Since 2011, 13 million Syrians have fled the nation’s civil war. Amal Alachkar and her family were among them. Alachkar tells the UCI podcast how she went from establishing Syria’s first neuroscience research lab to an associate professor of teaching in pharmaceutical sciences at UCI to helping establish an online master’s in pharmacology and working to prevent psychiatric disorders for the children of her fellow refugees.
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Nicole Feldman, Host
Amal Alachkar started the first neuroscience research lab in Syria. When the Syrian civil war started in 2011, she and her family were among the 13 million refugees who had to leave their homes. But now Dr. Alachkar is not only finding cures for mental illness here at UCI, but has been a huge part of developing online learning for our School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Nicole Feldman, and you’re listening to the UCI podcast.
Today, Amal joins us to talk about the windy road that led her to UCI as an associate professor of teaching in pharmaceutical sciences. Amal, thanks so much for joining me today.
Thank you, Nicole, for inviting me.
So I feel like you’ve been pretty busy these last few years since you got to UCI. You have a ton of great research projects, working on treating psychiatric disorders. You created UCI’s first online master’s program in pharmacology. And you did all of this while you and your family were adjusting to life in a new country, which is just so impressive to me. So I’m sure we could spend our whole time talking about how you managed to do it all, but first I want to make sure our listeners understand what it is that you do.
So you’re a neuroscientist, and your work focuses on psychiatric disorders like autism, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and depression. So that’s quite the mouthful, help us break down what exactly it is that you do and what the goal of your research is.
In my research, I focus on understanding behavior in health and disease. We are trying to understand the brain circuits, how regions of the brain are connected to control specific behaviors, such as social behaviors, memory, emotions, anxiety and maternal behaviors. I also study what happens when things go wrong in the brain. And then we have the psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety. It is interesting that there are a lot of symptoms that are overlapping between different disorders. And for me, it is important to understand the mechanisms of these behaviors. Maybe then we can find better treatments for different psychiatric disorders. So what I’m interested very much in is understanding schizophrenia. I find that some symptoms such as social deficits, or social impairment is a symptom that is prevalent in schizophrenia, but also we see it in autism. So if we could understand the social behavior, what are the regions? What are the chemicals in the brain that are involved in social behavior? Then maybe we can find treatment not only for schizophrenia, but also for autism.
That’s so interesting. And I know the findings in some of your latest research have actually made you question whether perhaps schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s could even be the same disease. So we’ll link to more information about that in the comments. But for now, I’d like to talk about your road to UCI because it hasn’t been a particularly straight one. So before you came to the U.S., you actually started the first neuroscience research lab in Syria. Tell us about that. What were you working on there?
The importance of this lab comes from the setting where many of the conditions that are essential for any successful implementation of research, indeed, are absent, such as an absence of awareness of the research importance, awareness of mental disorders. So this research lab is a neuroscience lab, the lack of expertise of trained personnel, the lack of resources, and of course, most importantly, the absence of intellectual freedom. So it is establishing the enabling environment. So here, if I am hired as faculty, I would negotiate the space, start-up environment, and all. These are not available in Syria. When I started the lab, I had to create the enabling environment. Not only work on the infrastructure, but also to train the personnel, train the new generation of scientists in neuroscience, to build minds. How to create the mentality of scientists, of researchers, how to instill the curiosity in the minds of my students, how can I create a stimulating environment to stimulate their critical thinking?
I always told my students during my teaching, there is no concrete answer or absolute truth. You have to find the truth. You have to search for truth. The knowledge that I am teaching you is what we have now. This knowledge might change in the future, and you are part of the change of our knowledge. So I encourage them to think critically. And of course, my problem is that this is against what the education system was set up for in Syria. The Syrian education system raised students to be passive and obedient learners who only absorb knowledge delivered by their teacher as absolute facts without questioning. When you stimulate students to question, then they will question everything. Then they will question the legitimacy of the government. Of course that’s something that the regime in Syria, did not want to happen.
Yes, I think that leads us right into the next leg of your journey here to UCI. So I’m sure most of our listeners are aware that the Syrian civil war started in 2011 and has led millions of people to have to leave their homes. And that includes you and your family. So tell us about leaving the University of Aleppo and how you ended up in the U.S.
