Interview with Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb
Today is the last day of Egypt’s regional elections. The revolution there, with its daring protesters and turbulent course of events, has captured a global audience. However, the aspect of this change that has not been talked about is its impact on Egyptian technological progress, especially in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is a new field in science and engineering where scientists from different specializations collaborate to control the placement of atoms on the molecular level, and has produced astonishing breakthroughs with applications across the board.
Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb is the leading nanotechnology consultant in Egypt and Director of the Nano Materials Masters Program and the founding director for the Center of Nanotechnology at Nile University. He also helped write a chapter for NATO Science for Peace on nanomaterial consumer applications, as well as numerous research papers and articles on the issue of nanotechnology for developing countries. I sit down with him to discuss the importance of nanotechnology, the state of technological progress and public nanotechnology education after the revolution, and Egypt’s future role in the global nanotechnology landscape.
What inspired you to pursue a career in nanotech?
When I started back in ’97, I was going after my PhD. I got excited by some of the possibilities offered by nanotechnology on an academic level, because the ability to handle material on an individual manner, meaning individual building blocks, was very exciting for me. I started working on the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) and the fact that you can actually see data that can reveal the molecular structure was just amazing.
You began by working at universities in both Belgium and Germany. Why did you decide to return to Egypt?
At the end of 2004 I started organizing a nanotechnology conference in Luxor, Egypt. That was the first conference in the Middle East on that level and it was very successful. We had 164 international participants, 100 Egyptian researchers, and about 150 students. The amount of discussions and collaborations that were engaging at the conference was amazing. That pushed me to start considering what nanotechnology can do for the Middle East, and I came to the conclusion that there is a very rare opportunity for countries there to be able to contribute scientifically to the body of knowledge worldwide.
It’s an opportunity for the younger generation of scientists to get out of the deadlock we’ve reached. I mean, if you look at any fundamental or technical field or discipline in science that has been around for the past thirty or fifty years. Because a lot of work has been done, it’s becoming more and more difficult for young scientists without enough resources and funding to contribute to the world of scientific advancement and see and feel the significance of the work they do. In nanotechnology that’s not the case. There are a lot of things we don’t know and understand. The possibilities are just infinite. Secondly, specifically for the young researchers, in the Middle East we have this stupid tradition where people look into your exact field of specialization, and the older you are, regardless of how you’ve done all this time, the more senior and the more powers you have. Now, with nanotechnology as a fresh field, there was no one who was specialized and old in nanotechnology. That gives an opportunity to the younger generation to solve problems and to claim a space for themselves where they can work unhampered by the older generations. Thirdly, this technology is very applicable. You can see it today in the lab, and within a year or two, you can see it on the market. This gives the youth the ability to get excited and interested in such research.
In the end, I saw that there’s something I can contribute to this development. My wife and I organized the whole conference. My wife is not a scientist; she’s a political scientist, in ethics and minority rights. That showed me that we have the ability to organize, coordinate, and spot opportunities. We have the scientific backgrounds, the local knowledge of how the market here works, and the cultural aspects. There was a small window of opportunity that we needed to capture. That’s what made us move back to Egypt and start SabryCorp as a consultancy firm, trying to advise governments, companies, schools and anybody who might be interested in this technology on how to develop this technology and raise awareness for those who are not interested, so they can understand its impact, because they are not aware what the technology can do.
What are some of the strategies you use to engage and inform the public about nanotechnology?
We work in three directions. The first direction was of course scientific conferences, and eventually we moved it into more business-oriented conferences where we introduced this technology to specific sectors. I talk about the engineering applications of disciplines, the medical applications, the science applications, the cars, you know, the defense and security issues. We try to show them the impact of the technology, and how this can affect their competitiveness and positioning in the market. We also focus on academic conferences looking at the technological aspects of nanotechnology, and add some business people to give focus to the meeting to show the researcher what they can do, or what problems people face.
The second direction is speaking at different events, on TV, in newspapers. We try to explain it in a layman’s approach, about what the technology is and what it can do. I’ve talked to lawyers and philosophers, or the humanities, and I’m trying to discuss the socio-economic impact of nanotechnology, the regulations required, and how to really push the ethical questions: should we invest in this technology, what type of investments we need to make and how to direct it.
The third application that we have, we started a non-profit program called in2nano (in2nano.sabrycorp.com), something we started to target high schools, where we talk to kids who are between fourteen and eighteen. We give them a very interactive workshop, discussing nanotechnology and its applications, using things that teens would connect to. We use a lot of things from global media and movie culture, and from Egyptian culture. We even call this program “the falafel guide to nanotechnology,” because one of the main themes of the program is falafel.
