The Power of Hope

CAFNR alumnus finds safe haven, collaboration, for his research at MU

Unfortunately. Hopefully. The two adverbs have become the close companions of a scholar who arrived on the University of Missouri campus in January. They have become two main anchors in his vocabulary when beginning to tell a story that most United States citizens could not begin to comprehend.

“Unfortunately, the situation was getting worse and worse and worse…”

“Unfortunately, over there the situation is very difficult…”

“Hopefully, the situation in Syria will be over soon.”

He sits near his laptop in a mostly blank office in the Animal Sciences Research Center, looking to maintain ties with his former life while at the same strengthening the ones he has been able to rebuild in Columbia — after graduating from MU with a doctoral degree in reproductive physiology in 1987.

The glasses of a scholar from Syria given the name "John" sits on top of academic research papers in his office.The glasses of a scholar from Syria given the name “Ahmad” sits on top of academic research papers in his office.

In the interest of security for both the 63-year-old scholar and his family, his actual name cannot be used, so for the purposes of this article, he is referred to as “Ahmad.”

As part of the Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF), a program of the Institute of International Education (IIE), Ahmad has opportunity to continue his research in the field of animal physiology and endocrinology with fellow researchers in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Division of Animal Sciences for a full calendar year.

This opportunity has allowed him to reunite with faculty members whom he worked with while either a graduate student or while on a four-month sabbatical to MU in 2010 to work on research related to the unorthodox hormonal profile of camels.

Upon making his most recent trip west, Ahmad left behind a position as a longtime professor at the agriculture school in Syria’s largest university — a place he has served for a total of 24 years that is currently operating at approximately 40 percent capacity at last count. At one point in the early 2000s, he served as the dean of the agricultural school.

Given his lengthy tenure at the school and his network of former students who have proven to be vital to the agricultural infrastructure of Syria, Ahmad is continuing his research on reproductive and metabolic hormones in Columbia in the hope of one day returning to Syria to help his country experience a new dawn in agriculture thanks in large part to a galvanized partnership with MU.

“I’m very proud that I graduated from the University of Missouri and I am really very proud of this university. I found the people who can really consider my situation and allow me to come here,” Ahmad says. “Since I am here, I am going to, hopefully, establish some sort of cooperation between here and there.”

From ‘addax to zebra’

When Ahmad left Syria, he embarked on a journey that involved 22 hours and five airports. “It was a long trip,” he says. Making the trip with him was his luggage and a Styrofoam container full of serum samples of the Shami goat, a species native to Syria. Those samples eventually made their way into a freezer, kept at 20 degrees below zero, where they are a short walk away from the laboratory of Duane Keisler, professor of reproductive physiology.

Duane arrived at MU in 1984, around the same time Ahmad arrived on campus after earning his master’s degree in animal science from the University of Minnesota. Their paths crossed briefly back in 1986 during some collaborative research work, but the two stayed in touch over the years, leading up to his sabbatical six years ago. It was then when he worked alongside with animal science faculty such as Keisler and Mike Smith, a Curators Teaching Professor of Reproductive Physiology, who actually served on Ahmad’s doctoral committee.

Keisler allows his photo to be taken as he starts to explain the connection between his work as an endocrinologist specializing in livestock and Ahmad’s.

Duane Keisler works with assays drawn from serum samples of shami goats in his laboratory. Duane Keisler works with assays drawn from serum samples of Shami goats in his laboratory.

“Oh yeah. Just as long as it’s a good one. That may be hard to get,” he says as his deep South Carolina accent tails off into a spout of laughter.

As Keisler puts it, he has run assays of hormones of 51 different livestock species of animals from all over the world. “Everything from antelope and addax to zebra, literally,” he says. It was Keiser’s lab that was the first in the world to report the partial sequence and expression of the leptin hormone in a livestock species (sheep) in February 1995, following the discovery of leptin in December 1994. Eventually, they began looking at the relationship between body fat on livestock and serum leptin levels and what contributes to leptin levels — including age of puberty and different breeds of a particular animal.

That work lead to the taking of a single blood sample from a bovine at the time of slaughter and being able to determine carcass quality, marbling, fat thickness and other quality grades with about 30 percent accuracy. A few years later, though, Keisler’s team constructed a mathematical algorithm based off of the amounts of four hormones in the sample — leptin, insulin, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and growth hormone, a.k.a. somatotropin — that could predict the quality of the carcass before the animal is slaughtered with better than 95 percent accuracy.

