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13 August 2009

Coming home to Iraq

After two decades of war, international sanctions and dictatorship, Iraq is starting to rebuild its once formidable science base. TWAS Fellowship recipient Fouad Majeed tells what it is like to return home after spending nearly four years in Italy and Brazil.

Fouad Majeed received his PhD in theoretical physics in June 2005 from Al-Nahrain University (formerly Saddam University), in Baghdad, completing his studies amid the turmoil of the war. Six days after graduating he was in Trieste, Italy, for a three-month research visit, thanks to a grant from the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). It was his first time abroad. During his short stay in Trieste, Majeed learned about TWAS and the opportunities offered by its postgraduate research grants.

Fouad Majeed in TriesteInspired by a rewarding experience at ICTP to pursue additional studies abroad, Majeed applied for a one-year TWAS-CNPq (Brazil's National Council of Technological and Scientific Development) Postdoctoral Fellowship to study nuclear reactions at the Instituto de Fisica of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). His application was accepted, and by the end of April 2006, Majeed was on his way to Brazil, a world away from home.

TWAS’s South-South Fellowship Programme provides opportunities for young scientists from developing countries to conduct research at an approved institution in another developing country. In 2007, the Academy awarded more than 100 of these fellowships, in cooperation with institutions in Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Mexico and Pakistan. Since the programme’s inception in 2003, TWAS and Brazil’s National Council of Technological and Scientific Development (CNPq) have awarded 138 fellowships, 93 at the postgraduate level and 45 at the postdoctoral level.

Brazil, and the heart of matter

As a doctoral student in Baghdad, Majeed’s research was restricted to nuclear structure – theoretical work focusing on the fundamental question of how the protons and neutrons are held together in the nucleus of an atom.

The TWAS-CNPq fellowship at UFRJ offered Majeed a chance to study nuclear reaction theory for the first time. Nuclear reactions – where two nuclei or nuclear particles collide, resulting in an alteration in the nucleus – can be induced and observed by experimental researchers to help them learn more about the properties of nuclei. Nuclear fusion (where two light nuclei ‘fuse’ to form a heavier one) and fission (where a heavy nucleus, having absorbed additional particles, splits into two lighter ones) are the best known of many types of possible nuclear reactions.

In Brazil, Majeed collaborated on research projects on “nuclear reactions with weakly bound nuclei.” Such nuclei, Majeed explains, “are characterized by the low energy that binds the nucleus” – that is, which holds the protons and neutrons together.

“Nuclear reaction experiments using beams of weakly bound nuclei”, he continues, “have attracted considerable interest in the past decade.” Such experiments involve bombarding a ‘target’ nucleus with ‘projectile’ beams of other nuclei. Upon collision, the target nucleus breaks up, emitting particles. Using such tools as gamma ray detectors, researchers can observe this process, signified by the changing levels of kinetic energies emitted by scattered particles, which, in turn, allows them to measure the various properties of a nucleus.

Reaction experiments with weakly bound nuclei are important for several reasons, including, as Majeed explains, “for the development of nuclear models, for a better understanding of nucleosynthesis and for the production of super-heavy elements.”

Theoretical nuclear researchers like Majeed and his Brazilian colleagues develop mathematical models to help explain the nuclear reactions that experimentalists observe. Such theoretical work is especially complicated (both to do and to explain) because it can involve both quantum and classical (or Newtonian) mechanics. While classical mechanics (the physics most of us learned in school) treats macroscopic objects, quantum mechanics describes matter at the atomic and subatomic scale. A fundamental insight of quantum mechanics is the dual nature of atomic particles – that is, they behave like both particles and waves.

This dual nature, as well as the extremely small scales involved, makes both measurement and calculation extremely difficult. Theorizing about what happens in experimental nuclear reactions depends upon such concepts of quantum mechanics as ‘coupling’ and ‘tunnelling,’ which are hard for the layman to grasp.

Quantum ‘coupling’ refers to a situation in which different quantum systems are ‘bound’ so that a change in one causes a simultaneous change in the others, revealing a kind of energy transfer that is not well understood but which suggests the wave properties of matter.

Quantum ‘tunnelling’ refers to how a nuclear particle, though faced with a barrier which (according to Newtonian mechanics) would require a higher energy to cross, nevertheless (according to quantum mechanics) materializes outside the barrier, as if it had ‘tunneled’ through.

