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Vol. LVIII, No. 22
November 03, 2006

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Catalyst for Change: Mohamad Halawi

  Mohamad Halawi experienced the heartbreak of exactly what he was hoping would not happen in his native Lebanon—more war.  
  Mohamad Halawi experienced the heartbreak of exactly what he was hoping would not happen in his native Lebanon—more war.  

As a child growing up in southern Lebanon during the civil war and the Israeli invasion of the 1980s, Mohamad Halawi recalls huddling in an underground bunker with dust pouring down as bombs exploded overhead. It was a terrifying ordeal that Halawi hoped his little brother would never experience. Sadly, history repeated itself this summer, serving to reinforce Halawi’s conviction that non-violent strategies offer the only road to true freedom and lasting peace in the Middle East.

A moving story, but what does it have to do with science? Everything, if you ask Halawi.

Not only is he the winner of an international essay contest on the struggle for civil rights in the Middle East, the 23-year-old is an aspiring physician-scientist who believes that science—and scientists—can be a catalyst for change around the world.

Halawi came to the United States alone at the age of 17 with stars in his eyes and $1,000 in his pocket, eager to explore myriad educational and research opportunities not available in Lebanon. “In America, you have freedom, equality and justice. You don’t have to watch everything you say. This removes the chains and unleashes the talent within you,” said Halawi, who had gained a reputation in his homeland as an outspoken advocate for peace, women’s rights, students’ rights and other civil liberties issues.

He found the intellectual freedom he longed for at the University of Houston, but also discovered that in order to make ends meet he had to work two full-time jobs and sometimes sleep in his car or the library. His talent and determination eventually paid off in the form of prestigious scholarships and summer internships, two of which involved oncogene discovery research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School.

In 2005, after earning his bachelor’s degree in biochemical and biophysical sciences, Halawi came to NIH for a 1-year post-baccalaureate research fellowship in the lab of Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Building upon his dual interests in cancer and genomics, Halawi worked on a project aimed at better understanding how a gene called Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 1, or MEN1, acts as a tumor suppressor and how its expression is regulated in different types of tissues.

True to form, Halawi also pressed forward in his quest to improve civil rights in the Middle East, submitting an entry in the Hands Across the Mideast Support Alliance’s 2006 “Dream Deferred” essay contest. The competition, named after Langston Hughes’ poem, “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?,” asked young Americans and Middle Easterners to address civil rights repression in the Middle East. Selected from more than 2,500 entries from 20 different countries, Halawi’s essay, “Freedom in the Middle East: A Strategic and Moral U.S. Imperative,” won the first-place $2,000 prize in the American division.

“The people of the Middle East are not condemned by destiny to live in fear and oppression. Freedom is not part of a ‘Western conspiracy’ or a ‘foreign imposition.’ Freedom is at the essence of our existence. It is what inspires the genius inherent in each of us,” Halawi writes. “Today, let us help reformers in the Middle East be heard. Let us send a powerful message to millions of the repressed in the region: this is the age of liberty, and we will never fail you.” To read the full text of the essay, go to

Unfortunately, Halawi had little time to savor the joy of his winning essay or look forward to his first year in medical school at Duke University School of Medicine. Just 2 weeks after he left NHGRI this summer for his new home in North Carolina, the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict erupted. Once again, bombs were raining down upon his hometown of Tyre, Lebanon, placing his father, mother, 21-year-old sister and 4-year-old brother in peril.

“It broke my heart to see the country where I grew up, the town where I grew up torn apart again. It was the toughest time of my life. I couldn’t rest until I could get my family out of there,” Halawi said. “I grew up in bunkers, I saw atrocities…I wanted things to change so my brother would not have to live through the same torment.”

To make sure his brother and the rest of his family remained safe, Halawi brought them to the U.S. to live with him. So now, on top of all the academic challenges facing any first-year medical student, he is helping his family adjust to life in a new country.

“Mohamad is an inspiration to us all,” said NHGRI director Collins. “Not only does he possess the intellect and drive needed to become an outstanding physician-scientist, he is willing to give of himself to help make our world a place in which all people can live in peace and freedom. We in the biomedical research community can learn much from his example.”

Despite the recent destruction in his homeland and its impact on his family, Halawi remains firmly committed to the views expressed in his essay. “This has made me even more motivated to seek non-violent change. We need to outgrow the cycle of hatred or we will be fighting forever,” he said. “Before they act, people need to think about their kids and grandkids. We don’t want coming generations to grow up in war. For the sake of the future, we need to embrace non-violence.”

And that’s where science and scientists come in. Halawi is convinced that by enhancing opportunities for scientific education and research, both individual researchers and research institutions can play a key role in effecting peaceful change in the Middle East and other developing areas. “If we help bring the tools of scientific thought to these countries, we give people hope that they are something and that they can become something—that they should not waste their potential on violence,” said Halawi, noting that his childhood interest in science was instrumental in his decision to pursue non-violent means of ending repression in Lebanon.

“Science is all about being curious, about discovery, about getting to the roots of a problem in order to solve it. And it’s not just of benefit for scientists. If young people are encouraged to develop these problem-solving skills, they will then have the ability to identify ways of responding to conflict other than just picking up a gun.” NIH Record Icon

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