Dr Abir Nasir


As a little girl, Dr Abir Nasir dreamed of becoming a scientist. Her “highest ambition” she says, was to be hard at work in a lab, concentrating on research that would be useful to others. Like so many of her chemistry loving peers, she wanted to emulate her heroine, the French-Polish chemist Marie Curie, whose stories, and brave adventures in chemistry she had devoured in the children’s science magazines her father gave her to read. 

Nasir excelled in chemistry and gained an undergraduate and graduate degree in Physical Chemistry at the University of Aleppo. While studying, she assisted in the lab, tutored undergraduates, and taught chemistry at a local secondary school. Her future research plans included looking at the pharmacological properties of medicinal plants. When the demonstrations began in Syria in 2011, she was a year into her doctoral programme at Aleppo with a recently published paper on plant dyes. She had already started defining some differential chemical properties of various Anise plants and developed novel extraction methods for separating carbon from wild cherry stones.

Like so many of her fellow Syrians, she was utterly unprepared for Aleppo to slip into a four-year siege, for the 30,000 dead, the shelling and violence, and for the abrupt loss and uprooting from the life that her family, her friends and her neighbours had known. Hoping it wouldn’t be long before they returned, Nasir’s family fled to the city of Hatay in Turkiye, a province with a significant and historic Syrian presence, only two hours west of Aleppo. She secured a part-time job teaching sciences and Arabic at a school for Syrian refugee children, which she thought of as temporary. She didn’t commit to learning Turkish, firm in her belief of an imminent return to Syria but one day, she says, she finally surrendered to the realities of her situation, although in no way an abandonment of her need to keep the flame of her ambition alive.  

She was a mother, a wife and a teacher, but she was also a scientist. She began learning Turkish and, with her determination and confidence returning, started looking for doctoral programmes and scholarship opportunities in Analytical Chemistry. It was a journey that would require immense self-belief. The family moved from Hatay to Antakya where Nasir again secured full-time work, this time teaching chemistry and Arabic at the Orient Schools.

Despite her first round of PhD applications meeting with rejections, her perseverance was finally rewarded with an invitation to an interview from the University of Mersin, in southern Türkiye. Her husband drove her for the six-hour journey from Antakya, but they arrived late, only to be told by the receptionist that she had missed her interview slot: “I don’t know where I got the courage to do this,” she says, “but I knocked on the committee’s door and explained that I was supposed to be being interviewed and that I lived in Antakya, which was hours away. In the end, I was allowed to do the interview with an interpreter to support me. It went very well, and I ended up being offered a scholarship!”

The scholarship was conditional on her doing a one-year Turkish language pre-sessional in Mersin to improve her Turkish before starting her doctoral programme, but her husband had reservation about relocating the entire family again. Having established a business in Antakya selling IT and mobile phones, he was concerned that moving to Mersin, a larger and more competitive city, would jeopardise their finances. Nasir contacted the scholarship committee to explain her conundrum, and, to her surprise, they agreed to her remaining in Antakya to study Turkish for that preliminary year.

Although the three-day a week Turkish language course would make it impossible for Nasir to continue her teaching responsibilities, the school’s headmaster refused her resignation. He was not prepared to lose such a good teacher: “We will make sure that all the classes you teach are squeezed into your two free days.”

Learning Turkish didn’t come naturally to Nasir. She recalls that almost all the other students in her classes were younger than her and included a few of her own school students. Other pressures such as the needs of a growing family, housework, homework, and teaching preparation meant that most nights she didn’t get to bed until two in the morning: “I had three children and, although I was physically tired, I did not feel that emotionally tired or burdened.” However, at the end of that year, the same tensions arose over the move to Mersin.

This time Nasir contacted her new PhD supervisor who agreed that she need only attend Thursday classes.  Every Wednesday, she travelled by coach to Mersin, where she rented a room with fellow female students, and returned the next day, her husband collecting her at midnight from the bus station.

Despite all the challenges, in 2021, five years after the family’s forced migration from Syria, Nasir graduated with a PhD in Analytical Chemistry. Her father attended her viva where she defended her thesis on multi-method extraction of essential oils from the tiny and ubiquitous Pimpinella anisum seed and how the presence of the anethol and its isomers in the essential oils leads to its antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties.  She has continued that research whenever she has had the opportunity and, in 2019 received a Turkish Scholarship Ministry (TBBS) award for ‘best research’ and, in 2021, co-authored a literature review on all the extraction methods of different Pimpinella species from 2003 to 2020. 

After graduating, Nasir secured temporary contracts at Mustafa Kemal University in the Faculty of Chemistry labs. There, and then at the Fayhaa Institute, she taught experimental and analytical methods. Later, as a Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Council (TUBITAK) funded researcher, she undertook qualitative and quantitative analysis of veterinary drugs and wastewater treatment. This last ended in 2022, leaving her without academic affiliation.

Having attended the very first Cara Syria Programme workshop in Istanbul in 2017, Nasir was forced to step back due to other commitments, rejoining in 2020 as a member of a study team that successfully applied for a Syria Programme research grant.  She has been instrumental in the data analysis for this study on household energy practices in refugee camps in the non-regime northwest of Syria, looking to gauge air pollution levels and resulting health impacts caused by limited fuel choices. In line with the Syria Programme ‘partnering’ model, the study team benefited from the support of two mentors, Dr Monica Mateo Garcia, Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Built Environment, Birmingham City University and Dr Neil Simcock, Senior Lecturer in Geography, Liverpool John Moores University.

In 2021, she joined a second Cara Syria Programme study team to explore professional development needs amongst faculty from the two main universities to have emerged in northwest Syria since 2015 – Free Aleppo University (FAU) and Sham University – under the co-mentorship of Dr Tom Parkinson from the University of Kent and Dr Debi Marais from the University of Warwick. Although a departure from her field of analytical chemistry, this qualitative research was close to her heart. It demonstrated the absence of, and need for, professional development provision to support career progression for all those who chose to teach and sustain access to higher education in this still fragile, conflict-affected area, to which over 3 million Syrians have been internally displaced by the crisis. 

More recently, Nasir has developed an online platform for teaching chemistry to young people. With over 16 years of experience teaching chemistry to school and university students, she has undoubtedly planted the seeds of the love of chemistry in hundreds, perhaps thousands of Syrian and Turkish children. As a scientist with over a decade of lab experience, Nasir has never lost sight of her ultimate dream to continue her education and research journey in a prestigious university, exploring her ideas with great researchers, surrounded by her students. Indefatigable, she feels it is not a question of “if” but rather “when”.