Lebanese University Prof Makes Her Mark on Physics Lab
By: Faten Elhajj
Published Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Before Wafa Noon’s grandfather died, she asked him a question: If you could turn back time, what would you do differently? The man, a peasant farmer, replied without equivocation: I wouldn’t change a thing. I have never upset God or my family. I have served people and never harmed them.
Her grandfather did not regret a single action in his long life, despite difficult conditions in his village of Harabta in the Bekaa Valley. Wafa aims to do the same.
Her students at the Lebanese University, where Wafa is a professor of quantum physics, recently decided to honor her. For Noon, the highlight of the ceremony was when she heard that “for the first time, everyone from all sects agreed on the same person.”
Wafa is proud that she has been able to quell students’ fears when it comes to physics. During class, she teaches scientific logic and then has the students put it into practice in the lab. She is direct with them: “There is no stupid question, there is only a stupid answer.”
This is what she learned from her own teacher and scientific patron, Hussein Zughayb, who recently retired from the university. The pencil is the secret weapon. Her teacher always used one and said to her: “When you write and rub it out, you learn how to read between the lines and think in a meticulous scientific way. The rule is that nothing is constant, everything changes and develops.” She is convinced that a good professor is one who turns out students better than himself.
It is not a coincidence that in 2009 Noon chose to teach exclusively at the same university where she once studied. As for the recent controversy at Lebanese University on their policy for giving (or not giving) professors tenure, Wafa says she rejects the university’s mantra of “Come to us and we will give you a full time job. This is my right. It is not a gift for them to bestow on me.”
“It is my duty, not just my right,” she says, “to raise my voice, even if it falls on deaf ears.”
When she became outspoken on the issue, many asked her why she was being so “combative.” But not her parents. Growing up, Noon acquired a sense of national identity. When asked at school in Baalbeck to which sect she belonged, she didn’t know the answer. Her father told her to reply: “We are believers.”
But this is not what she told an official at the National Council for Scientific Research when she was applying for a scholarship to study abroad. She introduced herself very clearly: “I am a Shia from the Bekaa.”
Throughout her childhood, mathematics and physics were her two favorite subjects. She believes that there is currently a lack of guidance in secondary education. She admits that she wanted to prove to herself and others that science was not the preserve of men. This idea was prevalent, she says, but she was never that upset by the men’s reactions. What she could not fathom was the women’s feelings of inferiority.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.