Growing up and studying in Iran, Elmira Katoozi remembers looking around engineering classrooms at Tehran University and seeing almost exclusively male faces.

Once she graduated and joined the engineering workforce, it was the same story.

Increasing the number of women participating in STEM fields is a challenge around the world, including in Australia.

Now graduating from UNSW Canberra with an engineering PhD, Elmira hopes she can be a role model for young women looking to pursue a career in engineering.

“I think [the lack of women in engineering] comes down to the mindset that engineering fields are masculine environments and women can’t succeed there,” Elmira says.

“We have these incorrect perceptions that engineering involves lots of physical activities that women can’t do.

“But I’m an engineer and I can do whatever a man can do.”

Testament to that fact is Elmira’s PhD project, which saw her develop a new way to decontaminate preserved wood, allowing it to be recycled into a new construction material.

Elmira, whose background and professional experience is in chemical engineering, had previously worked on water treatment, specifically removing metal from wastewater. For her PhD, Elmira turned her mind to removing the preservatives applied to wood to protect it from rain, fungus, termites, and other damage.

Elmira’s research led to the development of a more economical method of removing the toxic chemicals, leaving behind enough useable material that the wood could then be chipped and mixed with cement to create a more lightweight alternative to concrete. Further research to be undertaken at UNSW Canberra will now test the load-bearing strength of this new material.

“The thing I like about engineering is that you can feel and see whatever you do,” Elmira says.

“You can see your contribution to the project.”

In addition to developing this new method, Elmira says undertaking her PhD allowed her to broaden her skills which she can now apply in her career or in further study.

“You gain lots of knowledge during a PhD that you don't even realise you have,” she says.

“For example, research ability, you don't understand that you have it until you're about to do some research for something other than your PhD.

“I think once you know how to do research, you can do millions of things, because you know how to start.”

Elmira is now working with a plastic recycling company to use her chemical engineering skills to improve the processes involved in reusing plastics. In addition to research skills, the life lessons she learned along the way will be invaluable as she tackles her new role and throughout her life.

“A PhD is a journey with lots of ups and downs,” she says.

“You sometimes think that there is no way you can find a solution for this problem, and that's why no one has yet.

“But eventually you find an answer. And what I learned during that three and a half years was to be positive.

“If Edison or Einstein thought there was no way to find the answer for what they worked on, then we wouldn’t have any improvements. I always had the attitude that I should find a way.”

She also learned that it was crucial to lean on colleagues and supervisors when problems arose, as they often brought different perspectives and could see things that she couldn’t.

Asked if she had one piece of advice for her fellow students, Elmira says, “Have self-confidence.”

“You’re studying at one of the best universities in the world. You have the talent. You are smart enough. Be proud, and don’t underestimate yourself.”

Completing a PhD taught Elmira Katoozi many life lessons, including the benefits of knowing how to conduct research and when to reach out to your peers for advice or support. Image: UNSW Canberra