So my journey, like the journey of many other Syrian scholars, tells the story of determined and perseverance Syrian scholars, who struggled to overcome significant barriers that stand between them and their goals under extraordinary conditions. So when the peaceful uprising or revolution, as I like to call it, began in Syria during the Arab Spring in 2011, I was among the faculty who supported the student movement, demanding dignity, freedom of speech, justice, equity for all Syrians. Because their cause is my cause, their demands are my demands. However, speaking out, put my research, my life and my family’s life in danger. I was threatened by the secret police. And I was about to be arrested for speaking up and supporting the peaceful revolution. Luckily, I was awarded the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship, which enabled me to come to Penn State University for 10 months. I was hoping that by the end of this fellowship, I would go back to my country to harvest the fruits of establishing my lab and to use my knowledge and the experience that I gained during the fellowship to reform the education system in Syria.
However, by the end of the fellowship, I realized that indeed my trip was one way, and that it was impossible for me to go back to my country. So that means starting a new journey to establish my life and my career in exile. I received a Scholar Rescue Fund fellowship by the Institute of International Education, which enabled me to come to UCI through a matching fund. And Dr. Olivier Civelli really, was the chair of the Department of Pharmacology, and he helped me come to the UCI. He provided, and is still providing, infinite support to me until this moment.
For sure. So that’s quite the journey, and we’re of course so glad that you ended that journey here at UCI. But it sounds like there was a lot of uncertainty for you for a long time, and I’d love to talk a little bit more about that because I think with these conflicts, you know, we – watching from the international side of things – we tend to focus, I think, on the exodus. When something happens like the Syrian civil war, people focus on, the most important thing is getting out. And of course that is really important, but I think a lot of us don’t think about the challenges that people face once they are able to settle in a new place. So I’d love to hear a little more on that from you, particularly because you are a very highly skilled person – which not everybody is – and you have been so successful since you got to the United States.
And I’m particularly thinking about this because I just came to UCI from spending a year abroad in Cambodia. And that transition, for me, I’m sure it was a thousand times easier than yours. But it was still challenging, and I can’t even begin to imagine how much harder it must be being forced out of your home, not knowing what’s going to happen and then having to settle somewhere that’s very different. So now that you’ve been in the United States for a good, almost a decade, tell us, in the long term, how that process went for you and your family.
Of course, I had to face several challenges and obstacles for any immigrant. There are a number of obstacles in adjusting to a new place and new work environment for scholars in exile. Those obstacles have multiple levels and layers. By the time I came here, I just had one year of work in my lab after it took me five years to establish it. So imagine, I put all my effort – I put my heart, my soul – into this visionary project. I wanted it to be successful. However, it was only one year that we started to work on it. And indeed, we published several publications, work on the genetic factor in schizophrenia in the Syrian population. But for me, living this after one year was like leaving part of me, part of my heart, there.
Scholars in exile pass several stages. The first stage is the stage when we’ve just come here, being uncertain about what’s happening next. Are we going back? Are we staying here? Do we need to start establishing our career here? This stage is mixed emotions, uncertainty, despair, denial, and above all, the survivor’s guilt. So being here while I can see that some of my students have been killed or arrested, half of the Syrian population is displaced. So it becomes that safety – my safety, my family’s safety – is a luxury. And of course I would defer thinking of any plans about my career to the future, only when I’ve lost any hope of going back to Syria.
So I started to think about how to re-establish my research career. Of course, then another level of challenge I face is how to prove the capability, how to prove the productivity and the assets that I can bring, how to navigate the system, how to find funds for my research. And of course there were challenges, such as that evaluations here are based on quantities, number of applications, number of grants. And indeed that put me in a disadvantaged position since I restarted my career here after having something in Syria. So it took me five years to establish this lab. Then I had to come to Penn State, then I had to restart. So the trajectory of my career is, indeed, not the traditional, the classical one.
Also, I found that there is a lot of prejudice about evaluating the work of a person who’s coming from countries such as Syria. And that’s why I feel there should be more qualitative methods to evaluate people, to evaluate the work of people, rather than just counting the number of publications or how much money this faculty or that brings. I struggled with finding funds. I wrote several grants, maybe 30, or over 30, grants. And you can see comments such as, she doesn’t have space, she has very few publications in the United States, although by that time I had over 40 publications. So all that indeed made me feel sometimes hopeless, despair. And at so many times, I felt I was about to give up research.
Of course, during this hard time, there was Olivier Civelli, who was supportive from the first day I arrived at UCI, and he’s still providing his infinite support. He always made me feel that I have the potential, and it is a matter of time that I will prove my productivity, my capability. So we work together. He is sharing his lab space, he’s sharing his equipment. We collaborate on several projects. We discuss science almost every day. So it wasn’t until 2018 when I was granted a position as associate professor of teaching in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences. What I teach – I teach indeed a lot. I love teaching. I teach about six courses, but I still have time to do my research. And I continue, until this moment, doing the research that I love, and the teaching that I am passionate about.
