Published 5 November 2014

Interview: Ghada Bassioni, Global Scientist

From young scientist to honorary guest in only two years – find out how Ghada Bassioni took the chances the Lindau Meeting offered her.

“I’m back!” Dr. Ghada Bassioni said while waving happily with her (now red colored) lanyard at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. The Egyptian chemist made her first visit to Lindau in 2012 for the 62nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting wearing the grey band of a young scientist. In 2014 she managed to get invited for a second time – a rare case that usually only occurs when a previous meeting participant actually wins the Nobel Prize years later. Ghada Bassioni however, doesn’t seem like a person who prefers to wait for opportunity to appear.

Ghada Bassioni during her presentation for the Global Young Academy at #lnlm14. Credit: C.Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.
Ghada Bassioni during her presentation for the Global Young Academy at #lnlm14. Credit: C.Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

She got her M.Sc. degree from the Technische Universität München (TUM) jointly with the Ain Shams University in Cairo (ASU) and her Ph.D. from the TUM. Her current position is associate professor and she also heads the chemistry department in the faculty of engineering at Ain Shams University. Making use of her international experiences she coordinates several binational research cooperations at the Egyptian Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF) which is part of Egypt’s Ministry of Scientific Research. She is also a member of the Egyptian National Committee for Pure and Applied Chemistry. If all this doesn’t sound like enough work, Ghada is also heavily involved in the Global Young Academy having been recently appointed as a member of their Executive Committee. Furthermore, Ghada Bassioni is strongly supporting women’s affairs in science. She was a member and a chairperson for the coresponding groups at the Technische Universität München and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in Abu Dhabi. Her own research involves organometallic, oilfield production and environmental chemistry as well as the development of construction materials and aluminium’s effect on human health.

At her laboratory at the Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Credit: Ghada Bassioni
At her laboratory at the Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, UAE. Credit: Ghada Bassioni

Despite having this many tasks on her schedule it was surprisingly easy to reach her for an interview some time after the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting concluded with a panel discussion in which she also took part.

Dr. Bassioni, you succeeded in a very rare feat: being able to participate in a Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting for a second time. You ‘graduated’ from grey band in 2012 (young scientists) to red band in 2014 (honorary guests) in only two years which may very well be a record. How did this come to pass and what happened during these two years?

Ghada Bassioni: I believe that my real success started when I returned to my home country, Egypt, after a very long time abroad. The Egyptian Revolution gave me big hopes to find a new era which appreciates capabilities and potential. Participation in the Lindau meeting in 2012 made prove of this and was based on a fair competition in Egypt between nominees from different universities. From thereafter my life has changed. Recognition of my hard work and my dedication to societal outreach has become more frequent. Recommendations from members of the Lindau Council, Mr. Turner and Prof. Fricke have helped me further to join the Global Young Academy in 2013. A new dimension has opened up for me. Interactions with wonderful young scientists from all over the globe have enriched my life.

I think the key is dedication and passion to what you are doing. This and the belief that it will pay off at some point are the only ways to success.

Are you aiming for the turquoise band (Nobel Laureate) for the next time you visit Lindau?

GB: Lindau is such a beautiful and inspiring place that I will definitely come back regardless of what destiny has in store for me. I am willing to come whenever I am asked to because of that great Lindau spirit. I am a hard worker and I love what I am doing. I am not sure whether this is enough for a turquoise band though.

Did your first experience in Lindau (2012) have an impact on your life and career and if yes, how?

GB: Yes, the impact was enormous. Exchange of knowledge and experience was my primary drive to seek this chance of meeting the elite. I always felt that there is a need for active connections between young scientists and distinguished professors of the discipline which not only enrich the knowledge but also add another dimension to the existing systems of continuing education programs, lectures and research. A new dimension of collaborations with researchers from different parts of the globe opened up for me and I greatly benefit from these interactions. This type of approach promises rapid advances in research through open sharing of research information at all stages of the research process. Seeking and employing methods to successfully support this concept is a passion of mine that mirrors the passion I have for my field.

A global way of life: Upper picture - in front of the Bavarian Alps, lower pciture - during a camel rid ein the desert. Credit: Ghada Bassioni.
A global way of life: Upper picture – in front of the Bavarian Alps, lower picture – during a camel ride in the desert. Credit: Ghada Bassioni.

In 2012 you were invited to do a video blog at Lindau on the topic of ‘Women in Science’. What is your personal experience regarding this matter? Is it harder for women to achieve success in science? What changes should be made?

GB: ‘Women in Science’ is a topic very dear to my heart. The first time I have gotten engaged with women related issues was when I was elected as the women’s representative at the Technical University of Munich from 2005-2007. At that time I represented the women faculty and staff of the Chemistry department in the faculty council. I realized how important it is to reflect a vision that might be forgotten at some point and started to engage myself with workshops and seminars to raise awareness of the problems women might face in their career. A particular emphasis was put on time management skills and how to combine family and career as well as “girls’ day”, “education day” and many more. In 2007, when I moved to Abu Dhabi to coordinate the international collaboration between the Petroleum Institute and the Technical University of Munich, I joined the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) and the American Institute for Chemical Engineers (AIChE) to continue with that activity besides the scientific one. From 2009-2011 I was the Chair of the Women’s Initiative Section of AIChE Abu Dhabi. I organized a series of seminars like “Women in Leadership” or “Women in the industry” hosted by the Petroleum Institute. This seminar series was very successful and the impact was clearly seen on the numbers of female students who joined the Petroleum Institute and who were motivated by the role models presented.

