Arab Israeli professor breaks barriers at home and abroad
Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up 20 percent of the population, has long had strained relations with the Jewish majority
Hossam Haick, whose breakthrough work in nanotechnology has garnered global accolades, says his success as an Arab citizen of Israel proves that education knows no boundaries and is key to improving his community’s lot.
At just 40 years old, Haick has been repeatedly recognized as a leader in his field. He also teaches a popular online course in his spare time to thousands of students across the Arab world from his lab at Israel’s oldest university, the Technion.
Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up 20 percent of the population, has long had strained relations with the Jewish majority, ties that have deteriorated amid a five-month wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Suspicions have been mounting against Arab citizens, who often identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.
While Israel’s Jewish population has produced a number of Nobel Prize winners and developed a booming tech sector, Israel’s Arabs have often been left behind. They tend to be poorer and less educated than Jews, suffer discrimination in areas like housing and employment, and are underrepresented in academia and the high-tech world.
Haick and his mound of academic degrees, his 28 patents and his 40-page resume defy the statistics. He says that’s because academia judges him based on his abilities, not his ethnicity.
“I’m not treated as an Arab ... I’m treated as a special scientist, and this is nice,” said Haick. “But unfortunately when I get out of the Technion to reality, things change a bit.”
Haick was born in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth and was attracted to science from a young age because he was intrigued by atoms and molecules. He liked imagining what they might look like, how they move and give humans their unique properties.
He completed a post-doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, and since 2006 has taught at the Technion, a prestigious science and technology university in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa.
He has won nearly four dozen prizes, including a French Knight of the Order of Academic Palms, and has been on the MIT Technology Review’s list of the world’s 35 leading young scientists.
“He is an extraordinary talent,” said Peretz Lavie, the president of the Technion. “He shows ... there is no glass ceiling and no discrimination in science. He serves as a role model to youth in the (Arab) sector, that if they invest in education they can go far.”
There may be no glass ceiling in academia, but outside its august halls Haick shares in the struggles of other Arab citizens of Israel.
Since the current bout of violence began, Israelis have distanced themselves from him once they hear him speaking Arabic, he says. Some have accused him of using science for militant activities.
For years, Haick would be stopped and searched at Israel’s international airport, standard treatment for Arabs traveling abroad. After complaining to a senior airport security official, he received a card that allows him to travel more freely. He uses it begrudgingly, irked that he needs a document to prove he is a “good Arab.”
To ease tensions between Arabs and Jews and hoist up the Arab minority, Haick says investment in education is crucial. To promote that view, he gives lectures to both Arab and Jewish youth and serves as an adviser to the Israeli prime minister’s office and the state’s Council for Higher Education.
Until recently, there was one barrier he could not break. As an Israeli citizen, he is barred from traveling to most countries in the Middle East, many of which are in a perpetual state of war with Israel or whose people are hostile toward the Jewish state.
But now Haick, through the Technion, is teaching an online course in nanotechnology - one of the first ever to be taught in Arabic - reaching out to students from Syria, Yemen, Qatar and beyond. He said about 14,000 students have signed up since its launch in 2013.
He teaches another online class in English, where some 76,000 students from 127 countries have enrolled, among them 900 Iranians.
While Haick sees the venture as a way to build bridges, his affiliation with an Israeli institution did deter some students who had enrolled and later cancelled, citing the Israeli connection as a reason.
“Some people told me to remove this certificate from my resume. They said that I might face some problems,” said Zyad Shehata, an Egyptian student who completed the course. “I have no interest in whether it is an Israeli university or not, but I’m very proud of Professor Haick and I see him as a leader.”
In his work at the Technion, Haick has developed technology that uses artificial intelligence to detect cancer and other diseases early and non-invasively, which has earned him millions in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Research Council, among others.
One product he has developed, the nano-artificial nose, or NA-NOSE, allows medical practitioners to detect disease without having to draw blood or other samples. After a patient breathes into it, the device picks up and displays disease indicators that travel from the bloodstream to the lungs. Haick says the product is being developed by an international company, which he said he was not allowed to name.
Another development is “electronic skin,” which uses small patches to recreate a sense of touch for potential use on prosthetic limbs, or to assist surgeons who can’t reach a particular organ or tissue.
Despite the realities of life as an Arab in Israel, Haick says he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“Escaping from reality is easy,” said Haick, surrounded by beakers and tubes. “By staying, maybe we can contribute to the society from which we came.”
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