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Vol. 28 No. 2
March-April 2006

Frontier Science in the Middle East

by John M. Malin

The conference, Frontiers of Chemical Sciences II: Research and Education in the Middle East, commonly known as Malta II, took place on neutral ground in Valetta, Malta, 5–10 November 2005. This groundbreaking event united scientists from Middle Eastern countries and beyond to discuss shared challenges related to the environment, materials science, medicinal chemistry, nanotechnology, energy, and education.

A key objective of the conference was to find ways for scientists from conflicting Middle Eastern countries to work together to achieve common goals. The conference had an outstanding turnout. Of the 80 participants, all convened by invitation, 56 were from Middle Eastern countries: Bahrain (1), Egypt (10), Iran (6), Israel (13), Jordan (3), Kuwait (1), Lebanon (3), Palestinian Authority (11), Qatar (1), Saudi Arabia (3), Turkey (2), and United Arab Emirates (2).

A multinational organizing committee chaired by Professor Zafra M. Lerman from Columbia College in Chicago (USA) organized the event. IUPAC, the American Chemical Society (ACS), the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), and the German Chemical Society or Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (GDCh) were cosponsoring organizations. Additional support was provided by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, and a number of public and private donors.

The conference featured lectures by Nobel laureates Aaron Ciechanover, Richard Ernst, Yuan T. Lee, Jean-Marie Lehn, Roald Hoffmann, and F. Sherwood Rowland. Other presenters included Kurt Begitt, Helmut Ringsdorf, David N. Reinhoudt, Leiv Sydnes, Michael Graetzel, Peter Atkins, and Simon Campbell. A special thank you goes to Charles E. Kolb, Ann Nalley, Catherine Costello, Zafra Lerman, Thomas Spiro, Paul Walter, Stephen Ritter, and Jeffrey Wade, who did an outstanding job organizing the conference.

(Purple) Middle Eastern countries participating in Malta II

Plenary Sessions and Workshops
Malta II opened with a welcome reception, dinner, and a plenary session chaired by Ahmeen Farouk Fahmy of Egypt. The first plenary address, by Peter Atkins, was titled Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science. Atkins presented a lively tour-de-force of physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics in which he lauded the scientific contributions of Charles Darwin, Francis Bacon, J. Willard Gibbs, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, James Watson, Francis Crick, William Hale, and Kurt Goedel.

A formal opening ceremony extended a warm welcome to all conference attendees. Zafra Lerman (conference chair), Paul Walter (master of ceremonies), Ann Nalley (ACS board representative), Simon Campbell (RSC president), Leiv Sydnes (IUPAC president), Kurt Begitt (GDCh representative), and Bijay Chatterjee (OPCW representative) conducted the opening ceremony.

Alfred Abed Rabbo, Bethlehem University (Palestinian Authority) chaired a stimulating session in which Yuan T. Lee (Nobel laureate, Taiwan) spoke on "Energy, Environment and the Responsibilities of Scientists." Dr. Lee posed a sobering question: "If all the world lived as we in the developed countries do, how many Earths would it take to support our lifestyle?" He inspired attendees by stating that the twenty-first century could be a great turning point in human history if we work together to share ideas, solve problems, develop new technical options, and learn how to live with limited resources.

Other plenary sessions covered such topics as medicinal chemistry, environmental air and water quality, nanotechnology, energy and solar cells, and science education. The workshops provided an opportunity for many of the Middle Eastern scientists to share their work with their colleagues while discussing challenges and areas for future development and research.

In a shared cultural experience, participants attended a concert of Middle Eastern and classical music at Valetta's Manoel Theater, now Malta’s national theater. Attendees enjoyed compositions by Bach, Schumann, Wiesenberg, and Ben-Haim performed by a trio of Palestinian and Israeli musicians who played an unusual grouping of violoncello, piano, and oud. The event was hosted by Maria E. Michel Beyerle, a chemistry professor and musician from the Technical University of Munich, who obtained sponsorship from the Aventis Foundation and the Stiftverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft.

A poster session, featuring some 40 presentations, mostly by Middle Eastern scientists, continued throughout the conference. Discussions and networking sessions took place around the posters during conference breaks and sometimes extended well into the evening. On one evening, after some initial coaxing by Professor Hoffman, participants took part in a lively, impromptu session of Middle Eastern music and dancing. Previous tensions that were evident during Malta I were no longer present, which created a friendlier, more relaxed atmosphere for all.

