(Photo credit: Salma Mohammed)
For a young Mona Mohammed, watching her father work on water projects in Yemen as a civil engineer inspired a desire to pursue a similar career. Despite discovering her interest in engineering early, Mona questioned that interest at multiple points along her journey. She first left Yemen in 2008 to attend Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong (UWC) for an International Baccalaureate Program. It was there that the intensity of a physics class first caused her to question her decision to study engineering. After her time at UWC, Mona decided to take a gap year and return to Yemen.
During that time Mona had a year long internship with the GIZ Yemen German Reproductive Health Program. In that role she helped coordinate the efforts of field staff in raising awareness around issues of reproductive health, including child marriage and its impacts on the wellbeing and education of girls in Yemen. Mona says, it was during her experience that year, that she understood the lack of access to water and sanitation to be the most pressing issue facing Yemen. Her experience also helped her recognize the gendered nature of this challenge.
“It is usually poor young girls who are tasked with securing water for their families. This is usually means spending time out of school, taking long walks in dangerous conditions and carrying heavy water every day.”
As she was applying for universities, “my friend came over and spoke about her experience studying civil engineering and encouraged me to apply, as she thought I would really enjoy it.” Mona credits this encouragement, along with support from family and friends, as a key part in her decision to become an engineer. She acknowledges how that guidance is especially important for women to push past some of the barriers they face in pursuing STEM fields.
“Even though people suffer to different extents from the lack of access to water based on their socio-economic class, water scarcity is a national problem as different parts of the country are expected to run out of water by 2020,” says Mona. “To me, becoming an engineer meant finding ways in which my family and I could continue living at home.”
To that end, Mona moved to America in 2011 after being awarded a full scholarship to study at Bucknell University. There, she received a dual undergraduate degree in women’s and gender studies and civil and environmental engineering. When asked how women and gender studies tied into her career path, Mona says she views her women’s and gender studies major as another tool in her engineering toolbox.
“[The major] is a lens that helped me analyze engineering problems from a gendered perspective and ask questions such as, what are the differences in the impacts of water scarcity on each gender.” She continues “using this lens, has the implication of changing the power dynamic for women and giving them more time to join schools and learn different skills.”
Mona is convinced that a sustainable solution to the problem of water scarcity has to be one with women at the center of it. She also jokes that gender studies is what “kept [her] sane”, as she navigated different cultures, and faced different forms of sexism, in her home country and in the USA.
Mona is continuing her education at Bucknell University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Her research focuses on improving wastewater treatment and evaluating its social, environmental and economic impacts. Mona looked at improving anaerobic (without oxygen) wastewater treatment, which produces methane. In its gas form, methane can be used for energy production and heating. However, not all the produced methane is in gas form, some of it is dissolved in the water leaving the treatment plant. That dissolved methane contributes to a great extent to global warming. As such, Mona designed and operated a biological reactor that oxidizes dissolved methane into carbon dioxide, potentially reducing the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment plants.
Despite her determination to further her studies and accomplish more, she encountered common challenges many women in this field face. To overcome those challenges, Mona encourages others to persevere and develop a support system (in her case it was family and friends) who you are comfortable going to in times of need. An important person in Mona’s support system was her graduate studies advisor, Professor Deborah Sills.
“Women have to go through a lot more to get into and remain in [STEM] programs,” Mona says. “When I was applying to grad school, Professor Sills took me in as her master’s student. She has both supported and challenged me throughout my masters. Having a professor here who would always advocate for me and at the same time expect the best of me definitely pushed me to meet these expectations, so I’m forever indebted to her.”
Furthermore, sexism in STEM remains a big inhibitor for women to continue in fields such as engineering. Having a female mentor and a role model in her advisor, Mona was able to see first hand the intersection of social awareness and justice with engineering research and practice.
After graduating, Mona plans on returning home to Yemen to “help with the relief efforts of the humanitarian crisis.” As the peace talks continue, she hopes for an end to the war and an avoidance of a man-made famine in Yemen. She intends to contribute as a water and sanitation engineer in what she hopes will be “a dawn of a reconstruction era”.
Mona emphasizes how impactful combating the water crisis would be for women in Yemen. A resolution would mean a drastic change in their societal roles and open up innumerable opportunities.