Published 1 June 2017 by Ulrike Böhm

Chemistry Student Jana Kobeissi Wants to Be a Source of Positive Change

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Jana and get inspired. 


Photo: Courtesy of Jana Kobeissi
Photo: Courtesy of Jana Kobeissi

Jana Kobeissi, 20, from Lebanon is an undergraduate student at the American University of Beirut. Her research deals with studying the interactions between microorganisms and various macromolecules and expanding this knowledge to real world applications.


What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

I have been fascinated with science for as long as I can remember. My earliest exposure to science was perhaps through the documentaries on Discovery channel, which my older siblings would choose to watch. Even though I was too young to understand all that was discussed, I was exposed to several topics ranging from space to rare diseases to the chemistry of things, and I believe this had a major role in sparking my interest.

When it came to choosing a major at university, it was somehow difficult as I did not have a specific favourite science subject. I ended up choosing chemistry as I found it to be closest to all others – and I was certainly not disappointed. I loved every bit of the first general chemistry course I took as well as the later in-depth courses, marvelling at how integrated chemistry is in everyday life and with other scientific fields, whether it’s mathematics, biology, or physics.


Who are your role models?

I do not have a specific role model in science, but I do look up to all the great women out there who have left an indelible mark on the course of humanity. As for my role model as a person, I would choose my mom. I admire how she manages to balance and excel at all aspects of her working and personal life.


How did you get to where you are in your career path?

After attending the National Protestant College, I am currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at the American University of Beirut, where I have great support and guidance. I have had the opportunity to be involved in a research laboratory since the end of my sophomore year and to have my own research project to work on. I am thrilled by the sheer amount of information I am learning in research and by the skills (both practical and personal) that I am developing with the assistance of my mentor, Dr. Pierre Karam.


What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The project I am currently working on is the coolest so far. As it deals with both microorganisms and macromolecules, it involves both chemistry and biology – a fact that I particularly admire. I like how when synthesizing particles and structures, I not only have to think like a chemist, but to consider the system where these structures will be applied; that is, I should think of my bacteria – a system that is alive and sensitive. I sometimes even find myself wondering if my bacteria have had “enough to eat” or if they are “stressed by overpopulation”!


Photo: Courtesy of Jana Kobeissi
Photo: Courtesy of Jana Kobeissi


What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

A part of my project dealt with synthesizing a metal-coated macromolecule. To achieve the perfect structure, I varied several parameters in a series of experiments, and it took quite some time. At some point, I got to be extremely delighted when I finally viewed the complex with a scanning electron microscope to see a perfectly homogeneous structure covered with metal nanoparticles. It even exceeded my own expectations of how I wanted the structure to be!


What is a “day in the life” of Jana like?

My weekday in a regular semester usually starts at about 9 or 10 a.m. In a day early through the week, I prepare bacterial cultures before I go to my first class and carry out the experiment in between classes. I follow up with my experiment in the following days up until I get the results. I usually get back home in the afternoon (sometimes a bit later) and I would have some time to study and do my assignments. Basically, I try to hold a balance between research and university work, but I often find myself inching towards the former as it is more enjoyable! A day in a summer semester is more flexible, and I can find more time to carry out experiments.

For sure, never accept the “you’re a woman” or “that’s what women do” justification.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

As I am still somehow early in the course of my career path, I am still weighing my options: either medical school or graduate school (towards a PhD). I am a fan of all science, and it is difficult for me to decide which field is the most exciting. What I am sure of, though, is that whatever I choose, I will keep on pursuing research, preferably in an interdisciplinary field and will aim to efficiently contribute to scientific knowledge. I also aim to be of benefit to my country, Lebanon, by being a source of positive change.


What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

If I am not doing research (and not studying), I like to spend time with my friends, read and play the piano. And if it’s a weekend and I can go somewhere away from Beirut and all the city lights I enjoy watching the night sky. If viewing conditions are good, I take out my telescope to have an up-close view of the celestial objects (and try to catch Deep Sky Objects), and sometimes even take pictures as I have recently started experimenting with astrophotography.


What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

Listen to others’ advice “selectively”. That is, know from whom, when, and in what way you would like to receive guidance and block out all that do not fit your own criteria. For sure, never accept the “you’re a woman” or “that’s what women do” justification.


Photo: Courtesy of Jana Kobeissi
Photo: Courtesy of Jana Kobeissi


In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

That’s a bit difficult to answer, as science is too broad a subject to have one great breakthrough, but I do believe that finding a long-term solution to antibiotic resistance would be a remarkable aid to global health. I also have faith that this solution will be largely contributed by chemists!


What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

From what I have observed, there is no shortage in females interested in science, as most (if not all) my female classmates at school were passionate about at least one science subject. There is, however, a shortage in those who choose a science career, especially that of natural science. At least that is what I have realised in my own country. One of the possible factors is the attitude surrounding gender roles as more importance is pronouncedly placed on a man’s advancement within his career; female ambition in that sense is not encouraged that much. Hence, young women might opt for paths that are not time consuming (and are more family-friendly). For that aspect, a shift in attitude is a must, and that can only happen through time and proper education. The idea that what women do is significant should be fortified. I believe it would be helpful, too, to make this “science path” more flexible for the women who want to start their families early.

Another possible factor is one that is also common here, and it is the requirement to travel abroad to pursue a PhD in notable institutions, especially in the US or Canada, an option that may not always be favoured. Having online programs, perhaps through affiliations with local universities, may serve as an aid for that issue.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.