Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,

Students lead Nobel laureate visit
In the last 50 years, few have advanced our understanding of cancer more than bio-medical researchers Harold E. Varmus and J. Michael Bishop, joint Nobel Prize winners for Physiology and Medicine in 1989. The duo described oncogenes, or cancer-causing genes, which identified the causality of viral infection in certain cancers, and enabled scientists to develop animal models that have vastly increased our ability and success in studying and treating human forms of the disease. Professor Varmus, who visited AUB last week, is also an eminent scientific leader who served as head of the US National Institutes of Health, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and the National Cancer Institute, among other high profile advisory roles.

Hosting Nobel laureates on campus provides a rare pleasure. Three came last year, each leaving a deep and lasting impression. What distinguishes the two days that Harold Varmus visited AUB is that the agenda was entirely student-led from start to finish. Several strands linked Professor Varmus to AUB. He graduated from Amherst College, alma mater of our founder Daniel Bliss, and has had friendships with our late president, Dr. Calvin Plimpton, and our alumna and current trustee, Dr. Huda Zoghbi. When he fell into conversation with current PhD student Nataly Naser Al Deen, representing AUB and Lebanon at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, he expressed a sincere interest in finding out more about us. Nataly immediately set about making it happen and succeeded in creating an experience for hundreds of us that will live on in the annals of AUB. ​

Dr. Varmus's intellectual brilliance accommodates personable approachability, civic-mindedness, and a strong generosity of spirit. He delivered two world-class lectures on February 15 and 18: one hosted by the Biology Department on how students may plan a successful career in science; and one at AUBMC on his scientific discoveries that led to a Nobel Prize. He also spent many hours meeting graduate and undergraduate students and research faculty from different science and bio-medical departments. It is fair to say that, while he inspired everyone who met or heard him, he was also very impressed with the high quality of scientific research, educators, and students he encountered at AUB. This university has acquired a very influential ally through this visit.

Thanks must go to the Biology Department faculty and its chair Dr. Imad Saoud, and members of the Biology Student Society who took an active role in logistics and publicity. Particular credit goes to the architect of the visit, who counts among the many AUB students for whom exceptional academic work (Nataly's thesis characterizing molecular profiles of young Lebanese women with breast cancer has been featured in MainGate magazine) forms only part of their repertoire. An MEPI-TL undergraduate scholar at the American University of Cairo and Fulbright scholar at Georgetown Medical Center, Baalbek-born Nataly gives back by devoting her weekends to her own NGO, Pink Steps Lebanon, promoting physical fitness and healthy lifestyles in breast cancer survivors (when she is not organizing Nobel Laureate visits, that is!).​

Celebrating our women scientists
Dr. Najat Saliba put smiles on faces all over campus when she was named as the Arab world/Africa laureate in the 2019 L'Oreal UNESCO International Award for Women in Science (IAWS). A popular teacher and transcendent figure around AUB, she has gained global repute as an atmospheric chemist through groundbreaking transdisciplinary work on water pipes and electronic cigarettes, and leadership in regional expertise of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). As well as being professor of analytical chemistry, she heads the AUB Nature Conservation Center, provides expert advice to several UN panels, and is a strong advocate of a public participatory approach to science.

The IAWS is announced on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), adopted by the UN in 2015 to highlight the fact our ability to face the existential sustainable development challenges relies on harnessing all human capital and talent. Arab states can boast the world's highest rates of women graduating in physical and life sciences, but studies around the world show the gender balance skews to males in the move from the master's level to PhDs, and even more heavily when one looks at careers in scientific research.

Dr. Saliba's collaborative work with Dean Alan Shihadeh's Aerosol Research Laboratory at MSFEA, and the Center of the Study of Tobacco Products at Virginia Commonwealth University puts this university at the forefront of global tobacco control research—leading us to be named as the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control's knowledge hub for water pipe tobacco smoking in 2016. This team is now set to establish a similar level of authority in testing the toxic components of electronic cigarettes, with several peer-reviewed publications already setting the research agenda.

Najat is far from being the only outstanding role model and advocate for women in science at AUB. To name 12 of many, bio-medical researchers Ghada El-Hajj Fuleihan, Souha Kanj, Aida Habib, Zeina Kanafani, Rose-Mary Boustany, and Rihab Nasr, all make tremendous impact in their respective fields of osteoporosis, infectious disease, vascular biology, neurogenetics, and cancer research. In basic sciences, you find biologists Hala Gali-Muhtasib, Diana Jaalouk, Sawsan Kreydiyyeh, and Khouzama Knio at the forefront of their fields: medicinal plants, experimental cancer research, cell biology, and regional insect diversity. You find karst hydrogeologist Joanna Doummar at the geology department, while Dr. Saliba's fellow chemistry professor, Lara Halaoui does impressive work in the field of electrochemistry and light energy conversion. And that is not to mention the top-quality women researchers in social science departments and our schools of agriculture and nutrition, engineering, nursing, and public health (some of whom are featured in past President's Perspectives). As this message goes out, delegates are converging on AUB for the third annual AUB Women in Data Science (WiDS) conference hosted by OSB, which provides support and mentorship to encourage women and girls to enter data science and showcases the work of female pioneers.

Whether its authors are men or women, AUB's prolific scientific output creates pride for all our community and enhances our relevance. But everyone can agree there is particular pride to see Arab women crashing through the gratuitous boundaries and contributing so greatly in science.  ​

Digital accessibility for education
As technology permeates every sphere of modern life, the potential grows for people with special accessibility needs to be increasing excluded from the advances offered by the digital age. Tens of thousands of children in Lebanon are thought to have a disability that jeopardizes their right to education. In recent years, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) and the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA), with NGO support, have started to address this threat, including the MEHE “inclusive public schools" pilot which furnishes 30 schools with special training and material and personnel support to accommodate special needs, with a plan to extend the initiative throughout the country.

With a welcome rise in inclusivity on the horizon, AUB has been ramping up its own accommodation program, spearheaded by the Office of Information Technology (IT), in collaboration with the Office of Accessible Education in Student Affairs, and other departments. These efforts have led to the establishment of ABLE—standing for Accessibility for a Bolder Learning Experience— led by Maha Zouwayhed which will hold a first-of-its-kind summit on April 11 and 12, and is launching a joint project to implement digital accessibility in higher education with a consortium of universities, government and nongovernmental entities. The summit agenda includes collaborative sessions and workshops involving leading international experts in digital accessibility and an exhibition of state-of-the-art assistive technology, and it will be a chance to delve into the challenges and progress that AUB is making towards fostering greater digital inclusivity. ​

We harbor no illusions that AUB is still at the beginning of this journey. It is not a time for excuses, but for firmly setting our sights on how we can catch up to better serve our whole society. IT, working with Communications, has started implementing web-accessibility measures on AUB following the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAGs); training on accessible course design and authoring have been introduced; accessibility features are now required on any IT purchasing; and a draft of accessibility policies are being prepared for submission to the Policies and Procedures Review Committee.


During data collections for the ABLE initiative, the MENA region was found to have only very limited dedicated support of students with special needs in higher education. Students are forced to seek solutions abroad or drop out of the system. It is exciting to know that we stand on the brink of breaking a loop which starts with lack of awareness, continues with lack of skills and closes with a lack of resources and cohesive support on the social, academic and regulatory fronts. A collaborative effort is required across this university and beyond, and it deserves our full support.​​

 

Best regards,


Fadlo R. Khuri, MD

President​