Scientists with Vision: Professor Zohra Ben Lakhdar

November 2005

"We have to be where we are most useful." Professor Ben Lakhdar with her physics students. (Photo: Micheline Pelletier/GAMMA)

As the International Year of Physics draws to a close, the third in our series of interviews with distinguished scientists from around the world features Zohra Ben Lakhdar, Professor of Physics at the University of Tunis and a founding member of the Tunisian Physics and Astronomy Societies. Professor Ben Lakhdar works with new spectroscopic methods to study the influence of pollutants, such as methane and metals, on the quality of air, water, and plants. Her studies have potential applications in diverse fields, from astrophysics to agriculture, medicine, pharmaceuticals, and the chemical industry.


Born: 1943 in Tunis.

Education: B.Sc. in physics, University of Tunis; PhD in Atomic Spectroscopy, University of Paris VI.

Occupation: Since 1978 Professor of Physics, University of Tunis; Director of research laboratory in atomic and molecular spectroscopy and applications; President of Tunisian Optical Society.

Honors: 1994 elected to the Islamic Academy of Sciences; senior associate member at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP); Ministry of Culture award for the development of research activities in Tunisia; 2004 L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award.


Professor Ben Lakhdar, could you begin by explaining your field, spectroscopy, to the uninitiated among us?

Spectroscopy is about analyzing bodies according to the spectrum of light emitted or absorbed by matter. What does that mean? Think of the planets, stars, galaxies, which are beyond our reach. – How is it that man is able to get information about them and photograph them? It is thanks to light. Light is the messenger of the universe. Light informs us about the state of matter throughout the universe and even about the universe's past.

Light is a set of waves through space. So the “messages” are presented as waves. Each atom has its own way to send its message. This is its “spectra”, its own set of waves. So spectroscopy is the common language of atoms. When you know how to read these waves, you understand the language of atoms and molecules.

You grew up in a time and culture where female scientists were few. What effect did this have on you?

When I was young, everyone used to say that science was difficult for men, and impossibly difficult for women. Only men were supposed to be any good at calculus, and the only goal for a woman was to get married and have a family. I wanted to show that there was no difference of ability between men and women, and to demonstrate to the world that I could work in science.

I did my primary schooling, in the 1950s, in cities (Mahdia and Jemmal) where the highest diploma women obtained was the Certificate of Primary Studies, and none of the girls I was with obtained it. In those days, girls went to school for three, four or maybe five years, and then got married at the age of 15. No girl thought of going on to secondary school. That meant going to another city. For me the nearest city was Sousse, which was 25 kilometers away, and that was quite a trip when there were no buses or cars.

Luckily for me, my family always gave me their backing, judging that any choice I had made was an act of will, and therefore good. I was very close to my mother who always had an open mind. I tried to explain science to her. At each stage in my career my mother would say, “Yayia el Elm” (“science be praised!”).

Who inspired you during your studies?

In 1967, after completing my first degree at the University of Tunis, I was given a fellowship from the Tunisian government with the cooperation of the French government to study atomic spectroscopy in Paris. In Paris I was in another world – in the world of atoms, of stars, of cells, of scientists! Every Tuesday I would attend lectures on quantum mechanics by Claude Cohen-Tannoudgi. He was a great teacher, who would guide you step by step into the world of the atom. Atomic physics seemed crystal clear when you listened to him. Abdus Salam was another Nobel laureate I admired. He created the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, where research physicists from developing countries can study alongside fellow scientists in a stimulating atmosphere and with the use of a well-resourced library. I have benefited a lot from the Centre.

What made you decide to return to Tunisia?

My husband – who is also a physicist – and I both had job offers in France, and were tempted to continue our careers there. But we chose to return to our country in spite of the fact that it lacked a scientific environment. It was hard, but we do not regret our decision. One of my career objectives is to contribute to the national needs of Tunisia, including the need for well trained people in our universities and better facilities for research. We have to be where we are most useful.

What dreams do you have of what science might achieve in future?

I am grateful for what science has already brought to people's lives. My mother had open-heart surgery, and her life was saved. There are no borders in science, people are equal: scientists are not separated by color, gender, religion, or money.

In future, nothing should be impossible. I long to build a center for optics and photonics for African research scientists in Tunisia, just like the Trieste center. But I also have wilder dreams – of using science to control the climate, to create rain, make deserts fertile, and to get drinking water cheaply from sea water.

Finally, what words of advice might you offer to aspiring physicists – particularly young women – in developing countries?

Be aware of the importance of culture; be open-minded as a scientist and as a person. Seek independence. Understand how important it is to be a responsible citizen. Be of good heart and be confident.

Acknowledgement: With thanks to L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science for use of interview material incorporated in the above.

Tunisia: encouraging scientists to use IP
The number of Tunisian patent applications is rising. The Tunisian government has welcomed this trend as evidence of the impact of national measures designed to encourage research and innovation, and to spread greater awareness of the IP system among research institutions.


The Tunisian presidential program (2004 – 2009) highlights the need to strengthen research and innovation in order to meet future challenges; and flags the importance of solid incentives to stimulate and protect inventions. The government target for investment in research and development is set to reach 1.25 percent of GDP by 2009.

“Towards a Patent Culture,” a campaign launched by the Ministry of Scientific Research, Technology and Competency Development (MRSTDC) in 2004, is teaching scientists how to protect their research results. The Ministry also offers practical and financial assistance to scientists to enable them to submit patent applications, both nationally and internationally.

Another new training program by the Ministry will aim to create a pool of experts in the drafting of patent applications and of technology transfer contracts. Meanwhile, the Tunisian Industrial Property Office (INNORPI) has created an online patent database, to encourage the active exploitation of patent information.

Tunisian participation in WIPO’s University Initiative has resulted in the opening of an IP documentation center in the Borj Cédria Science and Technology Park. 

Filing facts
  • INNORPI receives approximately 250 patent applications per year, of which 80 percent are from non residents.
  • Applications filed by Tunisian publicly funded researchers has risen from zero in 1990 to 20 in 2005.
  • Among applications by Tunisian residents, approximately 13 percent are currently filed by research institutions; 22 percent by businesses; and 65 percent by individuals.

Some recent successes: the Tunisian Institute for Arid Regions has patented a diffuser for the underground irrigation of trees, vegetables and other plants. The Sfax Biotechnology Centre has patented a means of isolating a specific micro-organism for use in a bio-insecticide. Since Tunisia’s accession to the Patent Cooperation Treaty in 2001, both institutes have filed international applications via the PCT.

Sources: MRSTDC and INNORPI, November 2005.

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