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March 6, 2017

Focused national strategy, sustainable funding can make Pakistan leaders in nanotechnology: Dr Nayfeh


Pakistan has the right level of expert human resource and scientific activity in the field of nanotechnology. A focused national strategy and sustainable funding can make Pakistan one of the leaders in this sector.

These views were expressed by Professor of Physics in University of Illinois and Founder and President of NanoSi Advanced Technology, Inc. Dr Munir H. Nayfeh.  Dr Nayfeh, along with Executive Director, Centre for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and Research Faculty, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Illinois, Dr. Irfan Ahmad and Associate Professor and Director of Medical Physics Programme, Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, Dr. Bulent Aydogan were invited by COMSATS Institute of Information Technology (CIIT) to deliver lectures on nanotechnology research and entrepreneurship with special focus on cancer nanomedicine.

The objective of the visit was to motivate and mentor faculty and students at COMSATS and also to provide feedback to campus administration and the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology on strategic initiatives to help develop the next generation of science and engineering workforce in Pakistan.

A story of success for the Muslim youth from areas affected by conflict and war, Dr Nayfeh, a Palestinian by origin, was brought up in a conflict area by a mother who did not know how to read and write. For him, the environment was actually a motivator to work hard and study. “My mother was uneducated but she always wanted her children to get the highest degree possible and both my parents supported us in whatever way possible to achieve our dreams,” he recalled.

Comparing Pakistan with other developing countries in scientific research enterprise, he said that despite lack of resources, he has observed some decent amount of research outcome from the existing setups. About their visits to different labs, he said that they found faculty members and researchers in need of for more and more funds. “I don’t blame them as I am also looking for more and more fund even in America. This is a positive sign which shows that these set ups are alive and want to do more.”

Sharing his experience of visiting countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Emirates, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, Dr Nayfeh said that he witnessed similar setups but in most of the cases, the countries had high-level of resources but lack of expert human resources.

“Sometimes, they had more instrumentations than researchers. Again, a lot of instrumentation without ample resources is not sufficient. On the contrary, it might be disadvantage,” he said.

Dr. Nayfeh is greatly impressed with the number of women researchers and students in Pakistan. “In Tunisia and Algeria, there were decent number of women in this field but Pakistan has the most and there are more publications coming out of Pakistan as compared to other developing countries.”

He said that they currently have an agreement of cooperation with COMSATS University which will be taken to the next level in coming years. “The current agreement has been successful and secured positions for more than a hundred advanced graduate students to take their degrees from the University of Illinois. At this time, there are around 25 degree seeking researchers from Pakistan in the Illinois University. We believe that it is time to move to the phase where we get to do research together.”

He said they would like to see some researchers from Pakistani campuses to come to the Illinois University as visiting researcher or scholar and team up with the working lab there.

“We would like them to be involved in the actual research of the cutting edge of science and technology. This partnership could be of six months or may be extended to a year. If the involvement is strong, we can have a joint pact or ownership”.

He said that another model would be to have students who could have involvement in research in Illinois University and the research here. “They can also have two advisers, one in Illinois and other in Pakistan. This model could be elevated to have a joint degree.”

Finally, he said that they would like to see localisation of research in Pakistan. We want to transfer the knowledge and technology and these could be the steps. “We are taking steps one at a time as small successes bring more support and more confidence and recognition by the country which hopefully ends into more funding. Without appropriate funding, nothing will move.”

The visiting groups met and briefed top officials in Pakistan about their plans including President and Federal Secretary for Science and Technology Fazal Abbas Maken. “We are pleased to know that we are on the same page. All of them agreed to lend us support and pledged to do the best to help make this happen at all level whether it is about support, open channels, funding and financial support etc to take initiative to the next level.”

About areas of nanotechnology that are in the best interest of Pakistan, he said the best areas are areas which are of importance to Pakistan’s economy. “We would like to see if we can develop the research in prototyping and device construction of low cost devices for example solar devices and water filtration. Particularly, the solar devices are more useful in remote and poor areas. These devices are not very expensive.”

He said that nanotechnology is equally useful in medical field. “But medical is the hardest in the world so far. Medical applications require all sort of testing with humans which involves long list of approvals.

“Our themes for the last number of years, including Dr Irfan from Pakistan, Dr Buland from Turkey, myself and few other scientists from different disciplines and different origins, are the same areas. We have visited OIC and talked to General Secretary to assess how an activity can be generated which would be helpful for the region. Fortunately, this idea has also found some encouragement and acceptance by Pakistan and Pakistan as a country could spearhead this activity.”

He said that Pakistani universities might not be equipped fully with latest instrumentation but it is never too late. “Sustainable funding and human resource is a recipe of success.”

Dr Nayfeh suggested that a national directive at university level, ministry level and even at higher level would accelerate the process. “It could take some time but the elements are there. If science and technology becomes one of the priorities, no doubt it can happen.”

He said that they didn’t only see the research but also the right scientific activity in the country. “The question is that how do we translate the effort of all these trained people and scientists making them useful beyond teaching and training. “We have seen incubators here where people are trying to have start ups to take the research out of the lab and built devices and products that could bring recognition to the university as well as the country. That is very promising for the future of science and technology.”

He said that funding is a major issue but it is not the only issue. “Vision, national strategy, will to take the next step and guidance are equally important. In Pakistan, we think that two things might be lacking. One is generous funding as in the beginning of any scientific activity, you might think it is a black hole and money is going to waste but when the pipe starts to flow, it comes like rain coming down and everyone benefits. A lot of funds are required. And second thing is national strategy. When everybody knows that it s a priority field, they chip in.

About the experience of his visit to Islamabad, he said that it was wonderful to be in the pleasant sunny weather of Islamabad from the cold of Chicago. “Islamabad is more like a high tech region with several universities, good hospitals, and information technology expertise. It could not be called a Silicon Valley, but soon I will give a name to this scientifically advanced valley,” he said.

For young graduates in Pakistan, he said that to succeed, they need to make sure that they have to be focused on education, sports and reading above and beyond the school work. “They have to believe in themselves and sky is the limit. Nothing is impossible. Complaining blocks the thinking. We have a cause as scientist and it is a logical one and eventually it will work.”

Dr Nayfeh said that nanotechnology is not solution to all problems. “Sometimes, with research in nanotechnology, we improve existing products and sometimes we even waste money but in other instances, we might gain a lot. But we cannot let this opportunity go by without being involved in it as a country. The age of nanotechnology is effectively only 15 years. There is no more time to delay otherwise, we will be way behind.”