Waeil Al-Youssef, Syria

From Syria to Berlin, between photosynthesis and civic engagement: Since October 2018, Dr. Waeil Al-Youssef has been conducting research as a Philipp Schwartz fellow at HU's Institute of Biology. Through the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, launched by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office in 2016, academics at risk can receive funding for research stays at German universities and research institutions for up to 24 months. HU Berlin is currently hosting three Philipp Schwartz fellows in different departments. Talking to HU International, Dr. Al-Youssef not only explains his research project on green algae but also his civic engagement on the board of the Union of Scientists ‘Albert Einstein’.

Dr. Al-Youssef, after arriving in Germany in in November 2015, you’ve been conducting research in the Department of Plant Physiology at Humboldt University’s Institute of Biology since October 2018. How have you settled in so far?

Al-Youssef: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about myself and my work as a researcher at the Institute of Biology.

I feel honored to work at such a renowned university and especially in the Department of Plant Physiology under the guidance of Prof. Dr. Bernhard Grimm. The working atmosphere at the department is very pleasant and friendly, so that anyone can find the necessary conditions for successful research. Besides that, I feel very fortunate with my colleagues in my actual research, not only because they are very experienced professionals, but also because they are ready in any case and at any time to give tips to ensure that the research is moving in the right direction. Additionally, we have very useful weekly seminars, where I learn about current research in our department and get the opportunity to familiarize myself with and discuss the results of various studies.

Before coming to Germany, I already had a background in molecular biology. I had worked in Russia and Syria as a genetic specialist. After arriving in Berlin in November 2015, I interned at the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), in the Division of Viral Infections and the Project Group “Epidemiology of Highly Pathogenic Microorganisms” during 2016 and 2017. I focused on using various methods of biotechnology (e.g. cloning, genome sequencing and serological analysis), which facilitated my ability to work with new and advanced technologies.

What is so fascinating about green algae like Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, and how does it help us understand chlorophyll synthesis and photosynthesis?

Al-Youssef: My work in Prof. Grimm’s Plant Physiology group focuses on unveiling and describing not yet characterized regulatory mechanism governing tetrapyrrole biosynthesis, using the model organism Chlamydomonas. Tetrapyrroles are a class of molecules that add color to the world around us. They are the most abundant pigments found in nature, fulfill widely diverse biochemical functions, and are essential in most known living organisms.

 The algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii provides an excellent tool for molecular biology studies on genetic, physiological, and biochemical processes, such as photosynthesis, cell wall biogenesis, phototaxis, and responses to various stresses.

Besides your research you are also working voluntarily on the board of the Union of Scientists Albert Einstein. What is the Union’s mission?

Al-Youssef: This is a very unique association in its composition, as all founders of the Union of Scientists Albert Einstein are refugee scientists or academics. We want to emphasize that, despite being refugees, as scientists we have a lot of knowledge, expertise and experience and thus can contribute a lot both to science and to the new societies we find ourselves in.

The purpose of the Union is to support refugee scientists so they can continue their work and to protect scientific freedom. We also try to make governments and other organization pay closer attention to refugee policies.

Now, as a first step, with the efforts of the founders in Leipzig, we have already published four issues of the "International Journal Albert Einstein". It is not a peer-review journal exclusive for one discipline, but a broad platform to publish our research work and project ideas on all topics.

Your research at HU Berlin is funded through the Philipp Schwartz Initiative and you are supported by the Scholars At Risk network. What have your experiences been with the initiative and the organization respectively?

Al-Youssef: I would like to thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for providing the opportunity to continue my research career at a prestigious institution such as Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and for their support and confidence in my research capabilities during the selection of candidates for the Philipp Schwartz Initiative.

Also, I can boldly say that the Scholars at Risk network (SAR) and HU’s International Strategy Office together with the support of Prof. Grimm played a most fundamental role during all the stages of the application process. This collaboration worked in all areas on the highest professional level.

Finally, what are your plans and hopes for the near and far future?

Al-Youssef: I hope to be reunited with my family. During my accommodation as a refugee in Berlin I have faced a lot of difficulties but the most painful for me has been to be so far from my family; my wife and my three-year-old daughter. Here, the International Strategy Office and the International Scholar Services at HU have played very important roles in the efforts to resolve this issue.

Altogether I have gathered a lot of positive experiences. I have worked hard on learning the German language, attending different courses, and I have completed internships in my field of expertise. Altogether it was not easy and took a lot of time, but it is very important for my further work. And of course I believe that my work at Institute of Biology will be an important step towards my professional future.

The interview was conducted by Björn Blaß

Further information about Waeil Al-Youssef and his involvement with the Union of Scientists 'Albert Einstein' can be found here.




Sarah Hartmann

International Strategy Office

Unter den Linden
10099 Berlin
Raum 2046

Tel.: +4930 2093-20092