From helping the fishermen in Toshka keep their catch fresh, to developing a cheap kit that diagnoses Hepatitis C, the American University in Cairo's two research centers are working hands-on to find scientific solutions to Egypt's everyday problems. Ehab Abdel Rahman, vice provost and professor of Physics, explains how it's done.
by Noha Mohammed
AUC has two dedicated research centers focusing on scientific solutions to everyday problems. What is AUC’s strategy to address the need for science and scientific research in Egypt?
I’d like to borrow a statement from our new president, who in his inauguration speech said we are a healthy university but we’re not wealthy. Many people have the impression that AUC has a magnificent infrastructure because it is wealthy. It’s not because we’re wealthy? We’re healthy because we have a decent infrastructure that we spent many years building. More importantly, we spent and we put lots of emphasis on maintaining that infrastructure.
It doesn’t make any sense to buy a piece of equipment for $5 million and in three or four years something gets damaged then you throw away the whole thing because you do not have the money to maintain it. So when you buy a piece of equipment you have to plan for the maintenance from day one. And that’s what we do, we always put money on the side for the maintenance. We know that any piece of equipment is a liability. We’re a small university and that means we can move with less momentum. It also allows us lots of flexibility in shaping our research strategy, targeting topics that are of interest to the Egyptian community, which means we can actually respond quickly to the demands of the community.
How does AUC identify these needs?
I can give you many examples of how we do this. We depend on governmental studies, we look for example at Egypt’s 2030 sustainability study. We looked at the scientific plan of the Ministry of Scientific Research and identified the topics that we could contribute to — on top of that we live in Egypt. We sense what Egypt needs — that there is a problem in the water, environmental problems facing not only Cairo, food problems that we’re going to be facing very soon, and an energy problem that every country will face. Even the Gulf area will face it in the future. What happens when they run out of oil? If they don’t plan for it from now then they will face a problem at a very late stage and it will be very hard for them to find a solution.
As researchers, we have our own means of assessing the need of the country but if we don’t have the infrastructure or the capacity to do it, we do not approach it. In the end, we’re a small university, we cannot solve every problem out there. But if we do have the capacity and the infrastructure and there is an urgent need to work on it, without any hesitation we attempt to contribute toward it.
What issues has AUC been researching? How do you ensure your contributions and solutions reach the community?
I’ll give you an example: Hepatitis C — it’s a very chronic problem in Egypt: 20 percent of the population is infected by Hepatitis C. But more important than treating people is to diagnose them first. But the diagnostics available right now are very expensive. They take time to show results, so an AUC team led by Dr. Hassan Azazy have been working on the problem for many years and they came up with a new diagnostic kit that is very cheap and actually can give you the result within a couple of hours. Imagine if this diagnostic kit is in every home, in every village in Egypt, then we can easily have a map of where there is Hepatitis C and then we can work on a holistic approach in treating those people.
The other problem that we have been working on is poverty alleviation. We look at it from different angles: the psychological, economic and scientific as well. We have a group of faculty who have been presenting models to the government to use to alleviate poverty, and they’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Cooperation.
Among the problems presented at AUC about a year and a half ago concerned the fishermen in Toskha. The weather in Toshka is hot year-round and after they bring in their catch, the fish rots on the boats because of the heat. One of our professors at AUC, Dr. Amr Serag Eldin, proposed a system to manufacture an ice-making device that they can take aboard the boat and which uses water directly from the sea. On their way back from a fishing trip, they can cover the fish with ice and preserve it until they can sell it.
A problem like this had two facets. The first facet is technological, in which we provided a sustainable solution to a specific group of people but which can be used for lots of other people. The second thing is that we offered a solution to alleviate poverty and helped them with a way to guarantee an income and thus live better. We presented our research to to the Academy of Scientific Research who sent it on to the Ministry of Military Production for mass production.
Other than diseases and poverty, what are Egypt’s most pressing problems that scientific research can find solutions for?
With any development in any country, energy should come first. Because if you do not have energy and infrastructure, no one will come to invest in this country. They are a priority and will always be a priority for every country. Continued development and bringing investors to the country requires that you invest more in the energy sector. You have to secure a cheap source of energy with a low negative impact on the environment. It’s a very difficult equation but it has to be solved in any way.