SESAME: a light in the desert

EMBL alumna Zehra Sayers. PHOTO: EMBL/Rosemary Wilson


EMBL alumna Zehra Sayers key driver of the Middle East’s first synchrotron project

In the desert 30 km northwest of Jordan’s capital Amman, a sparkling new light source will soon open for business. SESAME – the Middle East’s first synchrotron – will enable researchers from across the region to explore the structural and chemical makeup of everything from metals to biological tissue. The first electrons were sent flying around the 133-metre ring in January and after 20 years of lobbying, training and construction work, SESAME is now gearing up to do great science.

EMBL alumna Zehra Sayers, a biophysicist who chairs SESAME’s Scientific Advisory Committee has been a key driver of SESAME’s development for much of the past two decades. Together with her colleagues, she has navigated and embraced engineering, scientific, economic and political challenges and opportunities that came part and parcel with delivering a multinational project of this scale in the Middle East. Now with much of the legwork done, Sayers is excited about the future of the project, both in terms of scientific importance and its potential to inspire future generations.

The idea of an international synchrotron facility in the Middle East was first discussed in the 1980s by scientists such as the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Abdus Salam. The proposal for SESAME, an acronym for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East, began to then take shape in the late 1990s and after two decades in the making, the synchrotron will open for business in May. PHOTO: CERN

Sceptic to advocate

But Sayers, who worked at EMBL in Hamburg between 1986-98 and is now Professor at the Sabanci University in Istanbul, was not always a believer. “I had read about SESAME and initially I didn’t believe it could happen,” she says. “Firstly, I did not believe there were enough people doing synchrotron science in the region: who was going to use it? Secondly, I thought SESAME would use second-hand instruments from other synchrotrons and therefore be unsuitable for doing high quality research.”

While the initial ideas involved using an entire decommissioned synchrotron from Berlin called BESSY I, this soon developed to combine major components of BESSY I with a completely new 2.5 GeV storage ring. Having ignored their first attempts at rousing her interest, SESAME scientists tracked Sayers down in Hamburg, and convinced her she should play a key role in its realisation. “Dinner and a bottle of wine was all it took to convince me!” Sayers says. Over dinner they described the stunning specifications of the new storage ring and an established international training programme that was preparing scientists from the region with the skills needed to deliver SESAME. “Now I am a convert, and converts are the best advocates!” she adds, laughing.

With all the social and political unrest going on around us, things in the world of science are clearer

Like EMBL, SESAME is an intergovernmental organisation that aims to serve its member states – currently Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey – who make vital contributions at different levels. Particularly appealing to Sayers was the prospect of providing a facility that researchers returning to the region could use to continue their research. “There is a rich cultural heritage in the region and SESAME will be an important facility for studying material such as important historical artefacts,” says Sayers. Other research themes include the pharmaceutical potential of products produced from local herbs, and studies of the heavy metals present in the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers. Life sciences, material science, physics, biology and chemistry will all be catered for. “This has to work as a world-leading experimental facility,” Sayers says. “If the science is great, many things will follow.”

“Truly international”

Sayers and colleagues have been forced to confront many unexpected challenges, including unprecedented snowfall which caused the experimental hall roof to collapse, setting the project back by a year. And funding has remained an ever-present obstacle – five member states stepped forward with five million dollars each to finance the storage ring, only to have political events intervene: the Arab Spring long-delayed Egypt formalising agreements, while Iran has been unable to transfer funds due to international sanctions.

Yet the sheer drive from scientists both in the region and internationally have helped to drive forward SESAME, which will open for business in May this year. The project secured support from observer countries including Italy, UK, USA and Germany, as well as the European Union through CERN, whose engineers have helped to oversee the construction. Several components from BESSY I have been successfully reused, including its microton – responsible for producing the electrons that will eventually circulate in the main storage ring. “One of the people who originally built the microtron at BESSY I had retired and came to Jordan to help reconstruct it, install it and get it running perfectly,” Sayers explains. “It truly is an international and collaborative project. We are really thankful for the support we have had from so many organisations and countries.”

you have to hold your breath, be persistent, insistent, patient and just keep going

Moreover, many recruited into SESAME’s training program have now moved back to Jordan to help construct and run the facility after spending time learning their craft at other synchrotrons around the world. “First we needed to train people, then we needed to make sure we had a good machine – now it’s about the science,” says Sayers. “We have a user community of more than 200 researchers who are eager to work with us.”

From the first annual meeting she attended after that fateful dinner, Sayers has been struck by the enthusiasm and motivation of the entire SESAME community. “The political and cultural situation in the SESAME member states means we are not used to long-term projects and there has been some impatience to see immediate outcomes,” she explains. “But fundamental research is a long-term thing: you have to hold your breath, be persistent, insistent, patient and just keep going.”

Safe place for science

And Sayers points to an exciting future ahead. “With all the social and political unrest going on around us, things in the world of science are clearer,” she says. “Science creates another sense of community, regardless of nationality or religion. In the long run I hope SESAME will be useful for building a better future for the region. From my own experience working at Sabanci University, where we are relatively protected from the political upheaval going on in Turkey – I experience a sense of sanity when I am there. I hope that SESAME can provide a similar environment for many others: a safe place where we can produce high quality work, leave other worries to one side and just talk science. That is what I am striving for.”