Najat Aoun Saliba is conducting world-leading research on the chemical and toxic composition of polluted air. Her innovative work in analytical and atmospheric chemistry will make it possible to address some of the most pressing environmental challenges. She will receive the 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award for Africa and the Arab States for for her pioneering work in assessing and understanding the transformations of ambient pollutants in Lebanon and the Middle East, and in identifying toxic and carcinogenic substances in modern nicotine delivery systems, such as cigarettes and hookahs.
She is propelled on by her desire to understand the essence of health and environmental risks at a molecular level. “It is the understanding of the nano- picture of the molecular structure and mechanisms of reactions that allows us to see the macro-picture of the climate and environment,” she explains.
Growing up on her family’s banana farm in rural Lebanon, Prof. Saliba shared her father’s profound connection to the earth. Later, when civil war prompted a move to the city, disrupting her studies, she was awakened to the disturbing realities of air pollution, as scandals surrounding dirty fuel imports hit Lebanon. She has also witnessed relatives, friends and colleagues developing health issues as a result of exposure to toxic substances in the environment.
Among her many achievements, Prof. Saliba has established robust analytical methods to measure the principle toxic ingredients of tobacco smoke. She was the first to identify carcinogenic compounds (such as formaldehyde) in hookah. More recently, she has become the first to report that electronic cigarettes can generate carbon monoxide, contrary to popular belief.
Importantly, Prof. Saliba is active in raising awareness of her discoveries among government authorities, global health organisations and communities, and seeks to influence public health policy. She established the first database of major atmospheric pollutants in Lebanon, and demonstrated that open incineration of the country’s waste has multiplied the toxic content of air by a factor of 1,500%. In the future, Prof. Saliba wants to help create a holistic, integrated approach to finding adaptive solutions to climate change challenges in the Middle East.
She believes the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award will help to bring more recognition to scientists in Lebanon and other emerging economies, as well as reinforcing the value of interdisciplinary research in advancing environmental science.
She is passionate about more women entering science, and goes further by stating that science will “do justice to the world” when women scientists outnumber their male counterparts. “Women are more inclusive, they are not afraid of sharing and are highly open to collaboration, which is vital to developing efficient, holistic approaches,” she says.
To break the glass ceiling, she believes women scientists must overcome social and cultural barriers at the personal, local and international levels. “Women in science is a way of life,” she says. “It’s a state of mind based on strong logic and driven by scientific evidence.” The way forward, she believes, is leading by example and sharing success stories - she herself was inspired by her postdoctoral supervisor, Dr. Barbara Finlayson-Pitts, a leading figure in atmospheric science. Above all, she asks her women students to “stand up for their rights, develop high confidence in their work… and dare to dream”.
Each year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards honours five outstanding women scientists, from each world region (Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America). The Fondation L’Oréal and UNESCO have worked together for more than 20 years to help empower more women scientists to achieve scientific excellence and participate equally in solving the great challenges facing humanity. Together they have celebrated more than 3,000 women scientists in 117 countries, and awarded 107 laureates.
The 2019 Laureates’ achievements will be celebrated alongside those of 15 promising young women scientists from around the world at an awards ceremony on 14 March at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris.