For Dr. Zahra Shayegan, working at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) is a "researcher's dream."
"It provides a unique opportunity to take research from the lab to the marketplace, to where people can benefit from it," says Zahra, who joined the NRC in October this year as the first recipient of the NRC Luise and Gerhard Herzberg Postdoctoral Fellowship. The fellowship is awarded annually to a recent PhD graduate who identifies as a woman and who has demonstrated research excellence.
A materials specialist with a passion for the environment
Zahra joined the NRC's Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge program, bringing with her an impressive background in the field of environmental engineering.
After completing her bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering in Iran, Zahra began her doctoral studies at Concordia University. During her doctoral studies, she developed a highly effective photocatalyst for breaking down pollutants to improve indoor air quality. Her outstanding work earned her the Governor General of Canada's Academic Gold Medal, and the Doctoral Prize in Engineering and Computer Science at Concordia.
During her PhD, Zahra spent time in Switzerland learning new methods at ETH Zurich and Empa, a renowned institute for materials science and technology. She also worked with the NRC's indoor air quality group in Ottawa, investigating energy-efficient air purification techniques.
Before receiving the Herzberg fellowship, Zahra was awarded fellowships from the Fonds de recherche du Québec and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. During this time, she developed her expertise in materials science as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institut national de recherche scientifique in Montréal, where she focused on nanoscale fabrication of advanced materials.
As a member of Dr. Shiqiang Hui's team in the Energy, Mining and Environment Research Centre in Vancouver, Zahra will apply her expertise in light-driven catalysts to the challenge of clean energy production, working on solar-driven photochemical processes to produce hydrogen.
Finding her path in engineering
Zahra says her affinity for math and physics in high school led her to pursue chemical engineering, despite a prevailing belief that it was not a field for girls. Unwilling to limit herself, Zahra persevered and discovered that her education in chemical engineering would enable her to address the environmental challenges she is passionate about, despite the field's traditional associations with the petrochemical industry.
"When I started studying chemical engineering, I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to apply all of my expertise in materials engineering and then environmental engineering in this way," she says.
Although she acknowledges that women remain a minority in engineering research, especially at more senior levels, Zahra notes the improvement in efforts to encourage women and girls to pursue STEM, especially in Canada. However, reminders of women's underrepresentation in the field sometimes come in unexpected ways. She recounts the example of a piece of laboratory equipment that was too large for her to use effectively, describing a near-impossible manoeuvre she had to perform to introduce a sample at one end of the machine while observing the result through a window that was out of her reach.
"When I mentioned this to the staff at the laboratory, they said it was the first time they had faced this problem, possibly because the majority of users were men."
Honouring a scientific legacy
The NRC Luise and Gerhard Herzberg Postdoctoral Fellowship commemorates the contributions of Drs. Luise and Gerhard Herzberg to science.
Dr. Agnes Herzberg, daughter of Luise and Gerhard, says "That the National Research Council of Canada has chosen to dedicate this postdoctoral fellowship to my parents is an honour for them, and by encouraging Canada's best students, my parents will not be forgotten." Agnes is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Queen's University.