Spring/Summer 2015 Vol. 15 Number 1
Arab-American Frontiers Program
A Unique Opportunity for Building Scientific Bridges
For over 25 years, the Academies have brought together outstanding young scientists to discuss cutting-edge research and spark collaborations. The Kavli Frontiers of Science first staked out the territory in 1989, gathering early-career scientists from the U.S. to discuss scientific advances in many disciplines. Its success inspired many variations -- including an ongoing Frontiers of Engineering program --
The most recent program in this vein, created in 2011, is in many ways even more complex and geographically ambitious than its forerunners. The Arab-American Frontiers of Science, Engineering, and Medicine program connects competitively chosen young scientists, engineers, and medical professionals from the U.S. with their counterparts in the 21 countries of the Arab League.
The Arab world is far from monolithic, and Dalal Najib, who manages the program for the Academies, says that finding ways to engage the whole region at once has been interesting and challenging. "These countries vary tremendously in terms of economic development, scientific literacy, and overall stability," she says. "The region includes Gulf countries such as the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, which have world-class centers of excellence in science and technology. We also have Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, with their long-standing universities and critical mass of well-respected researchers, francophone North Africa with strong ties to Europe, and countries in the Sahel like Djibouti, Sudan, and Mauritania." Despite their diversity, these countries are dealing with similar issues such as water scarcity, food insecurity, and the need for new sources of energy, and they share the same language, providing a solid base for collaborative work.
Many of the nations also share the experience of post-Arab-spring political conflict -- turmoil that makes the program's efforts to develop connections even more important, says Najib. "Right now most institutions see the current situation as a deterrent to working with the Arab world, but it's more imperative than ever to engage with these young scientists, who are below the political radar and who are trying their best to make their countries better."
One of the program's aims is to enhance scientific dialogue across the region and across disciplines, with the goal of spurring better research and applications. At the heart of this effort are symposia where young scientists from across the Arab world and from the U.S. discuss their research and plant the seeds of collaboration. The first symposium was held in Kuwait in 2011 and the second in Oman in 2014; a third will be held in Saudi Arabia at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in December 2015.
At each symposium, the participants display their research on posters, giving one-minute explanatory "flash talks" -- an exercise that gives them training in communication, Najib says. In addition, there are plenary sessions around the conference's themes. The Oman conference explored research on water, energy, and food security, for example, while the upcoming symposium in Saudi Arabia will focus on sensing technologies and their applications. Because another of the program's goals is to empower early-career scientists to take on leadership roles, the symposia are organized and the speakers chosen by the young scientists themselves, under the guidance of a committee of senior researchers.
The symposia not only help connect Arab scientists but also serve as one of the few avenues for American scientists to connect with their colleagues in the Middle East and Northern Africa. "For me, this was a transformative experience," said Scott Baker of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, after speaking at the first Frontiers symposium. "I am still assimilating all of the scientific and cultural information I picked up and have some ideas about future areas where I might take our group's research."
Often, the connections made at the symposia don't end there. Another element of the program, the Arab-American Fellowships, enables researchers to continue to collaborate. After each symposium, 10 seed grants are awarded to pairs of researchers to enable them to collaborate on areas of common interest identified at the meetings. A researcher from Yemen and another from Lebanon are working together on novel ways to remove pharmaceutical pollutants from water, for example. Another team pairing from Tunisia and the U.S. are working together on STEM career-building curricula for Tunisian scientists.
-- Sara Frueh
Additional information is available online at <www.national-academies.org/aafrontiers>.