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Iraqi pioneer shares expertise during one-year visiting professorship

Saba Adnan Gheni stands between the columns in front of Jesse Hall.

Saba Adnan Gheni is teaching at Mizzou with a one-year appointment in the Chemical Engineering Department. Gheni served as the first female president of an Iraqi university before coming to Mizzou. Photo by Shelby Kardell

Saba Adnan Gheni’s office is simple but bright. White walls are adorned with a few hanged items. A large window overlooks Sixth Street, and students converge in the hallway outside waiting to talk to other professors. She’s only occupied the room for about a week at this point, having just relocated from the office she was assigned last January, and the room gives few clues to the accomplishments of the visiting professor.

A native of Tikrit, Iraq, Gheni’s yearlong appointment at MU is with the Chemical Engineering Department. Her research focuses on reactor design, the hydrodynamics of chemical reactions and chemical safety and security, a field that, in Iraq, means designing labs, facilities, reactors and more while keeping in mind the imminent threat of terrorism.

The visiting professorship is Gheni’s third stint living in Missouri — her first as an educator — and the first position she’s held after stepping down as the first female president of an Iraqi university in the country’s history.

Teaching runs in her family. Her father is an English teacher in Tikrit, and her mother teaches Arabic. Her two older sisters are professors at universities in Iraq, and her younger brother is studying at the Missouri University of Science and Technology to be a professor in civil engineering. But, Gheni said, her appointment to lead the University of Tikrit was bittersweet for her family.

“It made them sad because having that position made me a [terrorist] target,” she said.

When Islamic militants led a campaign seizing territory in northern Iraq last spring, Gheni said it was only a matter of time before Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, came under fire. The group advanced on Tikrit after June 12, 2014.

“I didn’t leave the university because I had students in the dorms, and facilities and property that couldn’t be left behind,” she said. “I said, let’s start processing the papers, but I cannot leave just yet.” She also stayed in contact with military leaders to help Iraqi government forces establish a stronghold in the university.

After Iraqi military forces gained control of the university on June 26, 2014, Gheni fled to a town north of Tikrit, where she established a temporary campus.

With funding from the International Institute of Education, and assisted by Mizzou Chemical Engineering Department Chairman Baolin Deng and administrative assistant Tammie Winkler and Missouri S&T Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Department Chairman Muthanna H. Al-Dahhan, Gheni left Iraq on Jan. 12, 2015. Iraqi government forces eventually regained control of the city, but not until April 2015.

Teaching in Tikrit

One of six siblings, Gheni graduated high school at the top of her class, and wanted to pursue medicine.

“The economy was an issue,” Gheni said. “My father asked me to stay in Tikrit [for college]. There was no medical college, so I went to the college of engineering.

She perused the disciplines offered by her engineering school and chose chemical engineering, a move that surprised the chairman of that department.

“The chair of chemical engineering was surprised I chose them over civil engineering, which was the top program at the university. But I told them chemical was what I was most interested in.”

She continued at the University of Tikrit through graduate school, earning her bachelor’s degree in 1996 and her master’s degree in 1998. After graduation, she went to work for Northern Fertilizers Company in Tikrit. Her chemical engineering background allowed her to rise to the head of the inspection department, where she stayed until 2001.

“I witnessed all these dramatic changes in Iraq, and in 2004 the circumstances allowed me to pursue my Ph.D.,” Gheni said.

She came to the United States that year to pursue a joint-research doctorate at Missouri S&T (then-University of Missouri-Rolla) under the tutelage of Al-Dahhan with Chemical Engineering Department at University of Technology in Iraq. While working on her doctorate, Gheni’s research focused on reactor design and kinetics. She also honed the skills she gained in industry to specialize in chemical safety and security and graduated from Missouri S&T in 2006.

After graduation, she returned to the University of Tikrit, this time as an educator, and was named head of its Chemical Engineering Department in 2009. In 2012, she was one of 13 awardees of the Iraqi Science Fellowship Program, which enabled her to work alongside Al-Dahhan at Missouri S&T for six months. During that time, Gheni said, she attended many conferences and workshops on reactor engineering and hydrodynamics of reactors.

Gheni was appointed the University of Tikrit’s vice president for scientific affairs in 2013. She was appointed president of the university in January 2014.

Though only president for a short time, she was able to oversee areas of the university that affected student life and faculty development.

“My role was to develop the curriculum, the IT infrastructure and the training of teachers,” she said. She also helped develop what was called the Central Lab of Research, which was a model lab designed specifically for chemical safety and security. That lab was destroyed in the siege.

Gheni began teaching Advanced Mass Transfer to doctoral students at Mizzou this spring. She also continues to collaborate with Missouri S&T by helping the chemical engineering department there organize materials needed for ABET review and reaccreditation. Gheni will start teaching two courses of polymer materials and chemical process safety and professional ethics to undergraduate students through the Fall 2015 semester. After which, she plans to return to Tikrit, where she remains on the faculty at her home university, to rebuild the programs and aid in the redevelopment of labs at the university there.

She also is working with the U.S. Department of State and Sandia National Laboratories to further Iraqi scientists’ knowledge of chemical safety. She plans to attend a global meeting on the topic in Washington D.C. in May to agree on a certain plan of actions to improve chemical safety and security in Iraq.

“One of my dreams is how can I apply everything I’ve learned in Columbia to my university in Tikrit,” she said.