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"LIGHT IS THE MESSENGER OF THE UNIVERSE"

SCIENCE HERO:
ZOHRA BEN LAKHDAR
by Wendy Jewell

Pr. Zohra Ben Lakhdar at home (L'Oreal-UNESCO women in science)

Zohra Ben Lakhdar, Professor of Physics at the University of Tunis, (Tunisia) has become the 2005 L'Oreal-UNESCO Award Laureate for Africa. This very prestigous award is given to exceptional women in science. She won for her experiments and models on infrared spectroscopy and its applications to pollution detection and medicine. Professor Ben Lakhdar credits her strong family support and her lifelong love for science in helping her achieve this success. Educated at the Universities of Tunis and Orsay (France), she is the author of dozens of scientific papers on spectroscopy and a founding member of the Tunisian Physics and Astronomy Societies. She has established cooperative links with a number of European laboratories and chaired international conferences in her special area of study, atomic spectroscopy.


Zohra at 4 years old (L'Oreal-UNESCO for women in science)

When Professor Ben Lakhdar was a little girl in 1950's Tunisia, there was very little focus given to educating girls, especially in science. She said, "When I was young, everyone used to say that science was difficult for men and impossibly difficult for women. Only men were supposed to be any good at calculus and the only goal for a woman was to get married and have a family. Since I enjoyed mathematics, physics and science in general, I wanted to show that there was no difference of ability between men and women and to demonstrate to the world that I could work in science. I dreamed of having the same status in the scientific community as men."

School was very important for her parents. Her father believed that to be in the scientific community would provide a place of power in the world. Ben Lakhdar did her primary schooling in the 1950's where the highest diploma women obtained was the Certificate of Primary Studies (Certificat d'etudes primaires). Of the 25 girls in the first year only 6 made it to the final year. In those days, girls went to school for 3,4 or maybe 5 years, and then got married at the age of 15. No girl thought of going on to secondary school. That meant going to another city. For me the nearest city was Sousse, which was 25 kilometers away and that was quite a trip when there were no buses or cars."

"When Tunisia became independent in 1956, my family moved to Tunis, where I spent six years in a secondary school which was very good for French and Arabic but unfortunately not very good for the sciences. After independence, education became the Tunisian Government's main concern and in 1963, with my baccalaureat in mathematics, I went to the University of Tunis's newly built Science Faculty. We were 200 students, but only 5 of us were girls. At the time, for example, Tunisia did not have a single female engineer. Luckily for me, my family gave me their backing, clearly judging that any choice I had made was an act of will and therefore good."

Every year, a University Professor from France would supervise exams at the Science Faculty in Tunis. The Tunisian Government would award fellowships to several of the brightest students to pursue further scientific studies or research in France. This was important, as there was not much of a scientific community established in Tunisia at this time. In 1967, Zohra Ben Lakhdar was nominated by the president of the jury and given the chance of studying for a Diploma of Further Studies (Diplome d'etudes approfondies, DEA) in atomic spectroscopy in Paris, where she would later return to earn her doctorate.


In lab (Micheline Pelletier/GAMMA)

It was here that she would meet one of her biggest inspirations while soaking up the city's exciting scientific community. "In Paris, I was in the Laboratory of Research in Atomic Spectroscopy, the Department of Physics, at the University of Pierre et Marie Curie-Jussieu. Close to the Sorbonne, to the College de France, to the Ecole Normale Superieure! I was in another world. I was in the world of atoms, at the basics of materials, of stars, of cells! I was in a world of scientists! Every Tuesday I would go to the College de France to attend lectures on quantum mechanics by CLAUDE COHEN-TANNOUDGI. He was a great teacher, who would guide you step by step into the world of the atom. Atomic physics seemed crystal clear when you listened to him!" Major events were also happening in the world and beyond. Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut, walked on the moon in July of 1969, but it would take 20 more years to capture the photograph of an atom…free in a stationary position.

