Catching up with Dr. Amal Esawi on Nanotechnology!

Amal Esawi

“My father loved to do things with his own hands and always followed a very scientific approach in solving problems. This impressed me a lot and made me aspire to be like him.” Expressed Dr. Amal Esawi fondly when asked about the beginning of her passion for mechanical engineering. Amal’s father was a mechanical engineer as well and he’s the person that instilled the fascination and passion she has for the field

Dr. Amal Esawi has always been fond of research and mechanical engineering. After finishing her Master’s degree. She pursued her PhD in Engineering at Cambridge University and finished it when she was only 28. After that, Dr. Amal Esawi stayed as a post-doc in Cambridge for 5 years to implement the methodologies she developed in her PhD in a software as part of the Engineering Design Center at Cambridge University. Following that, Dr. Amal Esawi returned to Egypt and joined the AUC faculty in 2001 and has been there ever since. 

Dr. Amal Esawi is of the pioneers in her field and is the first to specialize in Nanotubes in Egypt. We sat down with her to know more about her journey!

Why Carbon Nanotubes? What drew you to this field of research?

When I joined AUC, I decided to get involved in establishing the Youssef Jameel Science and Technology research center which focuses on Nanotechnology. I decided to initiate some research projects in the field of nanotechnology. The field was new at the time in the early 2000s and although my PhD research was on a different topic, I became interested in this field and decided to get involved.

I chose carbon nanotubes because it is a very promising nanomaterial that can be added to metals, polymers, and ceramics to improve their mechanical and other properties. Because of my background as a mechanical engineer, I chose to focus on using carbon nanotubes “CNT” to strengthen aluminum. This material would have numerous potential applications as a light and strong material in fields like aerospace, energy generation, automotive, and sports equipment.

Any products that are currently made out of aluminium can be made out of aluminum reinforced with carbon nanotubes and since the new material is stronger we can use less of it. Also, rather than focusing on applications that require highly advanced manufacturing techniques, I chose to focus on this material to produce it using conventional manufacturing techniques. This can be very attractive for the industry. 

In what ways did your career shape you as a person?  

My career taught me that one cannot make an impact without a lot of hard work and that good results take a lot of time .

That’s the nature of research: you always run into problems. But they add a lot to the progress when you solve them. I also learned that there is always an opportunity for everyone provided they don’t give up easily. In my career, in order to be impactful, one needs to find a niche area that gives room for innovation. As you can imagine researchers in China, India, US, and Europe have not left one single idea in the nanotechnology field without addressing it.

There is so much emphasis on research on those countries so whenever there is some dimension of a problem that no one has addressed before, we need to move very quickly. Otherwise, by the time we get results someone else would have beaten us to it. 

What would you like people to know about your work and your field of research that they might not realize? 

My field of research is very dynamic and is extremely competitive. That’s due to the fact that researchers all over the world are trying to find applications for those wonder nanomaterials. Accordingly, it takes a lot of effort and time because one needs to follow closely all the developments. Also, major enhancements are often combined with other negative results. So, one has to be very careful in interpreting results.

What challenges did you face throughout your career? And how did you overcome them? 

I specialized in the use of CNTs to reinforce Aluminium. The primary challenge was that I started everything from scratch. There were very few researchers who were working on this topic due to its difficulty. With time, more researchers got into this field. They reported results that benefited what I am doing. They also provided explanations and sometimes confirmations of some of the observations my students were making.

In your opinion, do you think women need more opportunities to grow when it comes to engineering and science since it can be a male-dominated field? 

Maybe in the industry due to the reputation of typical engineering jobs being in industrial firms with uncomfortable working conditions. However, in academia this is different and women have equal chances to men for excelling and achieving their goals. Provided that they are good in time management. Since women have to juggle many commitments and handle many chores in addition to their professional careers.

What are you working on right now? 

In addition to my main research on improving the performance of aluminium CNT composites. I am exploring the use of CNTs to enhance the performance of sensors for structural health monitoring, their use for harvesting energy for wearable electronics, for enhancing the performance of membranes for desalination, and in nano-lubricants that make machining operations more efficient. I am also exploring other nanomaterials such as nanoclays and boron nitride nanotubes.

Are there any specific areas of research that you would like to explore in the future? 

My plate is already full of many ideas. However, I would like to see one or several of the applications I am working on mature. I want them to move from a proof of concept in the lab to a prototype that performs well in the relevant environment. Then to a successful real product.

What would you say to young girls who are passionate about science but are intimidated to pursue the field?

I tell them to follow their dreams.

I always suggest to my undergraduate students to take up summer jobs as research assistants. They should work with more experienced researchers so that they get to appreciate a research environment, its challenges, and the fun aspects.

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