Veena Sahajwalla vividly remembers her interview for the Barbour Scholarship program. She remembers sitting in the interview room, feeling nervous, and being asked what impact she wanted to have on the world – what her vision was for her own legacy. Her response? “To use engineering to improve the quality of people’s lives, to take any lessons back to India, and to have a global impact.” She was soon selected for the scholarship and eventually earned her Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering. She is now an Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Professor and Director of both the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) and the ARC Research Hub for green manufacturing at UNSW, Sydney.
Professor Sahajwalla remembers her time at the University of Michigan fondly, reflecting on the friendships she built on campus. She describes the experience of coming to U-M after completing her undergraduate degree in India and Master’s in Canada as “fascinating,” and was excited to have the opportunity to learn from amazing professors and peers. The support of professors was crucial for her development, as was practice presenting her work in conferences and meetings, which felt intimidating, but taught important lessons. Professor Sahajwalla recalls, “at the time, you feel like ‘this is really scary, I’m doing presentations in front of experts who know so much more than I do,’ but you need to have those experiences and develop the confidence to stand up and present your ideas as a graduate student.” She also emphasizes that her friendships are what she cherishes most about her time at Michigan; after sharing the ups and downs of graduate school together, many of those she met in Ann Arbor are friends for life.
Reflecting on her career, Professor Sahajwalla emphasizes how amazing it is to see what impact education can have, and cites her experience at U-M as an inspiration for her current work. Since graduating, Professor Sahajwalla has invented an environmentally friendly technology for recycling rubber tires in steel-making, preventing more than 2.5 million tires to date from ending up in landfills and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Following the commercialization of this breakthrough technology in Australia and internationally, she has expanded her innovative approach to transforming waste into green resources, materials and products. Her team of some 30 researchers at the SMaRT Centre are pioneering new methods to safely recycle and transform e-waste into value added materials, to tackle some of the most technically challenging waste streams like mixed plastics and the contaminated non-metallic shreds left behind after a scrapped car has been stripped of its metal. She has spoken about her inventions throughout the world, and her research has been internationally recognized through many awards. In 2016 Professor Sahajwalla was announced as one of Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers by Engineers Australia. In 2015 Professor Sahajwalla was the Innovation Winner of the Australian Financial Review–Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards, and was listed as one of Australia’s Top 100 Most Influential Engineers by Engineers Australia. In 2012 she was named Overall Winner of the Australian Innovation Challenge, and was presented with a Banksia Award and the GE Eco Innovation Award for Individual Excellence. While already well-known and highly respected within her own sphere, Professor Sahajwalla became one of Australia’s best-known scientists and inventors through her regular appearances as a judge on the long-running ABC TV series The New Inventors.
However, she is most proud of her initiative “Science 50:50,” a campaign to promote, support, mentor, and inspire Australian girls and young women interested in careers in science. She had considered the idea for three years before being awarded the Australian Research Council (ARC) Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellowship, which, in addition to her major research into a new, safe method of recycling e-waste, sponsor her work to improve opportunities for girls and young women in science and technology. She was motivated by the road blocks that discourage young girls from pursuing studies and careers in the STEM industry and wanted to provide them with a chance to see what the real world impact of knowledge is in practice. Science 50:50 creates the opportunity for young girls to actually go into various factories, plants, and businesses, among other site visits, to hear stories from real people and talk to inspiring people across science and technology fields. The program works to open up doors, connect the girls to mentors, and empower these high school students to make their own informed decisions regarding their career paths. She emphasizes that “if you’re actually seeing these things in high school, you can make up your own mind about what to study, which is why it’s important to create a bridge from high school into the real world where things are happening.” Professor Sahajwalla received the award in mid-2014 and by early 2015, Science 50:50 was effectively launched and running. Since its official launch, she estimates that roughly 500 students have participated in events ranging from visits to museums, research groups, and companies like Ernst and Young, to online mentoring to their flagship event on International Women’s Day. Professor Sahajwalla dreams that one day the program will expand internationally, and at its current pace, the goal cannot be far from fruition.
Considering her vision for her legacy many years after the initial Barbour interview, it is clear Professor Sahajwalla has never lost sight of the mission she presented to her interviewers, continuing to seek and create innovative solutions that serve not only advanced, but also developing economies. To current graduate students and all future innovators, she provides the following advice:
“We all have dreams and visions for our futures when we’re young people studying, and… of course [graduate school] can be a challenging time in our lives where you’re figuring out what you want to do. My advice is to always do what you’re really passionate about, be true to yourself to nurture your internal happiness, which you can share across the world. If you’re passionate about what you’re studying, you can [use that passion] to improve the quality of lives for everyone across the planet, in whatever way that might be.”