A Scientific Arab Spring

A Scientific Arab Spring

By Melissa Pandika

Mohammad Al Ejla, 18, is seen in Gaza, Palestine 2012. Mohammad was just arriving to a shop to buy candles for his mother when a rocket exploded. Ten people were killed and many injured. Mohammad spent three days in Shifa hospital, and then he was transferred to a hospital in Egypt. He was in coma for a month. He lost his right arm, his left leg and suffered several shrapnel wounds. He still has some shrapnel in his face and his head. Mohammad was an apprentice at his uncle’s mechanic shop, but now he spends his days at home. He would need to be operated on again, to remove the last shrapnel pieces and also to be fitted with an artificial limb.
SourcePaolo Pellegrin


Where many see hopelessness, Dr. Herzallah sees an opportunity to investigate depression and dismantle the stigma of mental illness.

By Melissa Pandika

Beneath the violent conflict in Palestine lurks a silent but no less devastating crisis. About 36 percent of Palestinians are clinically depressed — a rate nearly twice that of the U.S. and more than four times that of Mexico.

To fight the epidemic in his homeland, 27-year-old doctor Mohammad Herzallah co-founded and now directs the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative, the country’s first infrastructure for neuroscience research and a training ground for its next generation of scientists and doctors. Student researchers investigate how depression affects learning and memory while running educational outreach programs to help dismantle the stigma of mental illness. In the next few years, Herzallah wants to expand the neuroscience initiative into a full-fledged institute and spur a “scientific Arab Spring” by inspiring infrastructure building in other countries and academic fields. 

People have been trying to solve the political situation for decades…Why can’t we start working on problems we can actually solve?

– Mohammad Herzallah

“This initiative is a way of telling people we can do this. We can accomplish good things in our country despite the lack of facilities and harsh political climate,” said Herzallah, a 2013 TED Fellow and one of Arabian Business Magazine’s 500 Most Powerful Arabs in the World.

With grisly images of riots and crossfire dominating the news coverage of Palestine, most people focus on the country’s conflicts with Israel. “People have been trying to solve the political situation for decades, but where are we now?” Herzallah asked. “Why can’t we start working on problems we can actually solve?”

Family sitting in living room dark and dim with a blue light.

Twelve-year-old Khamis Abu Arab (at left) was playing outside when he found an undetonated shell. He brought it home, where it exploded in his face. A series of operations in an Israeli hospital removed shrapnel from his eyes but couldn’t restore his sight

Source Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum

One problem is that while the country offers basic medical services, specialization in vital fields, including psychiatry, is almost nonexistent. Palestine has only one psychiatric hospital, and 15 psychiatrists serve a population of 2.8 million. Many doctors and scientists flee to the U.S. and Europe because of the lack of medical and laboratory facilities back home.

Herzallah describes the challenges with hope and conviction — and a deep love for his people. He can’t bear to abandon them. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to come back to my country,” he said. “If I don’t do that and others don’t, then there’s nobody else there to help.”

Palestine has only one psychiatric hospital, and 15 psychiatrists serve a population of 2.8 million.

Where his expat counterparts saw hopelessness, Herzallah saw opportunity, an attitude shaped by his childhood. His family moved often, following his father as he taught biochemistry in universities around the world. They finally settled in Jenin in northern Palestine in 1991. Herzallah’s mother, though trained in lab medicine, stayed home to raise him and his four younger siblings. Growing up, he accepted violence as the norm; he’s experienced two intifadas and scores of school evacuations. “As a kid, you feel your life is at risk,” he said. But “everybody there has witnessed a few of these events.”

He studied neuroscience, but since the university didn’t offer neuroscience training, he taught himself.

Herzallah dreamed of being a nuclear physicist, but the lack of research labs in Palestine meant he could only be a physics teacher. If he wanted to be a physicist, he would have to study elsewhere, his father advised. But Herzallah wanted to stay in Palestine.

With his scientific interests, his best bet was to make a living as a doctor. So he enrolled in medical school at Al-Quds University on the outskirts of Jersualem. He studied neuroscience, but since the university didn’t offer neuroscience training, he taught himself. He watched lectures online, read any scientific journal articles he could access without a subscription and attended all the local neuroscience conferences he could.

Dr Herzallah on a large stage with the word TED in red in the background

Dr. Herzallah speaking at a TED talk

But he yearned to conduct his own research, which led to a hard realization. “If I wanted to do research in Palestine, I would have to build the infrastructure with my own hands,” he said. Palestinians wanted more doctors, not scientists, but Herzallah knew that “even the best physician” can only help one patient at a time, while researching how neuropsychiatric disorders develop could help patients throughout Palestine and even around the world.

That’s when Herzallah met Adel Misk, a professor of neurology at Al-Quds, and Mark Gluck, a professor of neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who were recruiting students from Al-Quds interested in splitting their time between pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Rutgers and starting a neuroscience initiative in Palestine. Among those initial recruits, Herzallah stood out as “an absolute superstar,” Gluck said. “He didn’t give up or decide our goals were impossible or too hard for him.”

The trio launched the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative in 2009 with the opening of the Al Quds Cognitive Neuroscience Lab to investigate how depression affects learning and memory. Today the initiative has more than 20 student researchers, as well as partnerships with Rutgers University, Harvard, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and other elite institutions. Last September, the initiative was awarded a $300,000 National Institutes of Health grant. And it has already published eight scientific papers in leading journals — five this year alone.

… you’ll achieve inner peace that will contribute to peace in the whole region.

– Mohammad Herzallah

There are notable advantages to studying mental illness in Palestine. In addition to suffering from depression, many Palestinians have never taken medication for mental illness, allowing researchers to study how antidepressants affect unmedicated brains. And as a result of generations of cousin marriages, the population is genetically homogeneous, meaning that any differences researchers observe after treatment must be due to the drug, not genetic variation.  

Herzallah knows that building an infrastructure from scratch is no small feat. “You really think about the whole process. ‘Is it really worthwhile?’ ‘Am I really doing my country a favor?’” he said. “But if I want to leave a good impact, I need to close my ears, look straight and take very slow steps that should be very well planned.”

The larger goal is for other countries to look at the institute as a model for launching research infrastructures of their own — not only in neuroscience, but also in cardiology, physics and other scientific fields.

“We need a scientific Arab spring,” Herzallah said. “When you have patients receiving medical care, students having opportunities, professionals having facilities and people having job opportunities … you’ll achieve inner peace that will contribute to peace in the whole region.”