Dr. Najat Saliba: Curiosity the Catalyst of Growth

Dr. Najat Saliba is a chemist by choice and a teacher by heart. Taking life decisions during a nationwide war was not easy on her, however, she made sure to trust her instinct and believe in herself. Instead of living her life in milestones, it came to Dr. Saliba that everything in life is an ongoing process no matter the setbacks, no matter how many people purposefully marginalize her presence as a female chemist on field sites.

As a school student, Dr. Saliba was always inclined to pursue a career in biology. She graduated from high school during the Lebanese Civil War when she decided to join the Lebanese University. She was a high-achieving sciences student and enjoyed biology the most. When her father escorted her to find her dorm on campus, he was worried that the biology department was far from the girls’ dorms. Since the war was a 15-yearlong sectarian war, her father was not comfortable having her walk or commute from and to her dorms where she was going to reside for three years. Dr. Saliba came up with a solution that would ease her father’s mind and that she, herself, did not mind. She decided that she could enroll in the chemistry program since it was close to her dorms and since she was fond of the sciences in general. She was not afraid to change her plans when the circumstances were against her, showing adaptability to the unexpected.

The Arab world never rested nor took a break from conflicts, wars, and insecurities. When Dr. Saliba was a university student, she felt that she needed to persist to earn her degree no matter what the situation was. She compares the situation to that of today in Lebanon. Despite the insecurities that students are facing in today’s economic crisis in Lebanon, Dr. Saliba retells how she used to study in the shelter and in the basement of her house, out of fear to go out and risk her life. She had her parents’ support and presence as she continued to study. To Dr. Saliba, these instabilities cause people to give up on their dreams and lose hope, two things that she was never able to do. Her persistence became part of her as she proceeded to get her Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry, followed by a post-doctoral degree.

Dr. Saliba is a professor at the American University of Beirut. She believes that effective teaching is when an educator can teach their students how to live and how to find their answers. Although students need to learn their material, Dr. Saliba says that students should learn beyond what is written in the textbook and should learn from the experiences of those who precede them. She says that, nowadays, students can access information at their fingertips, however, they should be able to explore better. For this reason, she feels that she relates to her students and receives positive feedback from them since she does not attend the class to read the textbook and recite the slides. Being a chemist, Dr. Saliba lives by the concept of experimentation where people should experiment with their life experiences to enhance their journeys.

Dr. Saliba observed emerging trends as a college professor. She notes that there is an increase in the number of women professors at the higher education level. She acknowledges, however, how difficult it is to be a full-time teacher and mother who must cope with urgent family situations. Dr. Saliba says that workplaces, in general, should better accommodate their female employees which will allow them to perform their best and be efficient in their work. She gives one example wherein mothers would need to take care of a sick child and would need time off from work. Additionally, maternity leaves should be longer, advises Dr. Saliba, so that women can have the chance to better plan out their personal and professional lives without having either at stake.

Dr. Saliba never faced any discrimination being a professor at a reputable university. She states that the university has put laws to prevent any discrimination from happening. However, she retells some stories from going to the field to take some measurements for her research when workers would address her colleague instead of her. The same happened when she and her colleague were invited to a meeting with a municipality board and all the questions were addressed to her colleague and not to her. She remembers too well how, after she left, her colleague apologized for the actions of those who attended, and all men in general. His words remain engraved in her mind until the very day.

Talking about her work being a process and not a set of milestones that she ought to achieve, Dr. Saliba mentions that she is driven by curiosity. She advises the next generation to always be curious about everything and have the motivation to look up all that they do not know. Since research tools are not easily available to and accessible by all, she highlights the value of continuous research and not accepting any information as given facts. Dr. Saliba believes that with curiosity and the ability to retrieve the correct information, one can unlock doors that they never knew existed for them. She also advises the next generations to ask questions, as she tells her students, “There are no stupid questions” and that all questions are equally valuable as long as they help uncover a level of curiosity. This curiosity of hers has led her to explore different fields that she did not expect herself to delve into.

Dr. Saliba offers unique advice for schools to adopt. Knowing that it is difficult to change an entire curriculum, especially in Lebanon, she suggests that schools should give more space for dance and music. She believes that girls discover their creativity through the different forms of the arts and can better learn about their likes and interests. She notes that the curriculum, the way it is now, already includes many subjects that require a lot of memorization and analysis, but few trigger students’ emotions and boost their self-esteem.

This story was written by Tamara Sleiman

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