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Bringing Science To The Arabic-Speaking Masses

Like many Syrians in exile, Mouhannad Malek pondered the question of how to help from a distance. Some of his compatriots became activists in their adopted countries. Others helped to raise money to send students in refugee camps to universities abroad.

Malek, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, created a Facebook page called Syrian Researchers.

His media brainchild seeks to convey the best of science and medical research in Arabic, but with a distinctively fun and engaging tone. Syrian Researchers posts its own articles, written by an army of expert volunteers along with stories published elsewhere in Arabic. They recently produced an infographic explaining how long it takes for rubbish to decompose at sea. The page doesn’t take itself too seriously; Malek is trying to reach a young lay audience in Syria and across the Arab world.

It’s a project born from the irritating and seemingly omnipresent gullibility of social media users during the Arab Spring, says Malek.

He found that people typically accepted tweets and posts as gospel truth despite the absence of a clearly identified source, which led to misunderstandings and the viral spreading of myths. “As a scientist it’s ingrained in you to back up what you’re saying with citations,” says Malek, “I wanted to show people this sort of fastidiousness isn’t just for science. It’s a way of life.”

Madonna Bachoura, a Syrian expat who heads up the North American operations of Syrian Researchers in Canada, agrees. “I share his concerns about the blind acceptance of untruths,” she says, “I’m a pharmacist and it especially worries me that people in the region may take health information on the Internet at face value.”

Syrian Researchers has grown from a meager trickle of followers when it began in 2011 to an impressive 280,000 likes on Facebook with an audience spread throughout the Arab world.

Malek attributes this success to a militia of 325 researchers and students—not all of them Syrian—dotted across the world. They read studies and write informal articles about them in Arabic, which are then posted to the page’s followers. But Malek enthusiastically proclaims that he’s not done yet: He wants to turn the newfound popularity of his Facebook page into a charity and TV channel.

Catholic nuns in a private French school taught Malek when he was growing up in the capital Damascus—his father is a Muslim and his mother comes from a Christian family. This often puzzled him. “I was praying to the holy Mary in the morning and then Friday afternoons I’d go to the Mosque. I remember going to Mecca when I was a kid and being very confused.”

Despite the confusion, Malek looks back in gratitude on his upbringing. He says it’s one of the reasons he ended up as a moderate person. “ISIS have sent me death threats because I defend evolution,” he says, “I’m told that I’m a dead man if I step back in Syria, but it just makes me more determined.”

Fortunately he hears more often from readers than terrorists. Most of the fan mail comes from teenagers. “They’ll ask me if I’m for the rebels or the regime and if I’m an atheist or a Muslim,” says Malek. But he tries to keep the focus on science and stays neutral on such matters.

Politically and religiously speaking, he may be moderate but that’s not an adjective that springs to mind when describing his personality. He injects a contagious air of gusto into almost everything he says, just one of the reasons he helps Bachoura to stay positive. He gives her the hope to wonder what Syria will be like if and when peace returns.

“His character is very positive. His charisma has recruited many of our volunteers—we’re not just gathered around the idea of Syrian Researchers, but also the person,” says Bachoura.

The editorial content of the project is organized into branches. There are 22 experts like Bachoura, each of whom have a specialty area they’re responsible for—she’s in charge of chemistry and pharmacology. At her disposal are about 70 volunteers who submit articles to her, which she then edits and sends on to Malek when she’s happy with them. Every month they ask each volunteer if they’re able to keep working. Some of them are students and take breaks during exams, but most recommit.

After Malek finished high school he moved to Beirut in 2000, but stayed only for a year. Syrian forces were still a strong presence in Lebanon at the time. “I wasn’t made to feel welcome,” he remembers, “I was treated like an occupier.” He decided instead to study at the Université de Bourgogne. He spent a total of 10 years in France, where he met his wife and fostered his interest in science, acutely aware that Arabs were underrepresented.

Moving to the Babraham Institute at the University of Cambridge three years ago, his research focuses on a set of networks that send messages between cells, called Class I PI3K signaling, which regulate cell growth and survival amongst other processes. These signaling pathways are under the intense scrutiny of the pharmaceutical industry, thanks to their links with cancer development. But scientists still know relatively little about how they operate, which hinders drug development.

Malek and his colleagues are using new technologies and methods to study the workings of the most important signal in the pathway they are studying in response to cancerous growth.

His research at Cambridge remains his primary concern, but he is nonetheless insistent that he won’t allow Syrian Researchers to stagnate. In fact, he hopes to leverage the Facebook page’s popularity to start raising funds, hoping to collect money for scholarships for Middle Eastern students to attend Western universities.

He says this is one of the only ways to ensure that Arabs make up a greater percentage of the great scientists in the future. “We need a lot of money to do this,” he confesses. “And since we’re not yet a charity we can’t collect.” He’s stuck in a catch 22 scenario. He needs £5,000 to set up a charity in England before he can really start fundraising—although he does already have £1,500 in promised money towards this aim.

Meanwhile, Bachoura harbors hope of one day meeting Malek and the rest of her team back in Syria and working as scientists there. “It’s a difficult dream to believe in, but I’m holding on to it.”


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