“The objective here is to begin to tell you more information about that animal than you could tell by looking at it,” Keisler says. Duane and Ahmad also plan on measuring the levels of progesterone in the samples, as well as possibly the levels of estrogen, follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH).

Over the years, Keisler and his colleagues have specialized in hormone-related research in cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry and horses. It is the hope, though, that Ahmad’s research on camels and goats can help shed some light on a more holistic view of metabolic profiling. In doing so, they aspire to gain not just a better indicator of a juicier steak, but a better way to recommended disease tests in humans, for example, based on the levels of certain hormones found in a particular subject. “These are unique opportunities because we learn a lot of things by looking at other species,” Keisler says.

Seeing a bigger picture

In preparation for his sabbatical at MU, Ahmad collected blood samples from camels back in Syria. He was never able to publish his research, or what he refers to as the “camel papers.” When he returned home, the Arab Spring movement began to take hold of the Middle East — and his academic pursuits in Syria would never be the same. “It was difficult, if not impossible, to communicate back and forth,” Keisler recalls. “We had that manuscript sitting there.”

All of the camel data that Ahmad had back in Syria has been either lost or stolen. The camels themselves have been stolen from his former institution’s camel research station. At one point, Ahmad had two doctoral students working on research projects relating to camels. One was looking at the relationship between the size of the hump and metabolic hormones in the animal. Another was analyzing the level of female reproductive hormones in camels during the lactation and trying periods. The latter was killed at the research station.

An assay composed of serum samples from a shami goat await further analysis in Duane Keisler's laboratory.An assay composed of serum samples from a Shami goat await further analysis in Duane Keisler’s laboratory.

The camel is unique in many ways. It is the only mammal that Keisler knows that has nucleated blood red cells, meaning that it retains its nucleus, unlike all other mammals. From a reproductive perspective, camels do not show any overt sign of being in heat. Instead, they are induced ovulators, like cats.

“Really we found that it’s magic, this kind of animal. It is unique in everything,” Ahmad says, adding that the hump of a camel is where a large portion of the animal’s fat is stored, and with it, a very high level of leptin.

In certain parts of Syria, camel is eaten as a delicacy, renowned for its leptin-rich tender meat. Both researchers point to how camels have thrived in Australia since being introduced to the continent in the 19th Century. With the threat of warmer conditions on a global scale, adding camels to America’s livestock profile could be within the realm of possibility.

“This wasn’t planned from my perspective, but as you look at global warming and more arid climates, you need animals that work in those kind of environments,” Keisler says. “We know camels can. We know certain goats can. Yet we know very little about those animals.”

Compared to the vast amount of research that has been conducted using American livestock samples, the collective testing done on the arid-friendly animals is a shallow pond sitting next to a deep lake. Ahmad has been sure to share any new findings with those who still remain in Syria.

“Unfortunately this information has not been known over there,” he says, “so when we try to learn any new thing about it over here, that’s been helping ourselves there.”

A tradition of hosting

The Institute of International Education (IIE), a not-for-profit organization based in New York City, has been helping to provide refuge for scholars and students since its founding in 1919. The formal and permanent arm of that mission, the Scholar Rescue Fund (IIE-SRF), has given assistance to more than 640 scholars from 55 countries since its establishment in 2002 by relying on both public and private funding such as individual donors, foundations and government grants — and the host institutions to provide either equal or greater support for the scholars’ salaries.

Those scholars have been placed in more than 350 host partner institutions in 41 countries. Out of those schools, 145 are in the United States. When it comes to the amount of U.S. institutions that have hosted Syrian scholars to date, MU is on a much smaller list of just 30 schools. Ahmad is one of 21 Syrian scholars currently being hosted in the U.S, according to IIE-SRF.

“Our mission isn’t to simply save lives, but it’s also to save intellectual capital. What we’ve found is institutions like the University of Missouri are keen to get involved, and our programs provide an effective mechanism to do so,” says James King, the assistant director of IIE-SRF. “Of course we want and need more universities to step up and say ‘We’re ready to host scholars,’ but at the same time we’ve been impressed with the degree to which universities have already done so.”

Duane Keisler shows how his gamma counter works by looking at radioactivity counts per minute of a given sample. He regularly gets request from around the world to run in his machine, which was more popular before the collective shift to genomics. "They send me examples from all over the world because I’m still doing this and people have forgotten how to do this kind of stuff," he says.Duane Keisler shows how his gamma counter works by looking at radioactivity counts per minute in a given sample. He regularly gets requests from around the world to assay samples. “They send me examples because I’m still doing this and it is a lot of work, and many people have forgotten how to do this kind of stuff,” he says.