“From the theoretical point of view,” Majeed says, “nuclear reactions using weakly bound nuclei are very challenging.” That’s because “the break-up channel of the projectiles is in a continuum, and therefore an infinite number of channels must be taken into account.” In other words, the many possible energy states occupied by the scattered particles are difficult to analyse because they overlap.

“Coupling occurs between the states in the continuum,” Majeed says, “as well as the bound states of the projectile nuclei.” So, the slightest adjustment in calculation for one quantum state will require an adjustment for all the states that are coupled.

“To handle this situation,” he explains, “the continuum can be broken down into analysable segments, called ‘energy bins,’ by use of the continuum-discretized coupled channel method (CDCC).” This method is extremely complicated, he adds, and “requires considerable computer power,” which was not available to Majeed in Iraq.

The wave-like behaviour of sub-atomic particles – allowing simultaneous interactions between separate states (coupling) and ‘tunnelling’ through barriers – makes calculating with any degree of accuracy (and at such microscopic scales) a formidable challenge. Complicating matters still further, Majeed and his colleagues at UFRJ used “semiclassical models” – i.e., they used quantum mechanics for some calculations and classical mechanics for others – to solve problems that could not be resolved using only one approach or the other.

Gaining time, together

Fouad Majeed with supervisorMajeed's experience in Brazil was both rewarding and memorable. “I was fortunate to be able to study with such knowledgeable and friendly people,” he says. “I am particularly grateful to my supervisors Luiz Felipe Canto and Raul Donangelo, who were so patient and helpful that I did not hesitate to ask even simple questions, and to M. S. Hussein, an Iraqi professor at the University of São Paulo, who assisted me in the early stages of my fellowship application.”

“The TWAS fellowship,” Majeed adds, “made a big difference. It allowed me to make significant progress in a short time. In addition to the physics, I also learned how to use computer programmes, such as FORTRAN, in nuclear reaction experiments."

Majeed’s education was also a cultural one. In Brazil, he says, he “discovered an entire way of living that was markedly different than my own. The novelty of my surroundings, combined with the amicability of my hosts and the excitement of learning new things, really inspired me.”

Yet, despite his positive experience, Majeed’s time in Brazil was overshadowed by the worsening situation in his home country. A brief lull in violence in the winter of 2004/05 had been quickly followed by a resurgence of death and mayhem. By the time of Majeed’s departure from Iraq in June 2005, the situation there was rapidly deteriorating.

War’s chaos

Majeed had experienced the war first-hand, when his graduate studies were brought to an abrupt halt by the 2003 invasion. “I was in the second year of my studies, working on my thesis,” he says. “My studies were interrupted for five months, from March to July 2003. I was forced to leave Baghdad for my family home in Babylon.”

The US Marines used the campus of the then Saddam University as a base of operations. “The dormitory where we once lived,” he says, “was badly damaged.” Aside from the obvious physical dangers, the growing uncertainty prompted him and his fellow students to put everything on hold.

Yet, by September 2003, five months after the fall of the Saddam regime, he says, “the situation had begun to improve, which encouraged us to return to our studies. Although there were heavily armed forces everywhere, people were walking in the streets of Baghdad again, going to work and shopping.” Before the year was out, however, the car bombings resumed. “Scenes of burning vehicles on the highway were a daily occurrence.”

“In 2004, when the real chaos began, I was again living in Baghdad, having resumed my PhD thesis,” Majeed continues. It was not long before “the situation became very dangerous, and we avoided moving in the streets, venturing out only if necessary, for example, to buy food. To reach my family in Babylon, I would have had to pass a very dangerous area – what came to be called the Triangle of Death.”

“This chaos increased,” he continues, “and, month after month, life became worse.”

Targeting hope

In addition to the mounting sectarian violence and terrorist attacks, a new menace began to surface – an organized campaign to assassinate Iraq’s intellectual elite. With so much bad news coming out of the country, these assassinations went underreported. Conservative estimates, however, put the number of Iraqi scientists, academics and doctors who were killed at more than 300. Whoever was behind the assassinations, they understood only too well the importance of an academic community to a country’s future.

“A few months before my departure for Trieste,” Majeed says, “the attacks on academics and physicians began. It soon became clear that anyone known to have a university job was at great risk of being murdered.” Just two months after leaving for Italy, he adds, “two engineers whom I knew were murdered in Baghdad.”

“When people see such prominent people being killed,” Majeed adds, “they feel they have no future, and they lose all hope.” There were also the constant kidnappings.

