Omar Harb, director of scientific outreach and education for Penn’s EuPathDB bioinformatics platform, is Palestinian-American. Lilach Sheiner, a research fellow in parasitology at the University of Glasgow, is Israeli. Together, they launched Middle East Biology of Parasitism (MeBoP) Summer School, an intensive, two-week course in parasite biology that brought together more than two dozen budding scientists from the Middle East and Africa in an effort aimed at leaving political conflicts behind and finding common ground in science.
Harb and Sheiner got to know one another nearly a decade ago, traveling in the same scientific circles due to their shared interest in parasite biology. Using their cross-cultural connection as a guide, they began discussing the idea of putting on a workshop in parasitology for scientists from conflicted political areas. Two years ago, at the Molecular Parasitology Meeting in Woods Hole, Mass., Harb and Sheiner presented their plan to hold the summer school to a large gathering of their colleagues.
They received a standing ovation. Many people offered their assistance with the conference. Isabel Roditi from the University of Bern’s Institute for Cell Biology in Switzerland even offered up her institution’s lab space for free for the summer program.
With funding from the Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust of the United Kingdom, and other private donations, Harb and Sheiner were able to cover expenses for 17 students, which they selected from a competitive pool of nearly 70 applicants. Speakers and lab module leaders, including Penn’s David Roos, the E. Otis Kendall Professor of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences, paid their own way to Bern.
For two weeks, the students spent their mornings hearing lectures from leading parasitologists on subjects including malaria, leishmaniasis, toxoplasmosis, and cryptosporidium—all infectious diseases that impact developing nations, including many in the Middle East and Africa—and their afternoons immersed in laboratory experiments. MeBoP also included sessions on grant writing, CV writing, and public speaking. The students did enjoy a bit of socializing squeezed into their limited free time, such as a visit to a chocolate factory.
Harb says the first group of MeBoP participants has developed a solid professional network; since leaving Switzerland, they’ve formed a WhatsApp group to keep in touch about their research. As the program gains momentum, Harb and Sheiner hope to make it an annual occurrence, eventually holding it in the Middle East and perhaps even offering competitive grants to encourage cross-border collaborations.
“It would be too idealistic to say we’re going to go home from this and make peace,” says Harb. “There are clear political problems between governments and the hope is that this program is a step in the right direction that transcends those differences. For these two weeks, we got a glimpse of these young scientists talking with each other about the issues they faced in research in their home countries and what could be done to solve them. When we asked them if there were any impediments that would prevent them from collaborating with others in the region, all of them said, ‘Science should have no boundaries.’”