David Currey, who serves as the director of international student and scholar services and the assistant director of the International Center, says that MU has a longstanding relationship with the IIE. David added that before Ahmad arrived on campus, MU had served as a host institution through the IIE-SRF program within the last six years for two Iraqi scholars, both of whom still work within the College of Engineering. He also mentioned MU’s involvement with helping facilitate relationships with the University of Western Cape and other South African institutions in the late ’70s and early ’80s as a way to offer a solution to combat during apartheid.

“I think there’s a history there for MU and many other institutions in the U.S. where educators and leaders have stepped up and said ‘We’re going to try to be part of the change in this culture in a positive way,’” Currey says. “I think we do have a legacy there that we’re still reaping some good returns on.”

King says that, when possible, it is always the goal to keep a scholar in his or her home region, but given the severity in Syria that has not been possible. The most recent comparable situation that King and IIE-SRF have faced in the Middle East took place in 2007 in Iraq during the Iraq War. Most of the scholars were able to find refuge in neighboring countries, particularly in Jordan.

“You have whole communities that have been literally, physically destroyed, so there’s a large-scale destruction and displacement in Syria that we never saw in Iraq,” says King, whose group estimates the approximate population of displaced professors at all levels in Syria number around 2,000.

Given the fact that a majority of scholars in Syrian and neighboring countries have linkages to European institutions, either by attending the schools there or having done collaborative work with them, they tend to seek refuge in Europe. Ahmad mentioned that he was one of 14 scholars who left his college around the same time. All of them besides him opted to find new opportunities in Europe.

IIE-SRF does not proactively reach out to scholars, King says. Instead, the scholars themselves find the organization’s website to start the process. That’s what happened in 2014 with Ahmad when he found about IIE-SRF with a Google search. Seeing that he needed a host university for the arrangement to work, he sent a letter to Keisler, who welcomed the idea after the funding was approved and sent an acceptance letter to IIE-SRF to continue the process that would ultimately end in the scholar receiving a visa. “Because the connections to Mizzou were clear and logical, from an early stage we were exploring that possibility,” King says.

The needed funding, which is an exact match of the money provided by IIE-SRF, came as a result of a financial collaboration largely between CAFNR Dean Tom Payne and Jim Scott, the director of the International Center and the interim vice provost for international programs.

“Relationships are ultimately what win the day. He’s very highly respected by his colleagues here,” Currey says of Ahmad. “I think it was a great opportunity both for MU and for him and IIE to work together to see that this gentleman and his family can live in peace and can continue to pursue his profession.”

“Our mission isn’t to simply save lives, but it’s also to save intellectual capital.”
― James King, Scholar Relief Fund

King says that IIE-SRF scholars are eligible to apply for a second year of support. In some cases, the host university has been able to hire the scholar either permanently or independently after the second year. Given that the situation in Syria is “particularly dire,” King hopes that more host institutions will be able to find permanent solutions for the scholars.

“I think our scholars recognize that although they would go home tomorrow if they could, what does home look like? The destruction, both physical and cultural, has been tremendous,” King says. “I think the situation is complicated enough that for a lot of scholars, even though their hope is to return, their dream is to return, it’s very difficult to imagine it right now.”

Keeping connected

In early January, Ahmad sat in his office with his cell phone by his side. He flipped through his phone to see if any of his family members were able to talk at the moment through WhatsApp and Viber. These apps have proven to be precious gifts, able to melt away the eight-hour time difference. The only barrier left is whether the power is on in his homeland at the time. Per a government mandate, the power is only allowed on for a two-hour period followed by being shut down for four hours. It’s been like that for years.

Ahmad and his wife have six children — five daughters and one son — ranging in age from 20 to 36. The second oldest daughter, who is a U.S. citizen after having being born in Minnesota, has been living in Columbia for four years with her three children and her husband, who is working on his master’s degree in animal sciences at MU. His other children live in Lebanon and Syria at the moment.

From his laptop, John regularly communicates with colleagues in Syria through email. From his laptop, Ahmad regularly communicates with colleagues in Syria through email.

To Ahmad, the United States is a land full of spacious greenery and quietness, compared to the concrete and noise he knew, which included waking up to the sounds of bombs or missiles on a horrifically frequent basis. After spending six years in the U.S. during his combined graduate studies at Minnesota and MU and an extra four months on sabbatical, “the American environment is not strange for me,” he says.