While in Brazil, Majeed kept in close contact with family and friends back home, who urged him to remain abroad until the situation improved. So, when his TWAS fellowship came to a close, he returned to Trieste, applying successfully for humanitarian protection from the Italian government, hoping that conditions in his home country would soon get better. He was safe. But finding work in his field was another matter.

“When I came back to Trieste from Brazil in May 2007,” he says, “I tried my best to find another post-doc or teaching position. Unfortunately, I found nothing.” To support himself financially, he learned web design programming and worked as a freelance web designer.

Back to the future

But Majeed was eager to return home. He was also anxious to resume his research and to build on the knowledge he had acquired at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

When, by late 2008, it had become clear that the situation in Iraq had finally stabilized, with violence levels having fallen dramatically (by 80 percent since early 2007, according to some reports), Majeed knew the time had come to go home.

On 15 November, after three and a half years, he returned at last to Iraq. “I decided to come home,” he says, “because I felt that the security situation was finally under control. And I did not want to stay far from my family.”

“Many streets were blocked and the army or police were everywhere.” But security, he emphasizes, “has indeed improved.”

Majeed quickly acquired a post teaching physics at Babylon University, near Hilla, in Babil province. “Getting a job like this,” he says, “is not so difficult for well-qualified PhD-holders.” He applied through a government programme encouraging qualified academics, who had left Iraq during the Saddam regime or after the 2003 invasion, to return to the country.

Though just 100 kilometres south of Baghdad, Babylon, says Majeed, “is more peaceful. Since I have been back, I haven’t heard any explosions. I feel safe here.”

One of the most renowned cities of antiquity, Babylon was home to the legendary ruler Nebuchadnezzar, who had the Hanging Gardens (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) built here in around 600 BCE. The provincial government recently opened a tourist park featuring the excavated ruins of the ancient city, near the river Euphrates, a small reminder of the long history of Iraqi civilization.

“The most recent official figures indicate that 250 PhDs have returned to Iraq since in 2008,” he says. “This is up from 170 when I returned in November.” Given that as many as 6,000 scientists, researchers and medical doctors are believed to have fled the country since the war, these numbers may not seem too encouraging.

Yet Majeed is optimistic that the tide has turned. “Of course, there are still many professors who left and are not yet ready to return,” he says. After all, “even if things are much improved now, there are still incidents.” And, he adds, “we are still rebuilding. It is always difficult to pass through the streets, for instance, with the traffic and the roadblocks.”

Then too, many Iraqis have built a life elsewhere, and picking up and moving again is not so simple. “Perhaps they have married while abroad, or their financial situation does not allow it,” he says.

Making do

Majeed teaches in the physics department of the university’s College of Education. He is, as he observes, “educating the country’s future teachers.” Babylon University has some 17,000 students. The academic staff numbers about 1,500, working in 12 colleges.

His students (120 third-year, and 80 fourth-year), Majeed says, “tend to be optimistic, and they are enthusiastic about their classes.” Yet, he notes, “while the situation has improved, the country is still not completely safe, and the rebuilding of the infrastructure is a slow process.” All this adversely affects the students’ sense of the future. Consequently, many have little ambition to continue their studies.

Yet, he adds, “the academic staff are more positive about the future of the country.” Most, he explains, “believe they now have a better chance to teach, do research and interact with researchers abroad – in other words, to lead a normal life as a university professor.”

The war, of course, has left a seriously damaged infrastructure. Institutions in Babylon, thankfully, were largely spared the lootings experienced elsewhere. But students and professors must still make do with less than optimal facilities.

“The library is not very good,” he admits. “Too few volumes survived the invasion, and most of the science and engineering books that remain are out of date. The university is just starting to work with international organizations, including UNESCO, to improve the situation.”

Meanwhile, communication remains a challenge. “Landline telephones have bad service,” he says, “and it is expensive to call within Iraq. Mobile phones are rapidly growing in popularity. But to get good reception, you have to be near the city centre.”

“Internet access is also bad,” he continues. “I need to go to the university’s internet centre to use it, because I have no internet access in my office. So, if I want to check my emails, I have to take time to go over there. Access at home is too expensive, and the service is not good.”

The greatest challenge for both students and professors, however, is overcoming what Majeed calls ‘deteriorated’ academic levels. “Higher education,” he explains, “especially in the 1990s and the few years before the war, was in a state of decline due to the sanctions imposed on Iraq, which badly affected the living conditions of Iraqi academics and researchers. The isolation of Iraq from the international community," he adds, "had an adverse impact as well.”

