If you have a Skype interview with Saif Shehata in the late evening, you will see him through his smart-phone camera walking relaxedly through the corridors of his institute seeking a quiet place for an interview. He is based at the Nestle Institute of Health Sciences, within the campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). The bearded Egyptian then enters into a question and answer session with his deep, warm voice, weighing up exactly what he says. Between questions he excuses himself for a couple of minutes, dropping back into the lab where he has to tend to an experiment. He seems to be the kind of quiet worker who obviously can’t be fazed by anything.
One more year, and he will earn his PhD in biochemistry, says the 28-year-old. In order to achieve this, he often spends evenings with a pipette and test-tube in the lab. Shehata’s field of study is in so-called protein kinases, which are enzymes responsible for transmitting vital signals in the cells of our body. They are important for nutrition and for the healthy functioning of our organs. “There is evidence that dysfunctions of the protein kinase I am working on are associated with mental disorders.” According to Shehata, there are around 500 kinases in our body that we know of. He is doing research into one of them which is largely unexplored.
And when he earns the title of doctor? Is he going to work for Nestlé, the Swiss company financing his PhD research? “No, probably not. I have learned a lot from my stay here, and I feel I want to experience a different area and apply what I have learnt somewhere else. What’s more, in my field it’s better if you gain experience from several labs before settling down.“ He could imagine going to Sweden next, because his wife – also an Egyptian - has a large part of her family in Sweden, who emigrated there 40 years ago. Or perhaps return to Cairo? “I honestly don’t know yet. I feel I want to be close to my family in Cairo, but there’s always the political situation to think about, and whether I find a suitable job!“
Shehata prefers to keep out of politics. He used to think the Arab Spring was a good thing. Meanwhile he’s changed his mind. “So many people have been killed. I’m not sure if it was all worth it. I don’t think this is a good way to change a society for the better.“ Ten years ago in Cairo, when he started studying pharmacy and biotechnology at the German University, ex-President Mubarak was still in power and the political situation relatively stable. Back then he had made exact plans for his career. “But then things turned out very differently, so I stopped trying to plan everything in detail.“
After he had spent one and a half years at Uni in Cairo, his father suggested that he continue his studies in Germany – Shehata’s step-mother is German, which is why Shehata had already been there several times. The Applied Biology Program at the H-BRS caught his eye because it is held in English. Shehata learned some German while at H-BRS, although he speaks Arabic and English fluently, as well as some French he learned in Switzerland. So that’s how he came to the Rhineland. “I had to start my studies again from scratch, even though I already had several credits from courses in Cairo – I already knew quite a lot about several first year courses.“ However, that had a pleasant side-effect: he was soon exempt from these courses, and was able to give extra lessons to fellow students in his own year and was employed by the Uni as a tutor. “That was a lot of fun for me.“ Perhaps because of his commitment, and the excellent grade of 1.2 in his Bachelor’s degree, Shehata received an advancement award from the DAAD.
The young researcher remained very focused in everything he does. Apart from his studies at the H-BRS he didn’t do much. “I spent a lot of time in the library, very often with two close friends - one from Pakistan and the other from Jordan.“ He still did a bit of Taekwondo, which he had learned from an early age. For that he went to Bad Godesberg in the evenings to a trainer from Morocco, whom his father (an Egyptian Taekwondo master) used to know, and managed to earn himself a Gold medal in the Bonn-Prix Cup in 2008.
In the final year of his Bachelor’s degree he moved to a partner Uni of the H-BRS in Dundee to continue his double Bachelor’s degree in molecular genetics, followed by a Master’s in Biochemistry. “The program in Dundee was highly regarded technically, but actually studying in Bonn was more fun because more focus was given to teaching, whereas in Dundee research got the highest priority “ That is why Saif Shehata was also more than glad to come back to visit the H-BRS in September 2015 for the Alumni-Day.
After Scotland came Switzerland. “At the end of my PhD, I will have been here for four years - the longest time I’ve spent anywhere outside Egypt!“ The cosmopolitan, who has already had contact with so many countries, does not intend to stay there. Whether he settles down in Sweden, or returns to Cairo in the long term, remains to be seen. Whatever he decides will be for a good reason: his wife and two-year-old son.
Text: Jan Berndorff