He takes frequent trips to Columbia’s Cosmo Park and to the grassy areas outside of his apartment to play with his three grandchildren who range in age from 6 months to 6 years. The oldest, a boy, is happiest when he has a ball of some variety in his reach, be it a soccer ball, basketball or an American football. Ahmad met the youngest of the grandchildren, a girl, when he arrived in Columbia.

His daughter was five months pregnant with her when he saw them all at the wedding of Ahmad’s only son. “They are growing up in front of your eyes,” he says. “This is a very happy moment to see them and to see their smile on their face.”

In mid-February, Ahmad was greeted by another familiar smile: that of his wife. After going through a lengthy immigration process, she has finally been able to reunite with her husband and rest of her family living in Columbia. It is the first time she has been in the U.S. in 28 years. “I am very happy,” she says. “I enjoy everything.”

At first, Ahmad’s wife had to convince her daughter to make the move to Columbia after her daughter’s husband, who has worked as a veterinarian in Syria, sought to pursue graduate school at MU thanks to Ahmad’s initial encouragement. Later on, Ahmad was able to put him in touch with Keisler and Smith and others members of the Division of Animal Sciences community. “I said every year ‘I will come and visit you.’ And she waited and waited. At last I came, so I am very happy and she is very happy,” Ahmad’s wife says of their daughter, “and the kids are very happy and they’re with me always.”

Like her husband, Ahmad’s wife is living in the here and now, soaking up the smiles of her grandchildren. Her family’s future in Syria seems like a long ways away at the moment. Still, one day, she says: “I hope everything is good in Syria because it’s our home.”

‘Thinking ahead’

Although most outsiders associate all of Syria as being hot and arid, Ahmad is from “the cold part” in its northern section, a small village of (at one time) 10,000 people. The closest city is Arihah, which is an hour southwest of Aleppo an hour northwest of the Turkish border. As the third of four brothers, he spent 15 years in the village helping on his family farm, where they raised sheep, horses and cattle, before his father got into the building contractor business and moved the family to the capital city of Damascus. “I really look to my background and see how I have to help in the development of my country,” Ahmad says.

As he points out, agriculture is one of only sector of everyday life in Syria the climate of war has not shut down. Syria has a huge biodiversity, ranking as one of the top olive- and cotton-producing countries in the world. In addition, its wheat is favored by European manufacturing plants.

He still regularly keeps up with those who have been trying to maintain a level of agricultural functionality, some of whom are his former students, through the same social apps that he uses to keep in contact with his immediate family.

“I really look to my background and see how I have to help in the development of my country.”
― Ahmad

Before he left for Columbia, he met with the president of his university and Syria’s minister of higher education to share his research plans. Both administrators were very intrigued about Ahmad taking a path less traveled than his counterparts. “I told him that I was coming to the U.S. and I promised to them that after the situation was over, we are going to have a really good academic collaboration with MU,” he said. “Both of them really encouraged me to come here because the situation will be hopefully over soon in Syria.”

It is this hope that is driving his work with Keisler’s lab and other collaborators in the Division of Animal Sciences. “He can play a multi-part role, not just in terms of animal endocrinology and physiology and those type of things, but he has the connections,” Keisler said. “Obviously Syria is a war-torn area, but it’s not going to be like that forever, so somebody needs to be thinking ahead.”

“He is one of our own and we had a golden opportunity to support him in a time when his situation was really awful.  He has continued to be a valued collaborator with Duane and we see great potential for the metabolic profiling work they are doing,” says Tom McFadden, director of the Division of Animal Sciences. “But I think the greatest opportunity is to build a strong partnership, so we are in a position to help rebuild Syria’s animal agricultural systems when these difficult times are over. That would be an ideal way to offer our expertise to help our Syrian neighbors, and it would open many doors for our faculty and students to become involved in new avenues of research, teaching/learning and outreach. I think that’s really the most basic goal we all share: the desire to use our knowledge and abilities to help others.”

Ahmad can picture a society whose infrastructure can be reconstructed on the foundation of both traditional practices and those gleaned from outside sources, such as the ones here at MU. “No terrorists, no killing, no damaging, no destroying… so the people can at least come back from the outside and go to their homes,” he says of his vision. “Hopefully all the people, in addition to our friends either nationally or internationally, can help in rebuilding Syria again.”