Turkish professor Zehra Sayers received Award for Science Diplomacy

Turkish professor Zehra Sayers is among the five scientists, who made significant contributions to the founding and development of the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East laboratory. She has recently received the prestigious Award for Science Diplomacy, which was presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), for her success in bringing scientists from eight Middle Eastern countries together.

The group united under the same roof to found a CERN-like laboratory called Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME). Professor Sayers is the only woman and only Turk amongst the award recipients.

Following the award ceremony held in Washington D.C., Forum USA made an exclusive interview to Professor Sayers.


Interview: Anıl Sural

Translated and edited by: Dr. Işıl Acehan


Prof Sayers, first of all please accept our congratulations for your achievement and award…

Thank you so much. Our aim was to bring together scientists from different countries and from different fields, and work in collaboration. And as a result, the award made us very happy.

Can you tell us about the significance of the award?

It is presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Usually it is given to people who have helped to resolve some international tensions through science. We have accepted this award on behalf of employees and those who have contributed significantly to the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) research center. Thanks to their hard labor, the laboratory has succeeded. We represent them here.

What kind of activities are you carrying out at SESAME?

SESAME is the first major international scientific center in the Middle East. It demonstrates how the power of science can build bridges despite the geopolitical tensions and cultural differences. SESAME is a remarkable example of how scientists can develop mutual understanding through the language of science, and can unify in the pursuit of knowledge. SESAME’s current members are Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey.

You are working in collaboration with diverse countries from different cultures. Wasn’t it tough?

They work with each other but they need to get to know each other and trust before they can work. Everyone works here in a peaceful environment. We produce science with advanced technology at SESAME.

Prof Sayers, when was SESAME first initiated?

SESAME was officially inaugurated in 2017. But the establishment and development phase lasted 20 years. We’ve done a lot of work together. It is a major laboratory. As one of the founders of a CERN-like advanced research laboratory located in Switzerland, I have provided my support in the field of biophysical and molecular biology. We have founded and developed SESAME and today we have collected the fruit of our labor in the form of an award.

Where is the laboratory located?

It is located in Allan, Jordan, in the vicinity of Amman.

Why was it founded in Jordan?

Well, it was supposed to be located in one of the countries including Turkey, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Greek Cypriot Administration of Southern Cyprus, Jordan, Egypt, or Pakistan. Selecting Jordan was a political decision because of the relatively easier access to Jordan. It is also located more or less in the center of the other participating countries. The SESAME project, which was initiated in order to strengthen cultural and scientific ties between the member states, wants to promote peace and foster international collaboration.

You have had significant contributions to SESAME. And Turkey is among the founding countries…

Thank you so much. As scientists, we have worked day and night for a good project. Turkey is one of the founding countries in this project and we have a say. The progress of science in the Middle East is very important and we have received significant support from Turkey, and we want to advance the project further.

Prof Sayers, what is your message to Turkish society?

Thank you very much for your support. We must all work together for the progress of science in Turkey. We hope to do a lot of work in collaboration. I am grateful to Sabanci University for their support throughout this project.

Who is Professor Zehra Sayers?

Dr. Sayers holds a BSc in Physics, from Bogazici University, Istanbul Turkey (1974) and a PhD in Biophysics, from the University of London, UK (1978).

Her research is within the domains of molecular biophysics, x-ray structure analysis of biological macromolecules, applications of synchrotron radiation, recombinant protein production and protein chemistry. She has been working on the structure of chromatin fibers and filamentous proteins including actin and intermediate filaments. More recently she has been involved in structural characterization of G proteins from plants, metal binding proteins including metallothioneins from yeast and plants, and ferric binding protein from H. influenzae.

She has been the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) of the international synchrotron radiation facility project SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) between 2002 and 2018. She is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee for Turkish Accelerator Center Project (TAC). She serves as a reviewer for several international journals, grant giving agencies and laboratories including Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL), USA and EMBL Hamburg Project Evaluation Panel.

Dr. Sayers is recipient of the Rammal Award 2017 for her scientific research as well as for her contributions, as Chair of SAC, to the SESAME project from its construction to maturation as an international user facility.

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