“Great things never come while you stay in your comfort zone, think differently.” – Almas Taj Awan
Almas: My name is Almas. I am based in Brazil. Originally I’m from Pakistan and I am postdoc researcher in Uni Camp, Brazil.
Nerina: What are your main research topics?
Almas: I am working with recycling technologies. In my Ph.D. I worked with recycling citrus industrial waste and we extracted some value added products from that. After that, I entered in a research area that was linked to recycling technologies that were used for water reclamation. We were studying how we can purify the waste water in the waste water treatment plants and currently I am working with mass spectrometric techniques and we are using these techniques for analysis of different kinds of substances.
Nerina: Why are you so passionate about recycling?
Almas: Well, I am passionate about recycling because I think that our world needs this. We have lots and lots of problems linked with the waste generation and when the companies and the industry generate waste they actually don’t know what to do with that and normally. Let’s say if I talk about citrus industrial waste every year as Brazil is the largest orange producer, so millions of tons of oranges they are treated in the citrus industry and as a result, millions of tons of waste are incinerated. Because when you treat orange around 50% of that is left as a waste and that is normally dumped at some far place. So what we did, I mean me with my Ph.D. advisor and some other students as well, we tried to use that so called waste and tried to convert that into something really usable and something really economically viable.
Also if I talk about the water recycling technologies, I think that the next problem that the world is going to face is a water shortage problem and we really need to think about it. How we can reduce water consumption and what kind of technologies we can utilize to re-use the water? Like, let’s say for the toilet flushing or for the washing purposes, the house cleaning I think we can use reclaimed water for that purpose instead of using the drinking water for that purpose.
Nerina: What kind of results did you get from your dissertation?
Almas: Okay well, from the orange waste four main products that we extracted were first of all I would like to say pectin. Pectin is kind of a jelling agent and it can be used in the jams, jellies, marmalades or the juice industry for thickening purpose. Then the second one that we obtained was hesperidin that is an antioxidant, it’s an antidepressant as well. It’s a natural product and it can be used as a remedy. Next product that we obtained was nanocellulose and nanocellulose is nowadays a very active research area and it can be used for the – ah how can I say it – as the protective sheets on the cellphones or on the cars and they’re many other uses as well that are under research study and then it was bioethanol. Bioethanol is something that you can use for running the cars.
Brazil is a country that has made an example for the whole world because it’s the world largest producer of bioethanol but that bioethanol is actually the first generation bioethanol. But in our case, we are working from the bio waste and that is a second generation biofuel and that is the next technology that’s efficient technology because taking out bioethanol from the food products is something that has many challenges. Probably these food crops they could be used for providing food because the world has a lot of problems with food scarcity, food shortage. So probably we can use that for the other purposes as food items, but the waste that is left; the agricultural waste that is left, that waste can be converted into a biofuel.
So, here in Brazil, there are many laboratories that are doing research. Actually, there are many ways to convert that into biofuel but the only problem is that the economic viability of that process on the industrial level. But in our case when we tried to… when we were exploring this process we had this objective in mind that we need to reduce the waste. I mean we need to use the waste, but also we need to make a process that should be economically viable that could be applied on the industrial scale. So, when you work on the industrial scale you need to think about the money. The input and the output should be in balance or it should generate some revenue as well. So in our case, we tried different enzymes because right now the main problem that the industry is facing they are the high cost of enzymes. So we used Xac enzymes that are the lowest known in cost. So we think that the process is economically viable.
Nerina: The approach that you used was a new one?
Almas: Yes, it was a new approach in the sense that in Brazil ours was the first one. We tried to work with this and we were really successful and our approach was to extract as many products as we can.
Nerina: What are the possible real world applications of your results?
Almas: I think this product is marvelous and all the products that we extracted we can extract them on the industrial scale. Right now we are working with some companies to make some contract with us or with our lab and we’re trying to share the patent with them.
Nerina: What does it mean for you to be a scientist?
