Gen STEM: Emirati Huda Ahli wants to set the record straight about women in the sciences

“There's still a misconception that if you work in science, you can't raise a family, which is not true. Women have just any many responsibilities as men"
Gen STEM: Emirati Huda Ahli wants to set the record straight about women in the sciences

Emirati Huda Ahli has been in London for eight years. She moved to the British capital to complete her undergrad after finishing at Al Rashidiya high school in Dubai. Fast-forward nearly a decade and Huda is now married–a feat which Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself congratulated her on–and ankle-deep in her PhD.

“I got married about a month ago,” the 26-year-old tells Cosmo. “Honestly that tweet from Sheikh Mohammed felt amazing. I think what amazed me more than anything is the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and yet our government has still found a way to be there for its people, be there for its system. He found the time to congratulate me on a simple wedding, but he also does it for teachers, nurses, and front-line workers. Always having our government’s support pushes me and motivates me to work harder, to be better.”

But Huda was a sustainability activist long before she dreamed of walking down the aisle. “I've always liked solving puzzles and watching mystery TV shows and documentaries. That process of thinking followed by an ‘ah ha’ moment was everything to me. Back in 2012, I watched a documentary about sustainable energy and engineering, and that was the moment I realised that humans have an unlimited amount of energy from the sun, which we’re taking for granted. Technically speaking, we can operate the world with that unlimited supply of energy. That was the light-bulb moment for me.”

Now, Huda is studying Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London. In layman’s terms, her research involves engineering a new, more advanced and more durable material that could, quite literally, change the world. “The idea is that you can integrate it [solar cells] as an application for SMART clothes, gadgets, even refugee camps. It would allow us much cleaner and more sustainable living.” 

She is impassioned and unflinching in her pursuit of a renewable energy that will save the planet. “In 2017 the UAE launched an energy strategy for 2050, which, in a nutshell, says that 50 per cent of the energy we create will be clean energy. For someone who works in a sustainability sector, that is a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re saying that yes, we are going to reduce our carbon footprint, and we are going to make the world a better place. The UAE will become the next hub for sustainability, so it’s an exciting place to be. Just by looking at the strategies we’ve made, we’re already getting the world’s attention. The amount of money we’re investing into these projects is huge.”

The politics of climate action are as entrenched and complex as the phenomenon itself, and Huda has no magic solution, but she has a dream of creating an attitudinal shift in the Middle East.

“I will definitely move back to the UAE eventually. It’s home! But for now I want to get as much experience and take as much advantage of taking the information I’m being taught from experts so I can bring it back home. 49 years ago the UAE didn’t exist, and today we’re putting in strategies for 2050, it’s so inspiring and motivating. I hope that I can participate in the next governmental strategy, where we take the next step to manufacture these solar cells in-house.”

Huda is setting a precedent not just for young engineers around the world, but for Arab women in pursuit of the same success. “It’s important to me to let everyone know that being in science doesn’t mean I’ve sacrificed anything. Just because I got married, it doesn’t mean I won’t be able to be in the lab anymore. Having a life-work balance is difficult, whether you’re in STEM or not. There’s still a misconception that if you’re a woman in science you can’t raise a family, which is not true. A woman has just as many responsibilities in the household as a man. It should be about how those responsibilities are distributed.”

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