Omar Villalpando/ Staff GREATER THAN THE SUM OF HER PARTS — Dr. Nouna Bakhiet is a DNA scientist but no reductionist. She encourages students to remake themselves into learned, potent beings who can advance human knowledge. Bakhiet was honored by her peers as the recipent of the 2012 Faculty Leadership Award.
By: Albert H. Fulcher, Senior Staff Writer
Published: Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 at 10:15 pm
In the California deserts, lizards with heavy scales bask at the top of ravines to warm in the sun. Living in the dark, wet climate below are lizards smooth and sleek. Though different, they are the same species—a biological adaptation. Many spend their lives wandering up and down the ravines to mate, continuing the chain of life of a species not concerned with of the differences in their biological appearance.
Dr. Nouna Bakhiet loves metaphor. She also loves teaching science.
Beginning her journey in the hot desert sun of Sudan, Bakhiet, professor of biology, said her inner life is that of the wandering lizard.
“It’s all in the DNA,” she said. “There is an inherent nature for all populations that some of that population will venture away from that natural habitat. We are designed to do this so that we could populate the earth.”
Bakhiet wandered from the expected path. She was an accomplished research scientist in a modern day laboratory doing meaningful work. She came to Southwestern College in 1997 to work as an adjunct by night and lab rat by day. Her students won her heart and she left the lab for a professorship at a college that needed a new direction. Bakhiet was the first Ph.D. in the biology department when she was hired full-time in 1999. Her research colleagues did not understand her decision to walk away from a more lucrative career to teach.
“Really, my calling, my talent, my nature is embedded in what I do here at Southwestern College,” said Bakhiet. “This is who I am. This is what I was meant to do. I was able to bring all of my experience, inside or outside of the classroom or inside or outside of the lab and lay it at the student’s feet.”
Bakhiet is the recipient of the 2012 Faculty Leadership Award, chosen by her peers for her innovative teaching, grant writing and program creation. Nominated by Professor of Journalism Max Branscomb, he called Bakhiet a campus revolutionary who not only thinks outside the box, but destroys them.
“Dr. Bakhiet rocks her students’ world right down to the foundations and challenges them to throw off their old selves and become something greater,” he wrote. “Many of SWC’s best and highest achieving students of the new millennium were her students or are alumni of the programs she has created, inspired and fed over the past decade.”
More than just a teacher, Bakhiet is faculty advisor for the Biology Club and active in SWC’s Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Program, directed by her sister, Dr. Raga Bahkiet. She designed curriculum as academic director of the biotechnology program providing teaching and mentoring for students, whether seeking a technical certificate or a full college education in biotechnology. She led the Bridges to the Future program collaboration between SWC and SDSU for underrepresented minority students seeking a future in biomedical research.
As head of internships for BETSI (Biotechnology Education and Training Sequence Investment), she began with a grant from the National Science Foundation. BETSI is now a national model that produces a 100 percent hiring rate of SWC students completing internships within the industry.
“We are the DNA people,” she said. “We are the ones that change, modify, and turn off and on DNA. The next level up from DNA is cells, which is our tool. At the training level here, we work only with bacterial cells. Students get the opportunity to work with mammalian cells in internships and hires.”
Bakhiet said the community college is the most basic teaching system she ever experienced, unique to America with a financially logical path for students. Community colleges have the same caliber of teachers as a four-year-universities, she said, but community college teachers that have more time to teach and spend considerably more time with their students.
“I have always known that I had the ability to teach and wanted to train myself to become a mentor,” she said. “I could be a holistic teacher, not just in the classroom but to anyone that walks in my office. I could leave them with something that would help them as well.”
Branscomb said her blend of Eastern and Western thinking embraces the communal learning system of Asian and African cultures with the individualistic and creative characteristics of the American system.
“Without trying to be noticed she is noticed,” he said. “Without putting herself in the limelight she is watched. Without striving to be out front, she leads. She is an indispensable part of the fabric of our college.”
Born in Khartoum, Sudan, Bakhiet said her wandering nature makes her comfortable living just about anywhere. She always sought people that were different from her she said, and confirmed to nothing. Her culture is a human culture, she said, not any restrictive labels or boxes.
One-half Saudi, a quarter Turkish and a quarter Sudanese, Bakhiet is part of the green people of the Sudan. Her features and color are common in the northern region. Sudanese language has no reference to black or white in regards to race. People of the nation are blue, yellow, green and red.
