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STAR Scholar Q&A with Ejaz Momen and Professor Lloyd Ackert

November 08, 2016

Ejaz Momen, Politics '20, has a very full schedule, including an accelerated BA-JD with Drexel University’s School of Law, minors in Arabic and History, and keeping up with his favorite British television shows (imports only – no substitutions!). But in addition to all of his scholarly work, Ejaz took his first summer at Drexel University to participate in the STAR Scholars program with Lloyd Ackert, PhD.

We caught up with Ejaz and Professor Ackert to chat about their STAR Summer, Ejaz’s project on the “father of modern chemistry” Jabir ibn Hayyan, and their thoughts on interdisciplinary research and the researcher’s path.

Q: Ejaz, tell us about your STAR Research Project – give us the “elevator pitch” for your research.

A: In this work, I examined the historical origins of modern scientific methodology – in particular, that based on systematic, organized, laboratory experimentation, as it developed in the field of alchemy (the precursor to our modern field of chemistry). Central to this story is the alchemical works of the ninth century Abbasid alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber). I analyzed Jabir’s techniques for chemical experimentation (including calcination, sublimation, etc.) as well as his methodological framework and its emphasis on experimentation – a new practice in the field of science at the time. Jabir’s practice of alchemy – for example, the transmutation of base metals into gold – were based on the theory that, by understanding the nature of a particular substance, one could “perfect” or “purify” that substance into its most divine form.

Crucial to this story is how scientists, whether ancient or modern, translate broad philosophical and religious holistic worldviews of nature into practical laboratory investigations. For example, Jabir saw no division between the study of the natural and the supernatural worlds; he sought to divine the character of the supernatural world through learning about the workings of the world around him. Jabir’s alchemical works show an attempt to reconcile esoteric Islamic occultism, orthodox Islamic theology and Aristotelian theory through the development of modern laboratory methods.

Q: What was the most interesting finding from the research you conducted?

A: What was most interesting to me was to see the progressive development of the scientific method, and the rise of objective, observation-based methodology from very non-objective, mystical motivations and origins. I also enjoyed seeing the intersection of theology, occultism, philosophy and science in alchemy, as well as the relationship between Sunni, Shia and classical Greek schools of thought in the historical development of Islamic doctrine, faith and worship.

Q: Professor Ackert, how did Ejaz’ project overlap with your own research?

A: I am currently researching and writing a history of holistic views of nature, such as the Cycle of Life, from the 18th-20th century.  Working through the mode of scientific biography, I investigate how scientists translate broad holistic perspectives simultaneously into field and laboratory methods. This story reveals that the history of ecology is best told in the language of metaphor, technique and exploration. Ejaz Momen applied his research interests in Islamic culture to my STARs research project on a history of holistic views of nature.

In our collaboration, he explored a range of issues—historical, methodological, linguistic and scientific—through a careful study of the 9th century alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber). In this work, Ejaz discovered the History of Science, a discipline new to him. His entry into the project came in the form of Jabir’s alchemical writings on the transmutation of metals, which he contextualized with readings of secondary sources, especially in the history of chemistry. Of the many surprises—for both Ejaz and myself—the most important was that Jabir’s chemical works reflect an attempt to reconcile multiple intellectual traditions through the development of laboratory methods.

Q: Ejaz, what was it like to be a part of the STAR Scholars program? Were you at all intimidated by the research task?

A: This was a valuable experience. It was of high benefit indeed to get such hands-on research experience. I admit I was intimidated initially, as this was my first real experience with independent research (and since I chose a rather challenging topic), but I quickly found my footing, thanks to Professor Ackert’s able support.

Q: Professor Ackert, how did you approach your mentor role for this project? You are a professor of History and the director of Drexel's Emerging Scholars Program, which is interdisciplinary. Was it challenging to mentor a politics major through a History of Science project?

A: Actually, I first met Ejaz when he was applying to the Emerging Scholars Program. His interest in this undeclared major in the humanities and social sciences reflects his curiosity and drive to study a wide range of subjects. After deciding to pursue a BA/JD degree in political science, Ejaz expressed this curiosity by selecting my research project in History of Science for his STARs Scholarship.  History of Science is by definition interdisciplinary—that is, it studies science in its multiple contexts: cultural, social, political, religious and of course, historical.

The best mentorship is at heart a negotiation, and Ejaz arrived with an enthusiasm for several areas of study, especially Islamic culture, Political Science and Arabic language. I am investigating how holistic views of nature, such as the 'Cycle of Life,’ over the 18th-20th centuries eventually contributed to the science of ecology. After several discussions, Ejaz and I agreed that he would conduct a careful study of Jabir ibn Hayyan. It was clear that Jabir, like my 19th century scientists, was finding ways to express his holistic view of nature into laboratory methodology. In telling Jabir’s story, Ejaz succeeded in integrating his multiple interests: Arabic translation, religious studies and history of science, particularly chemistry. If I am proud of one thing, it is that our collaboration on this scientific biography demonstrates that history is often best told in the language of metaphor, technique and exploration.

Q: Ejaz, would you recommend the STAR experience to other students? Why or why not?

A: Yes, I very much would recommend the STAR experience to other students. It is a great way to get first-hand experience in independent research and scholarship. Every step of the research process – from identifying and developing a topic, to gathering and evaluating sources, to making notes, to actually writing the paper – was carried out very much independently, while still under the guiding hand of an experienced mentor. This is an experience which I would recommend to any students who are serious about pursuing a career in or even just exploring academia.

Q: Finally, has your STAR research experience affected your choice of career path? Do you look forward to continuing with research, or has this experience informed your career planning in other ways?

A: Yes, this experience has left an impression on me, and has very much informed the career path which I would like to pursue. Aside from the romance of pursuing a career in research, pushing the limits of collected human knowledge and so on, I love research because I like molding my own tasks. I also like working in a context wherein I can be motivated by my own desire to learn and understand. A career in research would allow me to do all this, and it was through STAR Scholars that I came to not only learn this, but learn the methods and protocol for conducting and presenting research.