Well, I’m all, you certainly have faced a lot of challenges, but I’m really glad that you were able to get through it and that you did end up at here at UCI because we’re very happy that you’re here. So let’s talk a little bit more about what you’ve done since you’ve been here. Back in 2017, you helped establish UCI’s first online master’s program in pharmacology. And I feel like this is particularly relevant these days because so many people are being forced into online learning for the fall. So tell us a little bit about why UCI decided to have the program be online then, and could you share any tips for setting up online learning for folks trying to do it now?
Well, during my Humphrey program at Penn state, I attended several workshops about how the higher education might look like in the future and how the role of professors will change from delivering the lectures to more coaching. Then I started to think about how to make the class time more meaningful instead of just using this time to deliver the knowledge, how we can make it more interactive. For example, students can view my lectures at home so I can prerecord it for them. And then we come to the class to discuss, to debate, to interact.
So when I came to UCI, I found that there was this idea about the Master’s of Pharmacology online that was being discussed, and Olivier Civelli and Diana Krause were talking about how to implement this idea, and that’s when I started working with them. In 2017, we had the first cohort of students who took the master’s.
It turned to be a very successful online program. Our audience, indeed, were mostly people who work full time, for example, in industry who cannot attend the school, who have families, and for them, this is the perfect solution for continuing their work while they are taking extra steps in their education or advancing their knowledge.
There is always a question about, well, the online programs lack the interaction, and we tried to solve this by creating channels among students, and among students and professors. And you’d be really amazed that we have orientation week. We invite students to come in the beginning of the program, and then on the first day, you see everyone is sitting by him- or herself. By the end of the week, they speak with each other, they have already exchanged their contact information. And most importantly, they already created their channels for communication with each other. And they have this channel for the whole two years and even after they graduate. And it’s interesting that in the second year, they start to communicate with the alumni and add them to this communication.
Yeah. Did you set up opportunities for them to connect or did they just kind of work it out on their own?
This was encouraged by faculty, but also students. You can see this new generation really have their own ways of communicating with each other using social media. The program helped me a lot, indeed, during COVID because of having the experience of delivering online courses in the program. So it became very easy for me to adjust what I used to teach in person in the university to online setting. Well, my tips are you can optimize the use of the technology, of the online sources, and you can still engage students. You can still make them interact with each other. There’s always a discussion forum. There is always the live Zoom when students can discuss, talk with their peers and professors. But we have to be creative? And of course, each course is unique, so what works for one course might not work for another, but we have to be creative in adapting to the new norm.
Yeah. I’ll certainly be interested to see how that ends up going this year, since that in-person part will be a little different, but that’s great. It sounds like it’s been very successful already. Well, before we head out, I would love to hear just a little bit more about what’s next for you. What are you working on now?
As I mentioned in the beginning, my research focuses on understanding behavior in health and disease. The idea of one project emerged merely from my concern as a Syrian about the impacts of the war, not only on the current generation – we know that about half a million have been killed in Syria, half of the population are displaced – but I am also concerned about the generations to come in the future.
So we know the impacts of stress during pregnancy on the offspring. We have examples from the Dutch famine during the second World War, when scientists found an increasing rate of mental illness in the offspring of mothers who were pregnant during the hunger period, during the Nazi’s invasion of Netherlands. We know from a study done by my collaborators in Rwanda about the impact of the genocide trauma on the offspring of mothers who witnessed the genocide – the Tutsi genocide – those who had some of their family members killed, or they were widows, and during that time they were pregnant. So my collaborators found that when offspring are in their twenties, they have higher rates of depression and PTSD.
So I’m concerned about the impact of the Syrian war, but also about anywhere, about any stress in the world. And now indeed, we all are living the stress with the pandemic. So how that affects not only us, the generation that’s living this stress, but also the generations to come. So for me, my principle is how we can prevent rather than intervene. So prevention, not intervention. I don’t want to wait until the disorder, the disease, happens, and then I try to treat it. I want to prevent it. And that’s why I’m trying to understand, what are the mechanisms of stress inducing, depression, or the prenatal stress, and how that causes the disorders in the offspring. There might be something in the early stage mechanisms happening in the brain that have long-term impacts. I’m trying to dissect these mechanisms in my lab. And of course the ultimate goal is to find treatment or better preventive therapy.
Well, that is certainly a cool study, and we’ll have to have you back soon to see what you find. Amal, thanks so much for joining me today.
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