Three-time Alumna Wins L'Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award

Irene Samy Fahim, recipient of the L'Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award

For her innovative research in the manufacturing of non-plastic single-use tableware using sugarcane bagasse, Irene Samy Fahim ‘03, ‘11, ‘15, an associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Service Engineering and Management at Nile University in Cairo, has been named a winner of the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science 2021 Egypt young talents fellowships program.

The program is part of the global L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science initiative, which recognizes women from all areas of the globe each year for their exceptional scientific contributions and further supports their research with a grant. Fahim joined two other women from Egypt and 11 others from the Middle East and North Africa in accepting the award at Dubai Expo 2020 in early February.

She described her feelings at the ceremony as a combination of pride and success. 

“It feels good that two years of hard work is paying off,” Fahim said. “I am also happy that my two sons can see the impact of their mother's work as a contribution to society.”

Fahim’s research that earned her the award includes breakthrough developments in the manufacturing process of single-use tableware made from the waste of sugarcane, known as bagasse.

Her additions and adjustments will allow manufacturers to save 90% of the water and 50% of the electricity used in producing sugarcane bagasse tableware. Using this process, Fahim has developed a prototype and conducted a feasibility study for the tableware.

“There is huge demand for an alternative to single-use plastics, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she pointed out. “Furthermore, the product itself is also biodegradable and releases minimal amounts of carbon dioxide during the composting process.”

Fahim’s current venture is not the scientist’s only contribution to the environmental cause. She has created plastic bags from shrimp shells, insulation material from fruit peels and a hardwood floor replacement from agricultural waste.

Her hard work in this field has not gone unnoticed. She was a recipient of the Hazem Ezzat Research Excellence Award in 2021 and the State Encouragement Award for Women in 2020. She has received a myriad of research grants and is among the members of the first scientific council of the Egyptian Young Academy of Sciences as a part of the Academy of Scientific Research & Technology to empower and encourage young Egyptian scientists in science and technology. 

She also received the Newton Mosharfa Institutional Link Award for two consecutive years in collaboration with the UK’s Nottingham University, for which she was acknowledged by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi at the 3rd National Youth Conference in Ismailia in 2017.

Fahim grew up in a house full of engineers — her parents, brothers and grandfather all practiced this profession.

“I know it sounds cliché, but spending my early years surrounded by this kind of analytical thinking made me want to be an engineer,” she said, happily adding, “I was a nerd.”

Since starting as an undergraduate at AUC, to becoming the first holder of a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University and beyond, Fahim has been committed to “humanitarian engineering” — that is, harnessing her specialized skills and knowledge to tackle major environmental issues, specifically in the realm of waste management.

She first discovered this passion while working on a project with a focus on recycling under Salah El Haggar, professor in AUC’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Fahim found herself immediately hooked. “[El Haggar] is the professor that placed me on this route,” she said, expressing her gratitude for his role in her journey.

Fahim fondly recalls her long stretch at the University, which ran from 1998 until 2015 and thereafter included an additional year as a part-time faculty member. “Once, I was walking behind a couple of students in the hallway, and after one of them asked a question, the other pointed me out, saying ‘The girl in front of you has been at AUC for forever. You can ask her anything.’”

All jokes aside, Fahim hopes that her recognition will inspire and empower other young women to pursue research in waste management. “L'Oréal-UNESCO is doing a great job to promote how women are excelling in research,” she said. “Their support and recognition is filling a gap.”