“I am green because I am a mix,” she said. “The blue people are the indigenous tribes of the Sudan. They are so dark they look purple in the sun.”
She said the yellow people carry the skin tones similar to Mexicans, Asians and Indians. Red is for Caucasians, the color they turn in the Sudanese sun.
Bakhiet spent her early years traveling and studying throughout the Middle East and Britain. Her native tongue is Arabic, but she was brought up to speak English and French. Her parents raised their children to be trilingual and able to live and thrive in an English-speaking country.
Sudan, a long time British colony, adopted the British educational system with a 10-year primary school and three-year universities. Her parent’s wandering culture took her education from the Sudan to England, where she earned her Certificate of Education (GCO) at the University of London. Her father’s work in irrigation engineering took the family to Libya where Bakhiet earned her first bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Tripoli.
While in Libya, her mother, only 51, died of breast cancer. Bakhiet said this is why she eventually moved into breast cancer research.
“On her deathbed, I sat next to her and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to do something about this someday’,” she said.
A short time after, her father died suddenly from a heart attack. Her family had already decided that she would take her younger sister to America. In 1980, with a sponsorship from American teachers who taught in Libya, they moved to Iowa.
At the University of Iowa Bakhiet earned a second bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a dual Ph.D. in micro and molecular biology. Though she was academically accomplished at a young age, she said she did not believe she had the life experience to become a teacher, her ultimate goal.
Bakhiet chose to do three post-doctorate tours. At UC Davis, University of Loma Linda and San Diego’s Sanford Burnham Institute she moved from microbiology to breast cancer research. She studied breast cancer for four and a half years and contributed to the creation of mixed drug cocktails used to treat breast cancer today.
Her gift for science blends seamlessly with her gift for teaching. Once she offered sage advice to Har Gobind Khorana of India, Nobel Prize recipient in 1968 for his “interpretation of the genetic code and its function in protein synthesis.” He received a quick tutorial in teaching from Bakhiet one day at a conference she attended with students at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Before the conference she saw Khorana sitting alone looking over the ocean. To her surprise, he motioned her over and confessed he was concerned about having community college and high school students in his audience. He had only ever spoken to post-graduates and professors.
“So how do I talk to them?” he wondered.
“I told him to tell them a story,” Bakhiet said. “There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Bakhiet said out of a folder of 300 slides of very high complex biochemistry work, Khorana picked 33 and gave his lecture.
“I then knew why he was a Nobel Prize winner,” she said. “Because it was a story, everyone understood it. Students asked questions and relayed it after we came back. It was a work of art.”
“Insights from a Wandering Lizard,” Bakhiet’s philosophical book of whimsical colloquialisms, evokes Mark Twain and Ramakrishna. East and West blend like Turkish curry.
“We, the wandering lizards, are the heroes of new memes,” Bakhiet wrote. “We strike out and away from tradition. We create what is different; we dare to live beyond what is known. We are human revolutions.”
“Woman without traditions,” she asserts, can create a brighter way of life.
She wrote the words, and then created the art from a Buddha board her sister gave her. Drawing on water, the picture disappears as the water evaporates.
“This is supposed to teach you impermanence,” she said. “However, being Western influenced, I took a picture of it. All of the drawings in the book were done in five minutes or less.”
She dedicated her book to President Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, because she is from Kansas, married a man from Kenya and then a man from Indonesia.
“She is definitely a wandering lizard,” she said. “Socially, she wasn’t looking around her to fulfill her social life. She was looking way beyond that.”
Embargos and sanctions against the government of Sudan left Bakhiet’s American citizenship application languishing for years. Finally, in November 2010, Bakhiet became an American lizard. Returning to Sudan was never an option, she said. Despite some progress and many highly educated-women, the culture remains male-dominated.
“It doesn’t work for me,” she said. “I may be different from most Americans because I don’t have its culture, but I am an alien from outer space in Sudan. I would be very different in the Middle East, being a woman that has her own mind.”
Bakhiet said she studied her choices carefully in life, but with no “baggage” to bring with her, she feels free and accepted. Her inner freedom fuels innovation. Research is her passion, but teaching is her talent and she had to answer the call.
“Talent will not let you rest.”