U. of Alexandria Seeks to be a Pocket of Excellence
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – In a bare-bones clinical research center on Egypt’s northern coast at Alexandria University, a study coordinator and pharmacist, Rasha El Essawy holds a highly sought-after position.
“Pharmacists are dreaming of such an opportunity,” said El Essawy, who trained at the center before being hired full-time. “A lot of graduates in pharmacy and medicine want to work with us here.”
The center, established in 2006, is the first to conduct high-quality drug trials in Egypt. It offers access to specialized training and allows professors to run their own clinical trials. Patients in the trials are treated for free. And because of the center, pharmaceutical companies are able to conduct clinical research in Egypt.
“The focus mainly is to help the patient to have access to the best treatment and have the best medical care, for the academic institute to gain an international scientific reputation, to help us to publish international papers and to help our university get ranked,” said Nehal El Habachi, the center’s academic director.
The center is just one of a slew of research programs that serve Alexandria University’s surrounding community and help the university make its mark on the global map.
The university, the second largest (after Cairo University) and second oldest (after Al-Azhar University) higher-education institution in Egypt, is in an administrative district with the same name that is home to 40 percent of Egypt’s industries. It often functions as a chief research hotbed for local companies, which often don’t have their own research and development operations.
“It would be by default that Alexandria University should be the R&D for this 40 percent at least, if not in other places in the country as well,” said Seddik Abdel Salam Tawfik, vice-president for postgraduate education and research at the institution.
Research that benefits local industry covers all fields, from the environment to science, medicine, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, agriculture and engineering. Some researchers, for example, are helping farmers’ use land more productively. Others are conducting research for petroleum companies. And an engineering center at the university consults for major government engineering projects, including developing local ports and the country’s main railway stations.
The people who live in the Alexandria area also benefit.
El Habachi said more than 400 medical patients – many lacking the money to get health care otherwise–have been in 44 clinical trials at the research center, which is part of Alexandria University’s Faculty of Medicine. Patients are treated for free and have access to prescribed medications at no cost. The center is also engaged in a slew of educational activities that benefit researchers, students, employees in Egypt’s Ministry of Health and physicians coming from abroad.
Research “is a way to link the university with the community so that the community benefits from the experience of the university,” said Mahmoud El Khishen, vice-president for Community Service and Environment Development at Alexandria University.
El Khishen and Tawfik are at the helm of efforts to reinforce that collaboration. The university is working to establish its own research center, secure more funding from local industry for expanded research and assemble an interdisciplinary team.
A key focus is to revise the university’s strategic plan for research and aligning it with international research trends – to focus on water resources, renewable energy, sustainable development and the environment.
The shift follows a broader push for “internationalization.” That involves joint research, joint projects and degrees, allowing the university to reach across borders and be recognized globally.
“The main aim is being well-recognized on the international arena,” Tawfik said. “Research is one main part of it.”
The university’s international partners already include Virginia Tech, the University of Alabama and the University of Bordeaux in France. Research conducted at Alexandria University is published in national and international journals. But many of the publications are in Arabic, and Tawfik and El Khishen say they hope to have more publications in English, to reach a broader audience. The university has a branch campus in Chad and it is working to establish branches in South Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait, Tawfik said.
The international push and effort at expanding local collaboration come despite political turmoil in Egypt that has limited government funding. Tourism–once the main source of Egypt’s foreign currency reserves–continues to suffer while foreign investment in the country has stalled. Meanwhile, government subsidies for items such as bread and fuel are swallowing a significant portion of the government budget.
“Recently, things are a little bit tight,” El Khishen said, noting that the government is responsible for most of Alexandria University’s funding given its is a public institution. But he hopes that just as the university looks abroad, overseas agencies and governments will turn their attention to the university.
“The international community is convinced that higher education is one of the necessities for the development of the country,” he said.
The challenges of development – and keeping order amid ongoing political unrest – along Alexandria’s shores are palpable. Political violence here comes and goes, often in waves and on the main streets. Earlier this month, protesters supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi clashed with political opponents, prompting police to fire tear gas to disperse the rallies. Posters of Egypt’s top army chief, who ousted Morsi in a summer coup, hang on university walls, a manifestation of deep political division.
And there are more fundamental struggles.
Traffic in the city’s core on a recent afternoon was debilitating, making daily tasks for many here unnecessarily arduous. Unkempt piles of decomposing trash stank up busy roads, some shoved under long-parked cars while windswept debris littered streets.
But many academics are persistent in their work. Tawfik and El Khishen said members of the university are working on a project for recycling.
“We have positive things in Egypt,” El Habachi said, as she walked along a trash-strewn stretch of dirt from a university office to the clinical research center, which is undergoing renovation.
“In spite of the political instability, we are trying to do something,” she said.