Once an illiterate shepherd, this palestinian researcher hopes to cure cancer

Smadar Reisfeld in Haaretz:

AyubHere’s a legend for the modern era: Until the age of 12, Nabieh Ayoub could neither read nor write. Officially, he attended school in the Upper Galilee village of Fassuta, but mostly he helped his family till the land and herd the sheep. Today he is a biology professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and a highly praised cancer researcher. In 2014, an article he published in the prestigious PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) was selected by the journal as being among the top 5 percent of the articles appearing in its pages that year. His is a riveting, thought-provoking and also somewhat ironic story about excellence, prejudice and education. But above all, about science. That’s what’s most important to Ayoub, and that’s what he wanted to talk about most, when I met with him at his Technion office. Prof. Ayoub, who’s in his forties, is married to Samahar Najjar, an educational consultant by profession. The couple live in Haifa with their three children, aged 8, 12 and 14. “Nabieh” means “cautious” in Arabic, and that definitely suits his personality. He’s very cordial and sociable, unpretentious and candid, but cautious.

How is it that you couldn’t read or write until such a late age?

“That’s a good question. I think schooling didn’t mean much to me then. I would go to school, warm the bench and return home. I preferred helping my father, who was a fellah, working in the fields or tending the goats. I couldn’t even write my name. I was diagnosed as having special needs and placed in a special-ed class. The teachers were amazed that I was so dumb, because my four siblings were all very good in school. Things weren’t easy socially, either, because the good students tended to stay away from me. Who wants to be around an imbecile? When you’re categorized as weak, you have to make an effort to carve out a path to be accepted by those who are strong.”

When did the change occur?

“I had a homeroom teacher, Ayoub Shahla, who took me to the teachers’ room during recess and taught me. He proceeded gradually, little by little, until I knew the letters, and then I learned how to read and write. A decisive event for me was a speech delivered by the principal at the start of the school year, when I was in the eighth grade. He said that those who are weak can improve, and cited me as an example. All he did was mention my name, but that generated a huge self-transformation. You have to understand: All in all, I had progressed from marks of 20-30 to 50, but the fact that he made reference to it had a tremendous influence on me. That was the beginning of the spurt.”

… DNA under attack

For the past decade, Ayoub has been researching the structure of DNA and the mechanisms that repair it when it’s damaged. The fact is that DNA – the molecule that carries our genes and is responsible for our traits, abilities, functioning and health – is under constant attack. Every day, the DNA in a cell that is dividing is vulnerable to some 70,000 different types of damage – and that’s before we factor in smoking, exposure to solar radiation, food preservatives and other nasty items that exacerbate the damage. The basic harm is caused by by-products of regular life processes, which attack the cell’s DNA. These include the notorious free radicals, which we’re meant to neutralize through the consumption of antioxidants.

More here.