The first time Esra M. Alhabshi did lab work in school a lightbulb came on - both figuratively and literally. “It was a simple task, my first lab. I had to connect the components and the wiring to make the lightbulb turn on and it did.” Esra says, with a little bit of pensiveness in her voice. “It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to do something that made me feel like there is a concrete objective and I can see, visually, the results of my efforts.”
Now, Esra, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, Nanotechnology and Microsystems, has much more challenging and rewarding goals. Since graduating in 2016, Esra has worked at Saudi Aramco’s satellite Research & Development Center, as a member of the Sustainable Energy team, in collaboration with KAUST. She conducts experiment after experiment, working to improve the efficiency of solar cells and researching the use of non-metallics. Her work focuses on unlocking the potentials of non-corrosive materials in the automotive, construction, renewable energy and packaging industries.
Her days consist of ever-shifting variables, some imposed and some not, to see which conditions, materials and parameters yield the best results. “It can get tedious sometimes, doing the same thing over and over, “ she says. “But when you see the difference in your results, even from the smallest shifts, you can see the possibilities of what can be done on a larger scale. We look to align ourselves with the overall goals of Saudi Aramco and our work includes all areas of innovation.”
Esra says that all the information is fed into systems for modeling, predictive analysis and machine learning. “Over time, the more information you feed the system, the smarter it gets and the less errors occur.”
Esra always knew she wanted a career in math, science or engineering. She loved mathematics when she was a little girl. Her father, an electrical engineer himself, was a strong supporter and encouraged her to pursue her passion. Esra says that, as a result of her career choice and interests, she and her father have grown closer. “We talk about engineering all the time. I ask him questions and we discuss. It has changed the dynamic between us. It has made us understand each other a little more.”
Esra was in a female minority at the Electrical Engineering department of the University of British Columbia. Her program only had about 5% women. One of her good friends in the department was also a woman and Esra remembers how they used to laugh at the boy’s faces when they realized the girls had done better on projects than they had. Today, Esra sees a future with possibilities of cleaner energy from many different areas, not just solar power, but from hydrogen and carbon capture and storage technologies.
“Fifty years from now, there is a possibility that the production of new materials, layered with silicon, will dramatically increase the possibility that we can take much more energy from the sun. Materials like perovskite, which are light and flexible, have a lot of potential for use in solar cells,” she says. In the meantime, Esra has learned not just scientific methods, but also the art of overcoming obstacles to her achievements. “I don’t argue with people who say that I cannot accomplish something, especially when I feel they are saying it because I am a woman. I keep my focus on myself and hope that one day I can find a breakthrough that will change the industry. I know what I can do.”
Her work has already been recognized by her peers. Research conducted by Esra and her team has been featured in several publications and presented at a number of prestigious conferences. Her accomplishments are shining a bright light on the capabilities of women in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields, also known as STEM careers. She is setting an example and guiding the way for women and girls all over the world to follow.