Turning Shrimp Shells into Eco-Friendly Plastic? Meet the Female Researcher behind the Project

It was nine o’clock in the morning, and we were waiting to meet researcher Irene Samy. The thirty-eight-year-old is an assistant professor at Nile University, in the Industry Engineering Department. She’s worked on research related to waste management, the latest being heading the team behind turning shrimp shells into natural degradable plastic. Irene’s project was part of the Newton Mosharfa Fund, provided by the British Council in Egypt. If you are impressed now, wait there’s more!

The accomplished researcher recently won the Leaders and Innovation Program prize for producing one of the best three projects. She’s also a lead volunteer at the IEEE organization, aiming to empower off-grid communities using electricity, education and entrepreneurial solutions. We know… told you she’s impressive. To the comfort of our slightly intimidated interviewer, Irene entered the room, defying all the stereotypes related to women in the sciences, sharing all sorts of stories from her passion about research, make-up, struggles of being a single mom, and more.

Can you tell us more about your project?

My PhD research was about creating smaller particles of a subject to enhance its characteristics. I later wanted to link this to the issue of plastic waste. Plastic particles are nondegradable, and even when they transform into tiny particles, they contaminate the marine life, and hence directly harm our lives. Accordingly, we thought of any natural shells such as shrimp shells –through which we can extract materials similar to the plastic. But since they’re too weak, we had to use additives to improve them. When the material is natural, it’s degradable and does not cause pollution. After conducting several tests, we’ve found out that with vegetables wrapped into the material we produced its lifetime prolongs for fifteen more days.

What inspired the idea? And why do you think it’s important?

I used to work on the normal composite synthetics which are great and produce new materials. Yet, these new materials still do not entirely reduce pollution and they don’t follow the concept of sustainability. After I took a course in humanitarian engineering, I was encouraged to use my knowledge to enhance the well-being of humans, which is why I chose waste management. It was also nice to work on something that gets implemented outside the lab.

Are you planning to implement the research on ground?

This shrimp shells project is a prototype, we still need to work on a pilot experiment and get investments. We currently have an investor who has a plastic factory and wants to replace the technology of the already existing plastic to the new one. Other investors suggested using sugarcane, and other types of waste like agricultural waste. The technology of using waste materials in producing plastic is there worldwide, but we’re doing a technology transfer from outside to here.

A lot of organizations nowadays try to work on reducing plastic usage, do you think the situation is improving soon?

Yes, certainly. When we used to talk about the issue at the beginning, people did not perceive it as something of importance. The fact that a member of the parliament comes out and suggests banning plastic also means that there’s more awareness.

What do you think is a problem in the field that hinders or stalls people from suggesting ideas to solve the issue?

I believe we have a problem that we’re afraid of saying our ideas out loud in conferences so others don’t steal them. We don’t talk about our ideas until they’re published.

What are the challenges that face women in STEM on a daily basis?

I was once working on an experiment of mine. When I entered the workshop wearing heels with loose hair, the man working there kept looking at me as if I was an alien. Sometimes I feel like people are not taking me seriously. But my students are very engaged, even the undergrads. When I started working at Nile University five years ago, I used to have only one girl in my class, but now they range from five-to-six girls from  a total of twenty students.

What do you think of the fact that some people still perceive women in STEM as nerdy geeks or tomboyish, and look at them differently?

This myth is completely untrue. A couple of days ago, I was on my way to a research center and this radio competition was on. They were asking about the most essential items on women’s lists when they travel. I wrote a makeup kit with different shades of lipstick, different clothing styles, and so on. I was so happy I won!

What are your day-to-day challenges to balance between research, conferences, and being a single mom?

I have two sons: sixteen and twelve years old. It’s very challenging, especially to maintain the balance between strictness and leniency. But I feel happy when I talk to them about my inventions, and see how proud they are of their mom. During my TEDxGUC talk, my son told them, “I really appreciate that she’s a single mom. She’s there for me, and still works.”

Irene’s project is part of the Newton Mosharafa Fund in Egypt is part of the global Newton Fund that builds research and innovation partnerships with other 16 partner countries to support their economic development and social welfare. It has a total UK Government investment of £735 million up until 2021, with matched resources from the partner countries. The Newton Fund is managed by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and delivered through 7 UK delivery partners, which includes the British Council. For more information about the fund, contact the team: Newton.Mosharafa@britishcouncil.org


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