But now, he says, “the improved security situation is encouraging academics to return to Iraq.” As part of its measures to rebuild the country’s science base, the Iraqi government has raised academic salaries. University lecturers can now earn US$2,000 a month, compared to US$50 during Saddam’s regime.

Magic numbers

Majeed’s return to academia has allowed him to resume his research, which he hopes will contribute to rebuilding Iraq’s scientific base. His current research focuses on “nuclear structure, using shell model calculations and comparing these theoretical studies with the available experimental data.”

The shell model is one of three mathematical models of the structure of the nucleus. Analogous to the atomic shell model, which describes electrons orbiting in ‘shells’ around the nucleus, the theory attempts to explain how the nucleus holds itself together without all the particles orbiting in that tiny space colliding with each other.

Lending support to the shell structure theory is the finding that nuclei with even numbers of protons and/or neutrons are more stable than those with odd numbers. Moreover, there are so-called ‘magic numbers’ (e.g., 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82 and 126) of neutrons and protons that result in the greatest stability. The most stable nuclei have magic numbers of both protons and neutrons – and are referred to as ‘doubly magic’.

Among its many complexities, the theory holds that nuclear particles do not collide with each other because they are ‘fermions’, which means that they obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle – that is, they avoid each other. Thus, when additional particles are added to the closed system of the nucleus, each occupies a different energy state, gradually filling up all the available states (from the lowest to the highest).

The goal of his research, Majeed explains, is “to develop more robust theoretical models to help guide the work of experimentalists.”

Though he says he has “two colleagues in the physics department” with whom he can discuss his work, Majeed is currently trying to find professors as well as promising students to form a study group with, to collaborate on complex research questions. “Hopefully, I will be able to do that soon,” he adds.

World of opportunity

In addition to helping his students learn physics, Majeed also tries to make them more aware of their opportunities. “They need to learn more about the outside world,” he says, “and to aggressively seek out information about study programmes abroad.”

Having successfully completed studies abroad, Majeed is a role model for how to take advantage of such opportunities. Moreover, he understands where his students are coming from and how such knowledge remains hard to come by. “They are like I was before I left,” he says.

“Students may earn their PhD,” he continues, “but then they don’t know how to find ways to continue their research. It’s partly a language problem: their English is lacking. Also, when they ask me ‘what is my future?’ they are usually thinking about tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. They take a short-term view. I want them to think more long-term, to learn English, to find out about scientific opportunities abroad.”

“The knowledge I gained in Brazil should prove helpful in my efforts to help raise the level of science in my home country. After so many years of destruction, we have begun to rebuild. I hope to be among those who will make a contribution to this effort, however modest it may be.”

"Programmes like the TWAS fellowships provide an important avenue for scientists throughout the developing world and particularly for scientists in countries like Iraq. It provides opportunities for South-South scientific exchange that could serve as a source of future success for scientists whose careers have been put at risk because of the situation in which they find themselves.”

For now Majeed is focused on his students. But in the not-too-distant future, he hopes to again be able to study abroad. “I have a dual passion for travel and learning,” he says, “and I hope to be able to attend workshops outside of Iraq in a year or so.”

Rebuilding, with the global community

Despite the difficulties of the past six years, Majeed says, life has gone on for Iraqis. “Even when the violence was so intolerable, people could not just hide away at home. They were afraid, yes, but they had to go to work, to school, to the market. You take care but you try to lead a normal life.”

This stoical resolve, he believes, will stand his compatriots in good stead as they face the daunting task of rebuilding their country following years of war.

Indeed, Majeed has high hopes for Iraq’s scientific future: “I am confident that our universities will regain the level of excellence they once enjoyed,” he says, “despite the great challenges that lie ahead.” Today, he says, the country “is more open to the international community.” This openness translates into “great opportunities for academics and researchers to interact with foreign researchers around the world.”

“To strengthen the universities, the Iraqi ministry of higher education and scientific research has recently adopted a number of programmes,” he adds. "These include scholarships for postgraduate studies and visiting programmes for academics.” In 2008, the Iraqi government spent US$10 million to send 1,500 professors and students abroad. However, plans to provide 10,000 fellowships to study or do research abroad over the next four years have been put on hold in the wake of falling revenues due to the sharp decline in oil prices (from nearly $150 per barrel last summer to around $50 currently).

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the Iraqi government cannot rebuild the scientific community all on its own. “Iraq will need more scientific and cultural exchange with both developed and developing countries,” he says. “This collaboration with others from other cultures is crucial.”

Majeed is looking forward to participating in this collaboration, doing his part to help rebuild his home country – from the fundamentals on up.

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