We engage them in a whole different way. We participated in some events down here in Egypt for schools, whether it’s in the library of Alexandria, or run by the Ministry of Research summer camps for the students. We also visit many schools to give the workshop. We applied for funding and received ten months from the Research, Development and Innovation Agency here in Egypt (an EU-funded program). The idea behind the project was that Egypt has over 40 to 45% of the population under the age of thirty. Each year we have almost a million students going into university, and it has been noticed recently that there has been a decline of students going into science-based disciplines. Everyone wants to go into business or computer science more or less. My idea was that this is probably because of the way that science has been presented to them. It’s boring, it’s not exciting, it’s irrelevant to their lives. So when the program starts, one of the very first opening remarks I say is: “I don’t care where you want to go, you want to be a lawyer, you want to be philosopher, you want to be a medical doctor, an artist, an architect, you want to be anything, it doesn’t really matter, because nanotechnology’s going to impact your life,” and I show them how it impacts their lives.
One of the things we do in this program too, before we talk to the students in the workshop, is handing them a survey, the main question we are really looking at is what do you think about nanotechnology? Are you looking at a career in science or not? After the lecture we do another survey, and ask them similar questions but in a different way. What we’ve found is that the amount of students who were saying they would not pursue a career in science, has decreased. The amount of students saying maybe increased, and the amount of students saying yes, has increased. On an average of 50%. If you look at it from the gender base, females increased significantly: it’s almost 30% of them who are now saying that they might consider a career in science. Right now, we are trying to maintain the program, but that requires funds, and with the global recession and the revolution in Egypt, that’s becoming more and more difficult. We really hope to continue it, because it’s one of the core messages of SabryCorp and carries great hope for this region.
How has the revolution affected the nanotech industry as a whole in Egypt?
Well, we don’t really have a nanotech industry, but we have a number of initiatives that were started by the previous government, whether it was a national level research center, litigating funding seeds, or different initiatives within the universities themselves or the research groups. Unfortunately, in this environment, people are really afraid to commit to anything new. Any project that we are running is facing a lot of difficulties because of funding issues and because if you had managed to engage with the previous government, you’re kind of labeled as a remnant, despite the fact that you had nothing to do with the government itself. You had a project, you applied for the project, or you managed to convince those responsible that this was something important, and they funded it.
Overall, research in Egypt right now is badly suffering. For example, I also have a position at Nile University, and founded the Center for Nanotechnology at the University. At the time we started it in 2010, this was the first place offering a Master’s Degree in nanotechnology, and that was initially a 4 million dollar seed fund provided by the Egyptian government over three years. We only got half a million, and there’s about 2 million dollars overdue since last April. And we’re not able to convince the funding agencies to honor their commitments. We cannot fund the research that we are doing at our center. Despite this situation, we are working as hard as possible to ensure that our work continues. We’re applying for funding at different places but that takes time and money we don’t have. It’s a change phase and we have to go through it. We need the support of the international community to be able to go through something like this.
And how has that affected research at the nanocenter?
It has slowed things significantly, because now our students have to try to use facilities wherever available in Egypt. This always depends on the availability of the equipment and the response costs for us to use the equipment and the facilities at other universities or research centers. We’ve rented some labs from some companies located near the university, which are not even adequate. Our research has slowed down, students are frustrated but committed to finish and go to work, and contribute to the society and to Egypt. It has affected us deeply, negatively, but we are committed to solve it.
A significant hurdle we are facing now is the fact that the Egyptian government has stopped our move into our new campus. Since 2007, we have been operating out of temporary facilities and awaiting the completion the campus. The government has granted Ahmed Zewail (1999 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry) the full use of our campus, and since May 2010, he is refusing to allow the university to move into the facilities. This is despite the fact that the facilities were partly funded by donations to the university and the facilities remain unused to date. Several rounds of negotiations have failed due to his insistence on shutting down the university. He plans to build a new university (Zewail University). It is very difficult to us to understand his position and intentions. We hope that the international community will support us and not allow the shutting down of a very young and successful university.
How has Egypt been faring with regard to the “nanodivide,” the gap between Western and developing countries in nanotechnology advancement?
I would say that we’ve manage to raise our [research and development] significantly, but because of the events that have been way over the past year, on the practical ground, I don’t think we’ve advanced very much. We’re making components press forward, but it is slow. And we need to speed up the process a little bit.
What do you think is the best way for Egypt to advance its nanotech R&D?
