Personal Story - Najib El-Sayed (CBMG Professor)

The following paragraph contains a reference to explosions. Your discretion is advised.

I was born to an airline pilot and a social worker/political activist in Lebanon, land of the cedars and a crossroad of civilizations. I grew up in Ras Beirut – a tip of Beirut nestled between the Pigeon rocks and the old lighthouse – in a waterfront house with an open view of the Mediterranean sea. Behind me, was a country where many civilizations from the Phoenicians to the Ottomans to the French left their deep marks on its culture and cuisine. And yet Lebanon was torn by a Civil war as its people searched for an identity. It was therefore not uncommon for me to study by candlelight, in a windowless hallway turned into bomb shelter, while ignoring the hours of nighttime shelling or the occasional gunfight in the neighboring streets. I knew that as long as it was calm by sunrise, that class or that exam was still on. The stunning campus of the American University of Beirut (AUB), where I majored in Biology and Environmental Health, was a 10-minute walk from home. It became a sanctuary for me and for what seemed to be an entire generation that sought refuge in higher education. It was at AUB that I discovered a passion for microbiology and parasitology.


With one suitcase in hand and a shrapnel in the knee, I came to the U.S. in 1985 to study parasitology at Tulane. New Orleans welcomed me with Cajun cuisine and jazz; and beignets became a favorite midnight snack since I lived a few blocks from the French Quarter (The Crescent City remains my favorite city in the US!). I then spent five years in New Haven where I continued my training in molecular parasitology and met Jocelyn (who became my wife) who was working on her Master’s in Public Health. We headed together to the rolling hills of Iowa where she attended medical school, I trained as a post-doc, and we started a family. The next move was determined by an algorithm: Jocelyn matched at Johns Hopkins for her residency and Maryland would be our destination. I joined the Institute for Genomics Research (TIGR) in Rockville MD where I spent 9 spectacular years as the genomics revolution was unraveling. We grew our family with the arrival of twin boys in 2002. A few years later, I moved my lab to the University of Maryland, where it has been a joy and a privilege to work with brilliant colleagues, see and help students grow, and continue to make impactful contributions to science.


Forty years after immigrating to the US, my deepest roots lie here. I embrace with vigor my role of husband and father and much of the joy in my life comes from spending time with family and friends. I have also always been a scientist at heart. The principle that society should be based on reason, facts, universal truths, and humanity, has been a guiding theme in my life. I am apparently also becoming a tree hugger. A few years ago, we planted 300 trees in our backyard. Nowadays, I spend hours pruning and ‘curating’ that forest and deriving a lot of joy doing so. In the last 3 years, a barn swallow has often accompanied me for hours as I move from one tree to another. I wonder who he is…