Sciences, Engineering Dean Hassan El-Fawal: AUC is an Educational Oasis
Hassan El-Fawal, new dean of the School of Sciences and Engineering, brings with him not only a wealth of academic knowledge and administrative experience, but is also a living embodiment of the liberal arts philosophy that is a cornerstone of AUC.
“We pride ourselves at AUC for having a liberal arts tradition, and, to a great extent, I’ve been involved in that tradition in my own academic career. It’s central to my educational approach,” said El-Fawal. “So when you ask, ‘Why come to AUC? Why come to the School of Sciences and Engineering?’ I see in the individual programs and faculty interests new opportunities for the enrichment of students, as well as interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary study.”
For El-Fawal, his success stories are the successes of his students. “I’ve always believed that education is really about opportunities and not necessarily about a specific field,” he stated. His advice to students: “Think beyond your discipline.”
He explained that the liberal arts education benefits students both personally and professionally. “Your own life becomes enriched, and you learn through those interactions,” he said. “But also, one of the things that industrial leaders will tell you is that they are not interested in simply the person who has the technical or research skills. They want the person with entrepreneurial and communication skills.”
El-Fawal’s focus for the School of Sciences and Engineering is finding a path for interdisciplinary collaboration for both students and faculty members. “My personality is such that I always like building things,” said El-Fawal. “I see a wonderful foundation in the School of Sciences and Engineering that mirrors a lot of what I am interested in building. I want to create a pipeline for communication, interaction and collaboration between students, researchers and departments within the school and with the other schools,” he explained.
One of El-Fawal’s goals is to come up with a new mission statement that reflects the strengths of the school and AUC. “We have regional expertise and researchers who are internationally respected in their fields, and I want to facilitate communication among them. Then we can translate what we have into something with global impact,” he noted. “I see AUC as being equally competitive as institutions in the mainland United States.”
Originally born in Egypt, El-Fawal grew up in the United States, but moved back to Egypt to finish high school and attend university. At the University of Alexandria, El-Fawal studied in the agriculture school and had nearly completed his degree when he encountered a new academic interest that would shape the rest of his life. “Even though I majored in entomology and pesticide chemistry, it was in my senior year that I took a course in toxicology and discovered a love for neuroscience and toxicology,” he recalled.
After graduating, El-Fawal returned to the United States. “I spent close to two years at Cornell University kind of reinventing myself in that I took a lot of courses in pharmacology, toxicology and neuroscience because it was an area that I found really fascinating,” he said.
El-Fawal had a comfortable position working for a pharmaceutical company, but he couldn’t ignore his interest in toxicology, which examines the harmful effects of chemicals on living organisms, and pharmacology, which looks at the therapeutic effects of drugs on living systems. “Finally, I bit the bullet and decided to do my master’s degree,” he said.
El-Fawal moved to Canada to attend the University of Guelph. “I earned a master’s there in biomedical sciences, specifically pharmacology and more specifically neuropharmacology and immune pharmacology,” he said. “So I developed not only a love of the nervous system, but also a love of the immune system, which reflects upon some of the work I currently do.”
Despite the abrupt change to his academic path, El-Fawal doesn’t regret any of the time he spent studying other fields. “I’ve always been brought up with the idea that education is really a license to explore,” he said. “Even though you may choose a discipline, it’s a wide open door, and you shouldn’t limit yourself.”
El-Fawal went on to do his PhD at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech), examining neurodegenerative diseases, particularly those precipitated by environmental chemicals. After his PhD, he went to the New York University Medical Center Institute of Environmental Medicine and conducted research to understand how environmental factors can cause disease.
While this research seems very niched, El-Fawal pointed out, “It actually opens a lot of doors.”
He went on to explain that his work necessitated an interdisciplinary approach, “You have to, of course, be a biologist and chemist, but you also have to work with engineers to develop monitoring and sensing systems, and to be involved in public health,” he said. “You have to understand the environmental aspects, which involve social and communication issues, particularly when dealing with clinical studies and educating the public on public health concerns.”
In the United States, for example, minority communities are disproportionately affected by negative industrial and environmental exposure, and not all researchers have effective communication strategies and cultural knowledge. “Scientists need to be trained to deal with the community,” indicated El-Fawal. “In traditional training, many of us lack the ability to talk to the average person on the street.”
Because of the multidisciplinary nature of his research, El-Fawal has taught across a variety of topics over the years, including environmental ethics and biochemistry, and has advised students in many disciplines, including psychology and the social sciences.
While at New York University, El-Fawal was approached by Mercy College, which was interested in developing health professions programs. He consulted for Mercy College and advised them in creating physical and occupational therapy programs. In 1994, he helped launch the first graduate program there.
In 1996, El-Fawal joined Mercy College full time as director of the Science and Technology Initiative, associate dean and then dean of Natural Sciences and Veterinary Technology and director of the Environmental Health and Safety Program. He helped launch several more programs, including speech pathology and continued to teach in a wide range of subjects.
El-Fawal was then recruited by Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Science to help diversify their programs and became founding chair of the Department of Health Science as well as founding dean of the School of Health Science. During his years at Albany, El-Fawal helped launch successful graduate programs in biotechnology, health outcomes research and informatics, and diagnostic sciences. All attracted a large number of students, domestic and international, to the school’s programs, he noted.
Today, El-Fawal hopes to build on the foundation that AUC has created as the top University in Egypt. “At AUC, we are an educational oasis,” El-Fawal observed. “One of the things an oasis provides you is not just a sanctuary, but a place to launch the next part of your journey. I see a great interest in environmental and health issues, so the questions that I will work with my colleagues in defining is, ‘What is our next trip? Where do we go from here?”