A sick basin or a sea of opportunities?

Lavinio Gualdesi, OMeGA, interviews Amel Hamza Chafai

As part of the recent focus on environmental issues in the basin of the most ancient civilizations of excellence, the magazine OMEGA, in its traditional federative attitude, continues to present distinguished representatives of the scientific community of the southern shore.

In this context, Lavinio Gualdesi of O.Me.G.A. has interviewed Professor Amel Hamza Chafai, holder of the marine eco-toxicology chair at the University of Sfax, known years ago during the preparation of a European project, which then resulted in a long friendship punctuated by opportunities for discussion and collaborations.

The multifaceted personality of Professor Amel is highlighted by the interview that follows (released at a distance in this difficult period).

Amel is answering to my questions with her nice smile, while the webcam is showing a very elegant Tunisian room with antique furniture in the background.

Q. – Dear Amel, It has been a long time since we met on the occasion of the Herse project during your trip to La Spezia for the Sea Future Conference. Your presentation in La Spezia in 2012 was appreciated by our people that were afraid to see fish and mussels farms contaminated by pollutants. You showed terrific images of mutations, but also an important Tunisian initiative with a lot of international partners. Can you explain us what is “TME”?

“TME is the French abbreviation “Toxicologie Marine et Environnementale”, (MET is the English one). My career as a researcher have started since 1990. Ten years later (in 2000), after getting the accreditation to supervise research, I founded this research group. Our main topics were dealing with: Biomonitoring of Marine Pollution, Validation of Biomarkers, Pollution and Reproduction, Pollution and Cancers, and Endocrine Disruptors. The effect of pollution on reproduction in marine organisms. With a focus on water treatment plants effluents, endocrine disruptors. Showing the worrying trends is important to raise the public awareness. We were at that time the first Tunisian research Group working in the field of marine Ecotoxicology. I have supervised 8 masters and 9 PhD and have managed different national and international projects. During the last 22 years we got different national and international Awards and Recognitions.

Q. – I know you are the founder and president of a NGO related to the environment would you explain how this idea was born?

Before the revolution, I did some attempts to create a research NGO dealing with pollution issues. Nevertheless, the political controlling system was against such initiative and my applications were refused.

After the revolution my application was approved and in July 2012 AREBI was born.

 “Research Environment and Bio-Innovation” (AREBI) is a nonprofit organization that relies on research to support innovation and Entrepreneurship. It gathers experts, researchers, PhD students and engineers from public and private organizations. 

AREBI’s main objectives are to develop Environmental Education and Training Activities

and to promote entrepreneurship among young students and researchers.

During COP22 held in Antalya last December, our NGO was officially approved by the United Nations as Observer and MAP (Mediterranean Action Plan) partner.

Q. – Your sensitivity in fostering innovation suggested you to devote part of your property to a creative activity. Would you relate the Innovation House story? I saw beautiful pictures of it.

After an intensive training about entrepreneurship in life science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston on July 2016, I decided to create with other shareholders a private entity (SARL), named Innovation House Consulting. It plays an interfacing role and aim to establish a Bridge between research – entrepreneurs and the private sector. 

Innovation House© Consulting collaborates with international consulting groups and intervenes in various fields such as: Environment, Marine Resources, Food Industry, Water Resources. It has also the vocation of Communication and Personal Development. Through trainings and workshops for enterprises, INH Consulting is anchored in the local and national needs. for which the local and national market have important needs

The headquarter is inspired from the traditional Sfaxian architectural style, it offers an inspiring environment suitable for scientists and artists.

Regular Musical activities and some concerts take place to sustain the classical oriental and Tunisian song.

Deeply rooted in our history, this place allows the sharing of know-how in a beautiful and inspiring environment. It is hosting different activities such as conferences, meetings, book signature, artistic exhibitions. Based on our international and Mediterranean Network, we are also Proposing Innovation House as humanistic and artistic Mediterranean point for ethnic music, graphic arts, etc helping us to make link with other arab language north african countries. These present and future activities are in line with our Values: Tolerance, Friendship, Sharing, Beauty, etc

Q. – At a certain moment, years ago, I have saw you jumping on the other side of the European fund seekers. Europe was calling you as a Project evaluator…

Beyond the fact of being a partner in different European programs, I also played the role of evaluator and external Advisory Board. It was a nice opportunity for me to learn more about rules criterion…Moreover, I was recently involved in Jean Monnet Centres of Excellence on Sustainable Blue Economy led by the Euro-Mediterranean University (EMUNI). This project is in the heart of the Sustainable Development SDGs.

Q. – For what concern your country, I remember you were very active on social communication, together with your students during the critical period of your democracy. At present it seems that you have been very well appreciated. You have been offered to be part of the Academy of Science Beit al Hikma.

Yes, it was the case. To become a member of the Tunisian academy of science, we need to apply, and the criteria are mainly based on the academic background. I am really enjoying being there learning every day from high level Tunisian academicians with different backgrounds. We are now preparing the 10th anniversary of our academy.

About social communication, I am deeply convinced that the university needs to be “Without Borders” to be able to impact the society and share knowledge which is one of its roles. In my case, creating the museum of marine biodiversity was an exciting experience.

At another level, sharing knowledge with a large non specialist audience is a real exercise of pedagogy. Ocean literacy, marine pollution, blue biotechnology are examples of topics to be shared. 

We can also talk about mentoring activities I had after the revolution. They were related to few topics and Tunisian-German programs and I get involved in Democracy needs Women, Tunisian German Program -EAF-Berlin-2014 and Women and Leadership Program EAF-Berlin 2015- Mentoring activities –2015.

Q. – UN Decade for Oceans. I know you have ideas for this event: will you involve O.Me.G.A. in your vision?

I am happy and honored to get involved in OMEGA, although I don’t understand Italian, but this it is not a barrier for me. I would like on this interview to express my thanks and acknowledgments to you, my interviewer for our long lasting and deep friendship. I am deeply convinced that this friendship is a gift and a big chance to create new bridges, new ideas. Since the beginning mutual trust and the will to collaborate was a driving force to build up different proposals, such as HERSE.

Q. – I know you have been invited speaker in many Conferences and symposia, not only for your scientific background of full professor in Marine Ecotoxicology, but also for your specialization in multilevel communication which puts you in a privileged position linked to European and Arab Scientific circuits. O.Me.G.A. may count on you to be linked to this important circuit banned to us by linguistic barriers?

If approved, It will be my pleasure to use O.Me.G.A. as a common Mediterranean platform for scientific projects developed by our cluster (MET, AREBI, Beit Al Hekma and INHC). We are now highly involved in the UN decade for oceans activities and working groups. Our experience in the field of marine pollution, entrepreneurship, E-learning and blue biotechnology were highly appreciated during the last meetings. Activities such as ocean literacy, outreach activities will be implemented. The involvement of OMEGA will be an asset.