My personal experience is very positive. I grew up in a family with a working mother in a leading position. As a full professor, she was the Head of the Anesthesia department at the National Heart Institute in Cairo for more than 20 years before she retired a few years ago. The Egyptian laws do not differentiate between genders. Quality and seniority count. I am heading the Chemistry department at the Faculty of Engineering since October 2012 and can only confirm that being a woman has not impacted me but positively.

Through the “Women in Science” working group at the Global Young Academy I am now trying to tackle challenges that are globally seen for young women. Surprisingly, more challenges are observed in the developed countries rather than the developing world. The tight family relationships in most of the developing countries make it easier for women to become successful in their career given that relatives are there to help out with child care in early ages. A good infrastructure in the developed countries may compensate for this. I remember that only a very expensive baby sitter was available, when I moved with my 4-months old daughter to Germany to finish my Masters and Ph.D. My whole salary and a part of my husband’s salary went all to finance the babysitter. Not everybody can afford this nor has the will to live so tight for the sake of education. Maternal leave is surprisingly more generous in the developing world as well.

As a member of the Global Young Academy you pursue the goal of finding solutions to global problems through science. What can young scientists contribute to this cause?

GB: The Global Young Academy is the “Voice of Young Scientists” representing the opinion of young professionals by releasing statements, publications and letters to the editors of renowned journals. We want to see our voice heard and we succeeded to be recognized as a pool of young professionals at the UN and the EU Commission. We have different working groups running which work on specific topics like ‘Women in science’, ‘Science education’, ‘The Young Ambassadors Program’ and others. These programs seek for outreach and capacity building. No doubt, being part of that community rewarded me with a lot of skills; social, cultural and scientific.

At the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting you participated in the Closing Panel Discussion on ‘Science for the Benefit of Mankind’. During this the question arose if researchers should give more thought to social questions. What is your take on this?

GB: I think that a major role of a ‘true’ scientist is to convey the message to others, to educate people, to make his or her knowledge available for others to benefit from.

What is science worth if it is not shared nor contributes to solving societal problems?

The structure of a society can be very complicated and needs a case-by-case tailored study in how to convey the message to the general public. I believe that mastering implementation of fundamental questions is essential for successful scientific research in developing countries.

Is there a gap in availability of scientific discoveries and their implementations between the developed and the developing world and if yes, what can be done to close it?

GB: Gaps are created by human beings. Distraction of goals makes communication between the developing and the developed world sometimes impossible. While e.g. the developing world seeks for water and food resources, the developed world is focused on technology and global warming. Priorities of research funding can vary dramatically and young researchers might feel lost at some point because of the ‘politicisation of science’. We might all agree that a proper distribution of resources would solve a lot of problems. The way to have a better world is better networking, better communication and above all good collaboration.

Isn’t it finally upon your generation to take responsibility and carry the noble motivations of science into politics and industry? Has ‘the old generation’ of scientists and decision makers failed at this task?

GB: I don’t like to blame the “old generation” for any failures. They have done their best with given tools and methods. We are blessed now to have such a rich pool of technology that enables us to do a good job, too. The internet makes education and communication easier. Learning about politics or what decision politicians are taking is no longer impossible. The globalised world is open to whoever wants this dialogue between science, politics and industry. Economic factors will play a role for sure in terms of what type of scientific research is funded and for what purpose. How this is communicated is the key to successful implementation.

Ghada Bassioni  at the Closing Panel Discussion at #lnlm14. Credit: C.Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.
Ghada Bassioni at the Closing Panel Discussion at #lnlm14. Credit: C.Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.

Also at the Closing Panel Discussion, you asked the world for trust in the ideas of the new generation of scientists. How exactly should young scientists pay back this trust?

GB: Investing in young scientists giving them seed money to build up their future as soon as possible without asking for leadership by a senior professor will give them more time for innovation and technological development. Becoming an established scientist in a short period of time will allow these scientists to dedicate more time for outreach and societal service as well.

And finally, what are your personal goals for the future? How are you planning to contribute to the cause of the Global Young Academy?

As the head of the Chemistry department of Ain Shams University since October 2012, I hope to contribute to a better research environment and develop good educational tools for our students. I really hope that I will be able to transfer the knowledge I have gained and apply best practices. I am also seeking to establish a good research lab with state-of-the-art equipment at the faculty of Engineering at ASU in Cairo. I joined the Global Young Academy in 2013. In this year’s General Assembly Meeting of the Global Young Academy in Santiago, Chile, I was elected as a member of the Executive Committee taking on many different tasks. We have a wonderful team and are progressing slowly but surely to a worldwide recognition on one hand and to a proactive outreach to society on the other.

Dr. Bassioni, thank you very much for the conversation! We really hope to see you again in Lindau, regardless of lanyard colour!