Why has Egypt produced so many great scientists?

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We asked Nancy Elhalfawy, science faculty member at the University of Alexandria in Egypt and Newton-Mosharafa Fund PhD student at the University of Reading, about her country's scientific legacy and how it inspired her to become a scientist.

What made you want to become a scientist?

When I was a child, I dreamed of travelling back in time to ask the pharaohs their scientific secrets. I wanted to know how my ancestors mummified kings and queens, how they built the pyramids without modern equipment, and how they succeeded in designing the temple of King Ramses II so that its inner sanctum would be illuminated by a shaft of sunlight on the anniversary of his birthday every year.

Egypt's geographical position at the center of the Middle East has always given it an edge. It was considered a channel of knowledge between Europe and Africa, and thousands of Egyptian teachers travelled to neighbouring countries to teach students. Scholars at the Library of Alexandria, built during the Ptolemaic era around 300 BCE, contributed to mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. Al-Azhar University, founded in the tenth century, also played an important role in spreading knowledge. Both institutions continue to inform modern thought.

Learning about this as a child made me want to achieve something good for mankind, to prove that Egypt still produces extraordinary scientists. For sure, we had a great civilisation in the past, but I wanted to work hard to prove to the whole world that Egyptian scientists were still making history.

Why has Egypt produced so many top scientists?

As an Egyptian scientist myself, I think the answer to this question is that we don’t believe in the word impossible. Everything is possible if you think, experiment, and analyse. Egyptians keep trying and trying, with the internal belief that we will eventually succeed.

Our history also plays a part. For 7,000 years, Egypt has inspired artists, writers, scientists and intellectuals. The pharaohs left a huge scientific legacy. They were the first to introduce mummification, medicine, agriculture, fermentation, engineering and architecture. The ancient Egyptians were pioneers in astronomy: their expertise played an important role in determining the annual flooding of the Nile, and aligning the pyramids towards the pole star. They were very interested in observing the night sky and phenomena associated with sun and moon. We still haven't worked out all the exact processes they used for mummification, which shows how skilful they were in chemistry.

In the tenth century, Ibn Al-Haytham founded the science of optics, and in the 13th century, the physician Ibn Al-Nafis discovered how blood circulates in the body. In the modern era, Moustafa Mosharafa, the Egyptian theoretical physicist, contributed to the development of Einstein’s quantum theory. Today, Sir Magdi Yacoub, a professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Imperial College London, is considered one of the world's top surgeons in heart transplantation. The success of these Egyptian scientists, who have all benefited humanity with their contributions to science, has had a great impact on attitudes to innovation in Egyptian culture.

As a scientist, what are you studying?

As a child, I had a great passion for scientific experiments, observation and analysis. I decided to study microbiology at university, as I had a lot of unanswered questions about the invisible, mysterious world of bacteria. For example, when I was young, I thought that all bacteria were harmful. But later, I learned that there were a great number of amazing bacteria that are beneficial to humans and can treat disease. This is why I chose to work in white biotechnology, a field which uses living cells to produce natural products that can solve serious health problems. As part of my PhD, I'm trying to find new antimicrobial peptides from lactic acid bacteria. If discovered, these could replace antibiotic treatments and tackle the problem of disease-resistant bacteria, which is one of the world's most serious healthcare issues. These antimicrobial peptides would also be cheaper than their chemical equivalents, and have fewer side effects. I believe and hope that my research will protect people from illness and save lives.

Has anything surprised you about the UK?

Since arriving in the UK, I have been surprised by the culture of respect. As a Muslim woman, I feel that my British neighbours, colleagues and friends respect my religion and my traditions. They accept people from other religions and nationalities.

There's a deep relationship between our two countries. The British were in Egypt for a long time, and many Egyptians have lived and studied in the UK, including Moustafa Mosharafa, the great scientist whose name is honoured by my PhD scholarship. We need these scientific exchanges between young researchers. Egypt's central position in the Middle East may help future regional collaborations in renewable energy, nanotechnology, biotechnology, agriculture, water resources or pharmaceuticals. And supporting young scientists is crucial to reviving a country that continues to think creatively and critically.