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Iraqi Scholar’s Work on Purifying Water Has Been a Journey of Perseverance

The Iraqi scholar Suhad Yasin has waged a long battle against financial and administrative obstacles to continue her work on purifying polluted water.

Her graduate studies started later than most and became a long journey over 13 years of dropping out and restarting, but she persevered. Two years ago, the University of Duhok awarded her a doctorate in polymer chemistry.

Now Yasin works from an independent laboratory she set up at the University of Duhok, where she and her students use cheap, available materials to treat polluted water.

Iraq, like many Arab countries,  suffers from water scarcity and stress. One study predicts  the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will dry up completely by 2040. Apart from the scarcity issue, some Iraqi waterways also face problems with contamination by heavy metals like aluminum, cadmium and chromium, adding urgency to research like Yasin’s.

An Interrupted Academic Journey

In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Yasin described her career in industry and academe.

After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Mosul in 1993, she joined a laboratory in a local pharmaceutical factory, eventually becoming production manager.

“The resources were almost zero. I had to buy everything myself and start from scratch.”

Suhad Yasin On starting a lab for her Ph.D. research at the University of Duhok

As violence increased in Mosul over the next decade, however, Yasin was forced to return to her family’s home city of Duhok in 2006. She got an administrative job at the Ministry of Industry of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

But she did not find administrative work satisfying, Yasin said, so she took a competitive exam to study for a master’s degree at the University of Duhok.

By then a wife and mother, Yasin faced challenges in studying at the University of Duhok, both with learning in English and in overcoming the skepticism of some academics. Her thesis supervisor questioned her ability to complete the work. “He told me, ‘I regret being involved in the supervision of your thesis. It will be difficult for you to complete your studies at your age because of your family responsibilities.’”

But Yasin said his words only increased her motivation. “I needed to prove to my supervisor and myself that I was not a problem, but an energetic researcher who had missed an opportunity,” she said.

Yasin got her master’s degree with excellence in 2009 with a thesis on removing chromium from water using modified pomegranate peel.

Starting from Scratch on a Ph.D.

She then applied to transfer from her job at the ministry to work as an assistant teacher in the chemistry department of the University of Duhok’s Faculty of Science.

She taught at the University of Duhok   for six years but was not given an opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. because the university lacked facilities and funds for research in her specialisation. Throughout this time, she continued her research on purifying polluted water.

In 2015, the university offered her an opportunity to pursue a doctorate and she took it. There was considerable opposition to her studying for a Ph.D. at the age of 50, but she managed to convince the head of the department.

Based on the advice of her master’s supervisor, who had changed his mind about her ability, she chose nanofiber technology as the subject of her doctorate. Her new supervisor initially opposed the idea, saying the university could not afford the materials required for research on this topic. But he finally relented when she persisted.

“We must not stand idly by. I work day and night to get new financial support. With every refusal, I realise that I have to work more.”

Suhad Yasin On the need for Arab scientists to find research funds

Yasin said she had nothing but the lab walls when she started her doctoral research: no equipment, devices, or “cofactors”, molecular compounds needed in certain chemical reactions. “The resources were almost zero,” she said. “I had to buy everything myself and start from scratch.”

Lining up Support

Yasin contacted professors and scholars from various Arab countries to ask for help. By chance, she heard of a physics professor at the University of Basrah who had designed a device that would help her with her research. “I contacted the professor at the University of Basrah immediately and she agreed to help me,” Yasin said.

Yasin then had to convince her dean at the University of Duhok to manufacture a similar device so she could work. He agreed, but she still needed funding for her research.

She wrote to several international organisations asking for financial support and eventually received a three-year grant of about $207,000 from the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, in 2018. She used the money to establish an independent laboratory at the University of Duhok to conduct her research on using nanomaterials to treat water.

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Yasin acknowledges that funding scientific research is a general problem in Arab countries, but she insists that scholars themselves have a duty to find funding for their research.

“We must not stand idly by. I work day and night to get new financial support,” she said. “With each refusal, I realise that I have to work more.”

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