Those were heady days for a girl from Tunisia immersed in the wonders of science in Paris, the city of light. While studying there, she was exposed to the prestigous Kastler-Brossel Laboratory where Alfred Kastler demonstrated for the first time the phenomenon of stimulated emission Einstein had predicted. Light falling on an atom in a particular state could be amplified by that atom through a chain reaction. This has given us the laser, which is now used everywhere. There are fewer and fewer homes in the developed and developing world that do not contain at least one laser, whether it is in a CD or DVD player, in a printer or in a diode. Then, after they had been produced in the laboratory, the phenomena of laser-type light amplification were observed in nature, in interstellar space. One of Zohra Ben Lakhdar's most important pieces of research is the calculation of the conditions under which this laser effect could manifest itself in space matter.


with students (L'oreal-UNESCO women in science)

Another scientist greatly admired by Professor Ben Lakhdar is the Nobel Laureate ABDUS SALAM. She explains, "He did the best: the creation of ICTP (International Center for Theoretical Physics) in Trieste, Italy where research physicists from developing countries can study alongside fellow scientists in a stimulating atmosphere and with the use of a rich library. Travel and accomodation are provided." It is one of her dreams…to build a similar center for optics and photonics for African research scientists in Tunisia.

After completing their studies in France, Professor Ben Lakhdar and her husband Tahar, also a Doctor of Physics, had offers to stay and build their careers there but chose to go home even though, at the time, there were almost no scientific research facilities in Tunisia. She began to focus on purely theoretical research concerning molecular interactions. At the interface between physics and chemistry, atomic and molecular physics represent an essential field, especially for developing countries.

One of Professor Ben Lakhdar's main career objectives is to carry out applied research to meet national needs in Tunisia. During her scientific career she has developed advanced theoretical (ab-initio) and experimental spectroscopic methods to study the influence of pollutants, such as methane and metals, on the quality of air, water and plants. She has done this under very difficult conditions, as there is no observatory in Africa and her teams have to make their measurements in Europe and then interpret them in Tunisia. Her studies are important starting points for potential applications in a wide range of fields, from astrophysics to agriculture, medicine, pharmaceuticals and the chemical industry.


Professor Zohra Ben Lakhdar is very proud to be part of the scientific community. It is this community that saved her mother when a French surgeon successfully performed open heart surgery. The use of the pill in Tunisia means liberty for women. Industrial production of chicken means food for everyone. "The power of science." Says Ben Lakhdar. "Every time I try to explain these things to my mother she says, 'Yayia el Elm' (Vive la Science)."

Why so few women in science?

"Physics is difficult particularly when there is no environment (no industry, no scientific culture, no scientists or scientific world through radio and television programs), when all scientific news comes from outside! Women's jobs have become economic necessities for the family, but their careet is still less important - even to them - than the career of their husband. Example: they often stop research after the PhD to take care of children and family while men continue."

Any words of wisdom for a young woman scientist?

"Be aware of the importance of culture; be open-minded as a scientist and as a person. Seek independence. Understand how important it is to be a responsible citizen. Be optimistic: more and more women are becoming involved in the sciences, especially biology. Women are now more independent and their careets are becoming more important and more highly valued by society. The average age of marriage is now higher; 27 compared to 15 when I was that age. Be of good heart and be confident."

Professor Ben Lakhdar lives in Tunisia with her husband Tahar and daughters Zeineb and Aicha. She is grateful for the myriad of choices that her daughters now have, compared to when she was growing up. When she is not teaching, researching, making new scientific discoveries or spending time with her family, Professor Zohra Ben Lakhdar indulges in her passion for astronomy.


Written by Wendy Jewell
Photos courtesy of L'Oreal-UNESCO women in science
Images created by Micheline Pelletier/GAMMA
Last changed on: 3/19/2007 1:08:24 PM

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was founded on 16 November 1945. For this specialized United Nations agency, it is not enough to build classrooms in devastated countries or to publish scientific breakthroughs. Education, Social and Natural Science, Culture and Communication are the means to a far more ambitious goal: to build peace in the minds of men and women.

TechBridge Girls -- Encouraging Girls in Technology, Science, and Engineering: Technical and scientific fields have lots of wonderful opportunities to offer girls, and girls have a great deal to offer science and technology. Unfortunately, most girls do not consider a in these fields in which females are underrepresented.

Sally Ride Science™ was founded by former astronaut Sally Ride—America's first woman in space—to provide support for all the girls who are, or might become, interested in science, math, and technology.

Association of Women in Science is dedicated to achieving equity and full participatiion for women in science, math, engineering and technology.

Girls Go Tech: Keeping girls interested in math, science and technology.

This story was made possible by a grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

 

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