illustration Roula Shamsi, a scientist in exile takes PAUSE

Agroecology 5 min

Roula Shamsi, a scientist in exile takes PAUSE

Roula Shamsi, a Syrian teacher-researcher, fled her war-torn country in order to be able to practice her profession in safety and fulfil her passion for research. Since February, the young plant pathologist, who specialises in fungal diseases of wheat, has benefited from the PAUSE Programme, which offers emergency asylum to scientists in exile. She is now part of the team of INRA’s BIOGER unit (biology and risk management in agriculture).

Published on 07 April 2020

From Syria to France, a student-turned-teacher

Roula Shamsi was born in 1976 in the Syrian city of Homs. Her whole family comes from this region of Syria, where her parents were, respectively, a maths teacher and a dentist. When war broke out in 2011, she had no choice but to flee her home country, which she did the following year. She ended up in Jordan, then Saudi Arabia for three years, Turkey, and finally France, where she was granted refugee status in 2017. Her brothers and sister were also taken in by European countries: France, Germany and Norway. 

Roula studied agricultural science at AlBaath University in Homs, Syria, where she earned an undergraduate degree in 1999. She then went on to pursue studies in plant protection in the Agriculture department of the University of Aleppo. In 2004, she earned a Master’s degree that focused on the pathosystem Ascochyta rabiei (chickpea). She then completed a PhD in collaboration with the University of Aleppo and ICARDA (International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas). Her thesis focussed on the molecular characterisation of the fungal pathogen Pyrenophora tritici-repentis, responsible for helminthosporiosis of durum wheat in Syria.  While completing her PhD, Roula taught plant biology and microbiology. After earning her PhD in 2009, she continued to teach for several years in different universities in Syria and Saudi Arabia. 

Studying fungal diseases of wheat  

In February 2020, the young teacher-researcher in plant pathology joined the “Epidemiology of Fungal Disease in Wheat” team in INRA’s BIOGER joint research unit. The team studies plant epidemiology, a discipline that unravels how diseases develop in plant populations. They focus on three of the major fungal diseases of wheat in Europe: wheat leaf rust (Puccinia triticina), wheat yellow rust (Puccinia striiformis), and leaf blotch (Zymoseptoria tritici).​​​​​ The goal of their studies is to improve varietal resistance (curb the development of epidemics and cut losses) and boost sustainability (slow the evolution of pathogenic populations and prolong the use of resistance).

Roula’s research is part of the MABRUNE project (within the framework of the French support fund for plant breeding), in partnership with French wheat breeders.  The goal of this project is to create detailed mapping of several quantitative resistance genes when it comes to leaf rust in common wheat. Such mapping would help identify diagnostic markers closely related to resistance, which breeders can then use in assisted breeding initiatives. These quantitative resistance markers would also be used to identify the presence of corresponding genes in wheat varieties grown in France, and thus better understand their breeding history.

The PAUSE Programme: a unique opportunity

Roula Shamsi benefits from the PAUSE Programme, which offers safe harbour to researchers from countries where the political situation puts their work and families in jeopardy.  She escaped the persecution and violence born of war in her homeland, and is fully aware that many of her former colleagues have not been as lucky as she is today. The teacher-researcher takes pride in the grant offered by the PAUSE Programme and is fully committed to making her project a success.  

Roula is grateful for the welcome that France has provided her, but also for INRAE and the PAUSE Programme that have given her the opportunity to work with an innovative and ambitious team of researchers. Since she was granted refugee status in France, her main goal has been to find a job in research, because research is what thrills her, and she very much wants to pursue the career she worked so hard for in Syria. The PAUSE Programme gave her this opportunity via significant financial support that has allowed her to be recruited for one year in her lab as a post-doctoral fellow. The programme has also given her access to many training opportunities as she completed her doctoral studies, and helped smooth the path of her scientific career. 

Roula says, “As a refugee, when you are uprooted from your home, it is so hard to find work that lives up to your hopes and dreams. But today I finally feel that I am as accepted as any other researcher who works in France”.

PAUSE, the programme that hosts foreign researchers at risk

PAUSE, the French national programme for emergency reception of scientists in exile, created on 16 January 2017 and headed by the Collège de France, offers financial support to higher education establishments and public research bodies who wish to host researchers, scientists and foreign scholars who find themselves in peril in their home country. PAUSE offers protection to them and their families, fosters their professional and personal integration, and ensures that their work can continue uninterrupted.

Researchers from all fields and all geographic origins are eligible for the PAUSE Programme. Those hosted include university professors, seasoned researchers, but also doctoral candidates, who make up 30% of the total. There are as many women participants as men. Some 30% of PAUSE researchers come from Syria, and 60% from neighbouring countries such as Iraq, Turkey, Russia and Afghanistan. Some also come from Burundi, Venezuela, Pakistan and Yemen. 

Mini CV

Since 2020 Post-doctoral fellowship, Epidemiology, INRAE joint research unit BIOGER, Thiverval-Grignon, France
2014-2015 Associate professor, Al-Jouf University, Al-Jouf, Saudi Arabia
2012-2014 Associate professor, Tabuk University, Tabuk, Saudi Arabia
2011 Associate professor, Princess Nora-PNU University, Riyad, Saudi Arabia
2009-2010 Teacher, Al Baath University, Homs, Syria
2000-2009 Teacher, University of Aleppo, Aleppo, Syria
2005-2009 PhD, Plant Protection, University of Aleppo and ICARDA, Aleppo, Syria
2002-2004 Master's degree, Plant Protection and remote sensing, University of Aleppo, Aleppo, Syria



Arnaud RIDELAuthor

Thierry MARCELAuthor

Inge LainoTranslator


Roula Shamsi ResearcherResearch Unit for Biology and Risk Management in Agriculture (BIOGER)