Overcoming Boundaries and Borders

Many science experimentalists have experienced that sinking feeling when a precious sample is destroyed just before the end of a long experiment. Fewer, probably, can relate to an analogous situation, in which it's not the sample but the researcher's access to the laboratory that is at risk. In years past, molecular biologist Mary Kaileh often found herself in such a situation, in which "when you start an experiment today, you're not sure you can continue it tomorrow."

Kaileh recalls working under such conditions as a research assistant at Birzeit University in the West Bank. When she was an undergraduate, lengthy closures of the university were regular occurrences, so her undergraduate science education was a protracted affair. But Kaileh really wanted a research degree, so she persisted.

A painful process

In just a few months, more than 20 years after entering college, she will defend her Ph.D. thesis at the university in Birzeit. Her doctoral work is the fruit of a collaboration between University of Ghent in Belgium and the West Bank's Birzeit University. Getting to this stage was a painful process. "There were a lot of obstacles," she says, but she is undeterred; she remains determined to create training and research opportunities for a new generation of Palestinian biologists.

Kaileh's interest in science goes back to her school days. Upon starting her undergraduate studies in biology at Birzeit in 1982, she had to endure frequent closures and curfews at the university, including a 5-year interruption between 1987 to 1992 when the university was totally shut down. As a result of these interruptions she graduated with a BSc.--which, theoretically, should be a 4-year course--12 years after she started. It took, she admits, a lot "of determination and patience."

After graduating with her BSc., Kaileh wanted to undertake a research degree--a masters or Ph.D.--in molecular biology. She was particularly keen to learn molecular biological techniques that in the mid 90s were, as she puts it, "a new era in biology." Unfortunately, no graduate degrees existed at the time in biological fields at a Palestinian university, so she decided to take a position as a research assistant at Birzeit, preparing practicals for undergraduate classes and conducting research for a faculty professor. At the same time, she started to search for fellowship opportunities to do a Ph.D. abroad.

Going abroad turned out to be a major challenge, but her break finally came seven years later when Ghent University in Belgium offered her a 3-month, in-house training course in molecular biology.

Guy Haegeman, the course organiser, was keen to set up scientific collaborations with Birzeit. Haegeman encouraged and helped Kaileh to apply for a Belgian Technical Co-Operation Fellowship from the Belgian Consulate in Jerusalem. Up to ten such fellowships are granted each year across all technical disciplines. Kaileh applied and succeeded. She still feels privileged: "not many succeed [in] getting this opportunity," she says.

Kaileh started her doctoral research at Department of Molecular Biology in Ghent in 2001, under the supervision of Haegeman, investigating anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties of a certain plant species. Her experimental was conducted at Ghent, where she used state-of-the-art biomolecular techniques to isolate active compounds in the plant extracts. She mixes her lab work with twice-a-year trips to the West Bank to collect new botanical material.

Kaileh's research has confirmed the medicinal properties--anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer--of this plant species, which has been used as herbal medicine in the Middle East, as well as other countries like India, for decades. Kaileh is a named researcher on a patent application that is in the process of being filed. Yet, for Kaileh, the most rewarding aspect of her research has been engaging in biomedical work that could have real therapeutic implications. "At the beginning, I didn't believe that these plants had [real] medicinal effects," she admits. "I'm very happy that the active compounds may be useful in the future for treating cancer and inflammation."

Working in Belgium has given Kaileh a lot of freedom, including the freedom to travel to other European Union countries. If she were still based in Birzeit, she says, such options would not exist, because getting permission from the Israeli authorities to travel even to Jerusalem, where she would need to go to initiate a permit application, is very difficult. "There are no concessions for academics."

"You can't take anything for granted"

Even just getting on with your daily work is a luxury back home. During her work in Birzeit, Kaileh and others were often prohibited from passing the checkpoint to Birzeit University. Kaileh recalls colleagues in Birzeit who wanted to collect plant material for her in villages surrounding the city of Ramallah, but were prohibited from travelling there. "You can't take anything for granted," she says.

Mentors have been crucial in encouraging Kaileh to pursue her research ambitions when the going got tough. Guy Haegeman in Ghent, Tamer Essawi at Birzeit University, and Waleed Deeb from the Arab-American University in the West Bank city of Jenin "all helped and pushed me," she says. "I couldn't have done it without them." Kaileh also benefited from the support of a network of female scientists, after winning a UNESCO-L'Oreal Fellowship for Young Women in Life Sciences--a $20,000 award--in 2003. "Meeting women from all over the world and exchanging experiences with them has been amazing," she says.

Obstacles still exist--big ones--but Kaileh is determined to help remove some of those obstacles for the next generation of Palestinian biology students. Her central ambition, which she is currently pursing, is to secure funding to set up a molecular biology lab in Birzeit and eventually to establish a biological graduate research degree course. She wants to work in Birzeit University as a teacher and researcher and "to give something back to the community."

After defending her thesis, Kaileh says, she will probably do a postdoc either in Europe or the United States while continuing her quest for start-up funding for a lab in Birzeit. She is also helping students in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem, find doctoral fellowships to go abroad. Asked what advice she would give science trainees back home, Kaileh offers only this: "People don't need advice, they need opportunities. It's a long struggle, but if I can help establish a lab, start a graduate course, or find fellowships [for students], I will be happy."

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