Progress Since Malta I

One of the sessions covered the outcomes from the first Malta conference held in December 2003. One of the outcomes is a collaborative proposal for research on water quality submitted by Palestinian scientists from the University of Bethlehem and Israeli chemists from Bra Ilan University and the Weizmann Institute; that proposal has been funded by an international agency. Improved communication between Palestinian and Israeli universities has led to a scientific exchange agreement with the Weizmann Institute.

At Malta I, Professor Yuan T. Lee offered full fellowships for three Middle Eastern students to study the use of synchrotron technologies at the Taiwan synchrotron facility. That first group of three students has completed its studies, and a second group will be visiting Taiwan soon.

As a result of the Malta I conference, a special symposium on Middle Eastern chemistry was organized at the February 2005 national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) also recognized the Malta I conference as an example of outreach to the broader community by including the conference in a special poster symposium at the Fall 2005 ACS National Meeting. The NSF has also made a substantial grant of more than USD 100 000 to Professor Hoffmann to hold workshops for U.S. and Middle Eastern students. The first workshop was held in Petra, Jordan, and two more are scheduled to be held in Egypt and Quatar. It was also recognized that in August 2004, some 15 scientists from eight countries met at the IUPAC sponsored International Conference on Chemical Education, held in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss Middle East collaborations.

Success and Encouragement

On the last day of the conference, attendees were given an opportunity to offer feedback on the week's events. Some of their words follow:

"The conference and the efforts are an excellent way of improving contacts between countries in the region. I hope this meeting will continue the peace process."

"I hope that the political situation would change in such a way as to allow scientists to travel and work in other countries in the region without incurring the disapproval of their governments and colleagues. I am an optimist and believe the conference will further this goal."

"The conference could catalyze the creation of an action group among scientists in the region to work for enhancing harmony and peaceful coexistence in the area."

"In order to fulfill the real goal of the Malta conference, priority should be given at future conferences to establishing a working group for participants, which is supported by the Nobel laureates and funding agencies."

"Let's keep working to bridge the gap between neighbors in the Middle East. Create the atmosphere of trust to lead to a better future for people in this region."

Future Actions
In the final session, recommendations for future actions emerging from each specific workshop were discussed in the areas of environmental air and water quality, nanotechnology, energy and solar cells, chemical education, and medicinal chemistry.

In addition, there was a clear consensus that a Malta III conference should be held in 2007. Participants suggested that Malta III could be organized under IUPAC auspices, perhaps through CHEMRAWN, involving the SESAME (Synchrotron Light for Experimental Science and Applications in Middle East) facility in Jordan, or possibly in Cyprus.

Participants felt that communications should be facilitated by enabling a Web discussion group. Also, they thought it would be helpful to identify IUPAC events, such as CHEMRAWN conferences, where Middle Eastern participants could discuss their progress.

Sources of support for international collaboration with Middle Eastern scientists need to be identified. J. Malin and Miriam Waldman volunteered to create a database to facilitate this process. Attendees also felt it would be helpful to have a map of Middle Eastern scientific facilities for research projects.

Overall, it was agreed that scientists need to work harder to help colleagues cross national borders. In addition, participants suggested that students and younger scientists be invited to the next Malta conference.

Jordanian Chemists Join IUPAC
In January 2006, Jordan became a National Adhering Organization (NAO) of IUPAC through the Jordanian Chemical Society (JCS). The JCS was established in 1976 with 30 members, and that number has increased ten-fold since then. Professor Sultan T. Abu-Orabi, president of Tafila Technical University, is president of the JCS and also president of the Arab Union of Chemists. Strengthening relationships is a key objective of the Society—relationships not only among Jordanian chemists, but also with the regional and international chemistry communities.

After the closing session, attendees enjoyed an excursion by boat to the historic Maltese city Vittoriosa and were given one final chance to network and share ideas. During the farewell gala dinner held at the Palazzo Parisio in Naxxar, Professor Sultan Abu-Orabi presented the Shield of the Jordanian Chemical Society to the organizers and representatives of sponsoring societies. Many discussions took place among Israeli, Arab, and Persian participants that are expected to lead to fruitful interactions.

No one could have anticipated the success of the Malta I and II conferences. Attendees were left with a great feeling of hope and inspiration as they traveled home to further their work of using science as a medium to promote stability in the Middle East.

John M. Malin <[email protected]> is chair of the IUPAC CHEMRAWN committee. He was involved in the organizing committee of Malta I and II.

A longer report is available from the corresponding IUPAC project webpage.

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