My Morning Routine: Hesham Sallam, ace paleontologist and discoverer of Mansourasaurus
Hesham Sallam, founder of Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center: Each week, My Morning Routine looks at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Hesham Sallam, founder of Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center (MUVP), and associate professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and Mansoura University (bio). Edited excerpts from our conversation:
My name is Hesham Sallam; I’m the founder of MUVP and an associate professor at AUC and Mansoura University. My work is focused on prehistoric discoveries and paleontological research on the vertebrate fossils of Afro-Arabia.
Geology began to grow on me when I was a university student, as it made me understand the evolution of vertebrates. I found my passion during these years and after many following years of study and pursuing my master’s degree, my story began with vertebrate fossils and dinosaur fossils. I really struggled at first and was on the verge of quitting multiple times — until I received a scholarship to pursue my PhD at the University of Oxford. My first experience in field work in Egypt was while I was an Oxford student and was only considered for the work alongside a team of foreigners because, ironically, Egyptians were prohibited from that kind of work.
With time, my goal became to bring a new discipline to Egypt. In the early 2000s, Egypt didn’t have anyone specializing in vertebrate fossils, meaning that this wasn’t something that was even taught at universities despite the fact that Egypt is one of the countries in the region that is richest with vertebrate fossils and attracts foreign scientists around the world who end up taking our fossils because no one else in Egypt was interested in doing that.
I received my PhD and came back with a big dream. During the second year of my undergrad, I listed six goals that I worked on one by one in the following years: To find outstanding talents in Egypt in the field; to establish a lab within Mansoura University; to organize regular fossil hunting expeditions; establish and teach this course in different universities across Egypt; to become an open source in academia; and to help in creating a natural history museum. I accomplished five out of six — the remaining one is a very big dream that should become a national project.
I always had big ambitions in Egypt. I started Mansoura University Vertebrate Paleontology Center (MUVP) with a single desk and a chair. The young generations love natural history and dinosaurs but don’t even know that dinosaurs walked this country a mn years ago. They have no role models in this field, and I’m afraid deprivation breeds ignorance.
Mansourasaurus turned the tables: In 2014, I selected three of my top tier female students to attend a lecture at the New Valley University. While we were heading back, we randomly stopped at a new paved road carved out of the mountains, and that’s when we found the skeleton of Mansourasaurus. Since 2008, I had been searching for it with an international team as someone long ago recorded that they saw dinosaur bones in this area. It is this one sentence in a research paper that kept us hopeful even though there wasn't even any other evidence that this is in fact true.
The center wouldn't have become what it is today if it weren’t for the Mansourasaurus discovery in 2018. It was only after the discovery that people began to take us seriously; I was given a huge space for a lab that I never dreamed of and was also awarded a huge funding for our research projects, excavation trips and to get new equipment. The center was then transformed into what is known today as Sallam Lab. MUVP and the AUC lab are under the umbrella of Sallam Lab.
We’re eyeing regional expansion and to begin exploring different Arab and African countries to have projects outside of Egypt. Until now, we published 30 international research papers of 13 entirely new prehistoric species. We made many other discoveries between Mansourasaurus and the four legged whale Phiomicetus; I was the senior author of the research that was just published.
The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is to have my cup of coffee. I always dedicate some time to get in touch with my students; we talk about science more than anything else. I then go to the university. My life is summed up in research writing, reviewing my students’ projects, presenting new discoveries, supervising master’s or PhD thesis. This is pretty much how the rest of my day looks like. I can go on trips with my students and spend weeks in the field either looking for or collecting a new discovery.
I am responsible for documenting the prehistoric life of Egypt — I never collect anything from my discoveries.
I don’t really “switch off” from work: When I’m not working I’m contemplating my next move at work and future plans. Even when the rest of the world was confined to their homes during the lockdown, the desert was our quarantine while we worked in isolation. We find our joy in science. Our lab is our escape from the mess of the outside world. I love watching scientific documentaries to give me inspiration and push me to pursue international standards in everything I do.
“What you speak is what you read”: My master’s degree supervisor used to tell me that and it really clicked because I think it is true that the more you read, your linguistic and scientific skills will only make you talk more eloquently.