I think we need a national nano initiative. It needs specific and measurable targets that all the resources that are going to be allocated for nanotechnology are going to be put into that area, and achieving targets. We need a significant collaboration with the international community. We need to find a way to establish such bi-lateral collaboration schemes, and in the end, we need the facilities. We have a huge untapped human resource power here, I mean, it’s really wonderful to see a fresh graduate from university writing a full proposal and standing up and defending it on a very scientific level, and really holding a sound argument. Unfortunately they are unable to execute these proposals because of the lack of funding and the lack of facilities.
This is really the way out, and nanotechnology can affect the culture in this region. You can use the interdisciplinary thinking and push the idea that you cannot do something on your own, you need collaborations, you need to blend other disciplines, and this is very similar to having foreigners or people in different language speaking countries having to find a way to work together. Nanotechnology really instills that into the minds of the students, and gives them the opportunity to question and challenge the conditions or the dogmas they have, whether it is about science, or culture, or politics. Nanotechnology is a wonderful venue to promote intercultural dialogue, and interfaith dialogue. You can really see the opportunities.
What aspects of nanotechnology do you think will improve the lives of the Egyptian people the most?
My approach to research in developing countries is specific to identifying key problems and key advantages in the society or research community, and to address these problems. For example, I believe healthcare, as a discipline, is a huge area that can better the lives of the people. I’m not talking about new pharmaceuticals, or new procedures, I’m actually more interested in providing preventative measures. Hepatitis C (HCV) is a pretty dominant disease in Egypt, with almost 50% of the Egyptian population susceptible to the disease at one point in their lives. Many people are not able to identify it and get diagnosed early on, until it reaches an advanced stage where it’s almost impossible to treat. If we have a simple mechanism to detect it earlier, it would save the government and society a lot of money and hassles. The idea is that you need to really screen the entire Egyptian population for the disease. The standard methods are very expensive and are only available in specific areas. Using a technology like a portable sensor with a disposable chip that can easily detect the presence of HCV with a high sensitivity, and you don’t even need highly trained medical personnel. It would be like the diabetes check machine. We can take such systems around, door to door, and actually test people for it. We need something like this, and there are things that have been developed for other diseases.
The issue with water is also tremendously important. We suffer a huge problem with water resources here in Egypt. There are water quality and contamination [issues], and water treatment [would be essential]. Also, we have the option of working with desalination. The last major issue, in my opinion, would be energy. Specifically Egypt, with the amount of renewable energy resources that we have here is tremendous. We really need to focus on that area and try to push research and come up with some commercial products very quickly in this area. There are other areas, like printed electronics, for example, which would offer countries like Egypt, where we do not have the traditional infrastructure for an electronics industry, a fighting chance, looking at specific niche applications, like printed solar cells for example, or printed sensors, stuff like that. It’s cheap, and easily fabricated here, would be good areas to work on. This is just giving you some examples. There are, of course, a lot of other examples, but these, in my opinion, are the priorities.
In terms of global partnerships, where do you see Egypt’s potential in the future of nanotech? What does Egypt bring to the global community?
Right now, worldwide, if I read the statistics correctly, there is a big deficiency in manpower highly qualified to do advanced research in nanotechnology. Egypt is full of human resources. The second thing is, the entire world is affected by how developing countries are doing. So even Europe, or the States, or Canada, or Japan, and so on, suffer consequences from the status of developing countries and how bad situations are there, in terms of healthcare services, water quality, and education. Egypt can really be the pilot project for the Middle East and Africa, even to the developing world generally, and that will affect the global status worldwide. Egypt has a culture of cooperation and a long history of cooperation with the States, Canada and Europe. We do have a lot of resources and mechanisms that can be used and replicated eventually into developing countries.
In terms of laymen in the States, or Europe, there are products that are coming out of Egypt, especially in agriculture for example. So, developing more agriculture cooperation is a must. With regard to renewable energy, there are a number of projects that are looking into the possibilities of generating electricity here in the Middle East using advanced methods and exporting that energy to Europe. I think we do have a significant role to play. It might not be very clear at the moment, but I believe that we can significantly contribute to the global nanotechnology market, and additionally that we are a very important market for the technology scene.
SabryCorp Website: http://www.sabrycorp.com/sc/index.html
in2nano Website: http://www.in2nano.sabrycorp.com/conf/in2nano/08/Program/schools.cfm
Nile University Center for Nanotechnology Website: http://www.nileu.edu.eg/nano/index.html
Nile University in the News: Nature Middle East http://www.nature.com/nmiddleeast/2011/110315/full/nmiddleeast.2011.32.html
You can follow Dr. Adbel-Mottaleb on twitter @NUnanoDir