Whether they're coming back from abroad or from local universities, the researchers find a unique establishment in MUCSAT." Moawad tries to instil in young scientists a sense of responsibility and confidence. "At their age, I would never have dreamt of such an opportunity," he declares with a smile. "If we make the staff happy, we can also ask them to work hard and grow quickly."

His junior team make him proud. "When I read in their eyes that they appreciate what I'm doing for them, it makes me very happy. I feel very proud." And his words of wisdom to the younger generation? "Try to excel in any field you select. Study hard, work hard, try hard, distinguish yourself among your peers." By these criteria, Moawad seems to have done very well.

photos: Gamal Said


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