Almas: For me to be a scientist is, you know, I feel it’s a really big responsibility. It’s a really, really a big responsibility because every new disease that the world is facing, the population is facing or any environmental problem or any real life problem that the world is facing I think that scientists they try their best to solve that problem at the research level, at the very basic level. Well, there are two types of researchers: one is a basic research, the other one is the applied research and I think both of them are really, really important. Because the basic research it gives us fundamentals of future concepts related to science. While the applied research it is something that deals with the current problems that the population is facing. So I think both of them are equally important and I’m really passionate about them.
Nerina: Why did you become a researcher?
Almas: Well, I became a researcher because I think that I’m quite ambitious and I want to solve certain problems faced by the society. If I talk about my childhood I never thought about this that I would be a researcher, I would be a future scientist. I belong to a village from Pakistan where I think I am the first one who came out of that village and my parents they sent me abroad to have a scientific career. Because when a child I never thought that I would be a scientist. I never thought because I was like I can be a doctor or I can be an engineer or any other thing but not a scientist. How can a woman be a scientist? I had never seen scientists around me. That was something I never even thought about.
But when I started my master’s I always tried to think about science and how it works. I was in Pakistan and at that time there was a lack of resources, but then I got to know about the fellowship that is offered by The World Academy of Science (TWAS). I applied for that and eventually, I started my research career in Brazil.
Nerina: What kind of challenges did you encounter on your way?
Almas: Well, I think that there were many challenges like I was coming from Pakistan a society from where we don’t have that much of female scientists and then, my family, they were really supportive: my father, my mother, my siblings but of course society they imposed a lot of things on you and then they’re like… I mean even there it’s not common for the girls to travel alone abroad and then working with science away from the family something it’s a bit scary not seeing them that much good situation. But the thing is that like in the beginning it was like a little bit difficult but with the passage of time when I started showing that yes I’m a girl but I can do anything and I can do work as a scientist just like the men in my country can do and I can be extraordinary as well and I can be independent as well. So it is something that now makes me feel really proud and not just me even my family and I think that I can probably be an example maybe for some girls who want to proceed with their dreams, who want to do whatever they want.
Nerina: What kind of advice would you give to another young woman who would like to become a researcher?
Almas: I would like to say that the doors are open for you. I mean the doors are open for you. You just need to have the courage to enter that door because all over the world what I see is that academic and scientific councils are really encouraging women. I mean wherever you would like to apply for higher studies research grants they really encourage women. We need more and more women so that the gender gap that exists between science and women it should be overcome and secondly, there are many issues that are linked in the underdeveloped countries. I think that women from the underdeveloped countries I would really, really encourage them not to have fear about anything, just be bold, take the practical steps, look forward and work hard. You can do it.
Nerina: What motivates you?
Almas: Well this is a really personal question. I think my motivation is my parents because I see they have struggled throughout their lives to make their children independent. So when I feel that or whenever I have some difficult times in my life I just think about them, they’re my motivation and I just try to make myself better and just try to make and have more and more achievements so that they can be more and more proud with me.
Nerina: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? What would you like to change?
Almas: Well, in the long term I would like to be part of the policy making bodies at the regional or the government or the global level. So what I would like to change is that I would like to make a bridge and I would like to reduce the gap that exists between the scientific community and the policymakers.
Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?
Almas: Well, I dream of a society that is peaceful because currently I think that the world… I mean the only thing the world needs currently right now, the first priority is peace and then on the second level I feel that there should be… I dream of a society where every individual knows about its responsibility not just on a local level but on the global level as a global citizen.
Nerina: Do you have a dream or a wish for the future?
Almas: Yes, my dream for the future is that our government officials and the policymakers start thinking on the global level or I should say glocally. It means they should consider their local interests as well but the global interest as well because at the end of the day all human beings are the ones who share this planet. So probably our one wrong policy can not only influence our local community but also the global one. I think I really wish that our politicians around the world start thinking about the planet earth, about all of us, they think about the global citizens not just their local citizens.
Nerina: Thank you Almas so much for this conversation.
Almas: Thanks to you for inviting me, for sharing my thoughts.