As sustainability becomes a bigger part of our lives and our future every day, constant research is being done into sustainable alternatives that will allow us to live a longer, safer and healthier life.
Dr Maryam Tariq Khaleel Alhashmi has dedicated her scientific research into developing engineered catalytic materials for the sustainable production of chemicals. Dr Maryam is specifically interested in designing catalytic materials that can speed up conversions for sustainable processes, such as the converting harmful emissions like carbon dioxide and less valuable materials like waste and heavy crude oil into useful chemicals.
Maryam and her team have developed new techniques based on the growth of several crystal types together, instead of using expensive and environmentally harmful additives, to control the pore structure of catalysts to allow molecules to enter them and leave them easily. Most sustainable conversions cannot be achieved with a catalyst that has a single functionality. Together with her team, she is working on modifying these catalysts to be able to perform more than one conversion step. The overall objective is to design catalysts for any required reaction that can perform better than existing ones, or even carry out functions that current catalysts cannot do. Dr Maryam wants to be able to convert waste material into useful products in one pot, which will reduce cost and waste generation, and can even enhance the performance of the process. We find out more.
What does it mean to you to be part of this project with L’Oréal?
I am honoured that my research is being recognised through the prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO regional talents program. This program is a platform for supporting and empowering women scientists, which I am proud to be part of. Winning this award allowed me to present my research as a scientist and I hope to be a role model for the younger generation of female researchers who want to pursue a career in science.
Why do you think it’s important for global brands like L’Oréal to recognise successful women such as yourself today?
While it is important to have women in science to expand the possibility and options of discoveries, women are underrepresented in scientific research. One reason for this is implicit gender bias which can be partly overcome by encouraging more women to join science through promoting the achievements of other successful women scientists. L’Oreal is a well-known and reputable global brand and their voice can be heard over a wide audience, which makes the “For Women in Science” initiative a very important and successful one.
What is your message to other women who might be afraid of achieving their dreams?
I tell them that it is better to try than live their lives regretting that they never did. Each one of us has our own fears, but we cannot be paralysed by them. I advise them to have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and work hard to reach their goals. With determination, they will eventually reach them.
In this issue we are celebrating UAE National Day – how does it make you feel to represent your country internationally?
The UAE has always been supportive of science and scientists and it is a great honour to be representing my beloved country on this special occasion. I feel proud to be part of this great nation, which has supported me and many others throughout our education journeys.
Growing up, what inspired you to enter into the world of science?
I was drawn to science at a young age and I always enjoyed it in school. Initially, I wanted to become a medical doctor, but by the 11th grade, I realised that I enjoyed Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry more than Biology. My parents were supportive and gave me the chance to choose my career. I joined the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi for my undergraduate studies, and I realised that I made the right choice by majoring in Chemical Engineering. I was exposed to research at that time, and several of my professors encouraged me to pursue a PhD. Their encouragement was an important push for me to pursue a career in academia. I then joined the University of Minnesota in the USA for my PhD studies. I specialised in porous materials for catalysis because I was fascinated by their structures and their ability to achieve conversion. My engagement in research during my studies made me realise that this is what I enjoy doing the most.
In your opinion what is the importance of sustainability today in creating a better world in the future?
We all realise by now that sustainability is the way forward. We as humans have already caused a lot of damage to the earth and we cannot keep on doing so. The planet might need a long time to recover, but taking measures to reduce a further negative impact on it is the first step towards sustainability and a better world.
How can sustainability in science help us to have a more efficient, safe and longer-lasting planet?
Among many things, the pollution we generate (especially carbon dioxide emissions) is causing global warming which has melted glaciers, increased sea levels, and caused heatwaves and droughts that are threatening life on earth. In addition, our economies depend heavily on chemicals, which we get from fossil fuels that are being depleted. Hence, finding sustainable ways to convert carbon dioxide into useful chemicals can help resolve both of these challenges. This is just one aspect of sustainability that I work on, but there are many others.
What is a message you would like to share on how sustainable alternatives can be just as effective as the ones we have been used for many years?
Among the many approaches towards solving the challenge of sustainability, I work on producing chemicals from waste and emissions. For many years, we have relied on petroleum for chemicals. However, given that we develop efficient catalysts, the same chemicals can be produced from carbon-containing emissions such as carbon dioxide.
As a woman in science, what are some of the challenges you face?
As female scientists, we suffer from underrepresentation in the workplace, especially in leadership positions. This is partly because of challenges in balancing family life and work, but also because of the implicit gender biases. For these reasons women should be given more flexibility at work, their research should be promoted and they should be recommended for positions and awards.
What would you still like to achieve that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?
There is a lot that I would still like to achieve. I am still at the beginning, and there is still a lot to be done, both for my research and in terms of my career development. I hope that my research results in a breakthrough that can help us live a more sustainable life. In terms of my career, I will keep on working hard to climb the career ladder and become a full professor one day.
Where would you like to see yourself in ten years?
As a full professor leading a big research team to solve emerging problems in catalysis. I also hope to have made an important discovery that can allow us to live a more sustainable life.
What is your fondest memory of the UAE growing up?
I am fond of all my precious childhood memories in the UAE. I remember my school bus rides until today, my nervousness before exams, our family trips to Dubai (which at that time was the only emirate with IKEA), the parks in Abu Dhabi (especially Mushrif ladies park) and taking my coins to the “baqala” to buy chips and jelly. I also remember the sleepless nights during my Bachelor studies. These are only some of the memories in my beloved Abu Dhabi that I smile when I remember.
What is the life motto that you live by?
“A winner is just a loser who tried one more time”. Never give up, every experiment is important, even if the results were not as you expected.