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With social media, a PhD student affects public health from half a world away

In early October, Mohammed Alhajji traveled to Beirut to be a guest on the television show “Kalam Nawaim” on the pan-Arab MBC1 network. Translated from Arabic to “Sweet Talk,” the show boasts a format similar to “The View” in America, with a panel of female hosts discussing topical issues, and attracts millions of viewers each episode.

Alhajji, a research assistant and PhD student in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department, offered his expertise on cyberbullying and the effects of social media on public health. The feature was one in a string of traditional media appearances for him over the past few years and hints at his status as something of a social media celebrity in the Arab world -- a presence he cultivates from the United States.

And, ultimately, his turn on “Kalam Nawaim” was only a small punctuation in a decade-long narrative of what can happen when countries open their borders to other cultures.

A native of Saudi Arabia, Alhajji first came to the United States to attend college in 2005. He made the journey thanks to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Scholarship Program. Originally called King Abdullah’s Scholarship Program (KASP), it was founded to encourage Saudi students to study in the United States after 9/11 in order to better compete in the global marketplace.

Coming from a middle-class family, Alhajji couldn’t have afforded to study in the U.S. without the scholarship. For him, the opportunity was life-changing. It broadened his perspective on cultural issues, he said, and now he works to export the values and skills he’s learned back to his homeland.

“We were all raised at home with specific values. There was only one correct way to think; you weren’t allowed to step out of the box,” said Alhajji. That wasn’t the case in the U.S., however, where he found people exposed to “a gazillion different ideas and perspectives” every day.

“I came here for college when I was 18, thinking I’d go right back home,” he recalled. “Now I’m 30, and I pause to reflect on how much I’ve developed intellectually and cognitively. I’m a totally different person.”

Along with participating in research projects at Temple and working on publishing studies of his own, Alhajji is also a social media sensation in the Arab world. His Snapchat and Twitter accounts reach hundreds of thousands of people, where he often sends out conclusions and findings from recent research studies.  

“That’s what’s lovely about public health in general: It speaks the language of the streets. It’s not chemistry, it’s not that convoluted. That makes it easier to translate and put in layman’s language,” he said. “We all care about our health and self-development. When you talk about health and psychology, you can touch the lives of the 12-year-old student and the 65-year-old.”

Admittedly, a fleeting video or 140 characters aren’t always the best mediums for complex research. Alhajji is careful to note limitations to various studies and acknowledge that what he’s posting is just the “front end” of the science, separated from all the “dry procedure” that produces the results. The formula works: About 200,000 people follow his Twitter account and he gets around 90,000 views for each story he posts on Snapchat.

Social media has been an important part of life in the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 when people used Facebook and Twitter to organize protests and generate awareness of various causes and protests. The cultural significance is not lost on Alhajji, who also recognizes its potential for him to communicate with people half a world away.

That reach also sets the stage for his eventual return to Saudi Arabia. There’s virtually no interest in social and behavioral sciences in his home country, he says, in contrast to the United States and especially Temple.

Alhajji’s goal, then, is to establish a behavioral science research institute, where he can address public health concerns in Saudi Arabia. It’s a country that, along with wrestling with issues like smoking and obesity, also ranks high on worldwide lists of car crashes and related fatalities per capita.

“Clearly, there’s a need for better understanding, socially and behaviorally, of these issues, and there’s little attention to that work,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to be a pioneer in the field, establishing this field there. Hopefully, this will be my expertise.”

Posted:  October 19, 2017