When we first heard the name Aya Mohamed, Egyptian woman, and MSc. in Environmental Science in the same sentence, we were instantly intrigued. When we looked her up and read more about her we were hooked. We realized how truly impressive, ambitious, and determined this woman is. From a young Egyptian girl coming from a modest background to an MSc. holder from the University of Leeds as well as an entrepreneur and a researcher affiliated with the UN, Aya Mohamed is a total powerhouse. We sit with her and learn more about her journey.
Aya Mohamed, it’s so refreshing to see Egyptian women in Environmental Science. Tell us a bit about your education and upbringing.
Yes, few women in Egypt have been recognized in Environmental Science. They say it is a tough field for women “by nature”. We go on field trips in tough terrains with very bad conditions.
Of course, I was told I won’t not be able to do this because I am a woman, especially after being a mother. But here I am, I did it!
I was born and raised in a modest family in slum areas of Cairo. In general, education is not easy for girls in the place where I come from. Let alone traveling outside Egypt for education. It was challenging for me to merely dream to study in the UK. Yet, the usual scene of plastic waste and pollution and its resulting health issues in my birthplace has driven me to be passionate about studying this field.
I started my first research about environmental pollution when I was 12 and I was awarded a first prize in a competition by the educational management on the district area of Shubra El-Kheima. Then, I followed this passion until I graduated from Faculty of Science Ain Shams University. Through all these years, I was recognized by academic and social excellence, despite my challenging circumstances.
I am now the first Egyptian woman (as far as I know) to earn a master’s degree in MSc Environment and Development from University of Leeds. I am also the first one in both families of my father and mother to complete a post-graduate degree, especially outside Egypt.
Walk us through your MSc. journey. How did you find out about the Chevening Scholarship? How did you feel when you got it?
After graduation from University, like many girls in Egypt, I got married to my lifetime partner and supporter. When I was pregnant, I saw a post on Facebook by a friend talking about the Chevening Scholarship. It’s an international Scholarship funded by the UK government granted only for distinguished leaders in their home countries. That’s when started to work hard to make a distinguished CV to be able to get the scholarship. I volunteered in many well-known places in the environment and development field. In parallel, I worked as a translator, researcher, editor, and reviewer in the scientific field. I participated in local and international conferences, competitions, and events. I got many awards, and I also participated in events as a science communicator for environmental science.
After 5 years of hard work, I applied to the Chevening Scholarship. One year later, I was finally accepted and chosen from 50,000 other international applicants. I was over the moon; this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Then, I traveled to the UK in 2019 to start my master’s program at University of Leeds.
What was it like to travel to the UK after having lived your whole life in Egypt?
It was challenging, yet I was thrilled to achieve my dream since I was child. I was afraid at the beginning as it was my first time to be away from my country for long time. I had traveled alone before inside and outside if Egypt, but only for short visits for competitions and conferences. Depression hit me during the first few months. However, with the help of my University and its staff I was able to adapt. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 circumstances my husband and son were not able to come to the UK to stay with me. Instead, in the last semester (the semester of dissertation project) I travelled back to Egypt and completed my study online from home.
Tell us about your experience in the TIE Dubai Summit in 2019.
I was the only one from Egypt to win the “Hadafi” competition held by a social enterprise in Dubai for female entrepreneurs in the Middle East. As part of the prize, I presented my project “Recyclizer” among 4 other female Arab entrepreneurs. I presented my project in front of the leading entrepreneurs and investors in the world, and I was the youngest in the summit. I was confident and got offers from some investors in Dubai for my project, but I refused to work on my project outside Egypt.
Doing this in Egypt is my goal; I will have the most successful startup for plastic recycling in Egypt and the whole world.
I’ve already had some offers from investors in Egypt, and we are preparing to launch our product soon.
You’re a person whose lived her whole life battling a chronic illness. How has this affected your outlook on life?
At 18 years old I was diagnosed with rheumatic fever, which is a chronic disease that affects body joints and the heart. Because of my illness, I suffered a lot during college. Unfortunately, it hit me again during my post-graduate studies. That time, It was a near-death experience, and this was in the period when I was writing my dissertation. The fact that when you know that you have a life-threatening illness and you are one step closer to death, makes you want to leave a print in the life of people through your academic, professional, and social achievements.
Aside from being an intern research assistant at the UN ESCWA Technology Center and an entrepreneur, you have launched a Facebook page (Top Tips by Aya Mohamed) to help young Egyptians seeking scholarships. Tell us more about it.
When I was preparing myself to get the Chevening Scholarship I benefited a lot from tips by some alumni, and I planned to share my perspective of tips and experience if I got the Scholarship. So, I started to share advice and tips when I got it, and I once I finished my program I launched a Facebook page (Top Tips by Aya Mohamed) to be a platform through which I share my personal experience on volunteering, environmental awareness, scholarships, professional and academic development.
Besides all that you do, you are also a wife and a mother, how do you balance all that?
I have read books and taken time management and priority organizing courses to be able to balance my social and professional life. With the support of my father and my husband, it’s a lot easier. I am grateful for their continuous support and encouragement. When I have the opportunity to delegate other people to do some of my tasks, I do. This is one of the features of a leader. I learned well about leadership in addition to being a leader by nature. The whole experience was challenging at the beginning of my marriage. By time, though, you manage.
Lastly, what message would you give young girls who are passionate about science and the environment?
Be confident, listen to your inner voice.
People will tell you that you can’t do it but believe me, you can! Don’t underestimate your power. They will say this field is just for men, but they don’t know that women can do anything. You can be a scientist and at the same time be a wife and a mother. Don’t listen to any discouraging words and focus on your dreams and goals. Self-discipline, resilience, persistence, time management, and priority organizing are key skills for outstanding performance and achieving your dreams.