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“My teacher said I asked too many questions”: from curious to award-winning researcher

February 8, 2021

By Alison Bert, DMA

Ghada Dushaq

Palestinian photonics researcher honored with OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Women Scientists in the Developing World

Pictured above: Dr Ghada Dushaq, a Postdoctoral Associate at in the Photonic Research Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi, fabricates nanoscale devices in a cleanroom using different micro/nano fabrication tools such as photolithography and thin film deposition techniques. These devices are ultrasensitive to dust particles. The yellow filter, which produces the amber light, allows for storage of photoresist (light-sensitive material) coated samples over hours and days in the clean room.

When Dr Ghada Dushaq(opens in new tab/window) was a child, nothing was safe from her prying mind and fingers. If there was a remote control on the coffee table, she would take it apart to figure out how it worked.

In second grade, her curiosity got on her teacher’s nerves.

“She complained to my mom that I was asking too many questions,” Ghada recalled. “‘Why does a banana have no seeds? If you say that our shadow is like a mirror, why don’t we see the exact color? … ‘I don’t know how to answer her.’”

Fortunately, her parents were educators who encouraged her exploration. Today, she continues her exploration as a Postdoctoral Associate in the Photonics Research Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi(opens in new tab/window). Through her research, she is coming up with new and innovative materials for high-speed optical communications. Now, she is being recognized globally as a winner of the 2021 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World. She will accept the award at the virtual 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting(opens in new tab/window).

A child’s experiments shed light on how research is done

Ghada traces her interest in light and optics to her earliest experiments, when she was growing up in Ramallah, on the West Bank of Palestine. When she was 10, her parents got her a set of “magic rocks(opens in new tab/window)“ — clumps of metallic salt particles that grow into multicolored crystals when placed in a solution of sodium silicate and water. “I was amazed,” she said. “Like how do they enlarge and then come out in different colors?

“I did many experiments with them. I was separating them and putting them in different dishes to see what is the maximum size that these particles (can grow to) and what colors I could change, like if I mix the green with red. … And you shine light on them and you see a rainbow on the top – reflections of life inside this particle.”

She laughed. “It was something that might be nothing for others, but I think from that point, I started to see how research (is done),” she recalled. “It was just a child thinking of things, but it was (based on) principles of how we actually do research.”

Pursuing her passion in higher education

Inspired by her older sister, a math teacher, she went on to study physics and mathematics. The biggest challenge she encountered, however, was not in the classroom. As an undergraduate student at Birzeit University(opens in new tab/window) in Ramallah, her daily travels were directly affected by the Israeli occupation. Although she lived just 15 minutes from the university, she had to give herself at least three hours to travel there because of all the checkpoints. “We had a very unstable situation,” she recalled. “So for example, to go to a lecture which starts at 8 am, I was standing in the street waiting for the bus at 5 am.”

She went on to earn a PhD in Interdisciplinary Engineering (microsystems engineering) from Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates in collaboration with MIT Abu Dhabi(opens in new tab/window).

Her thesis, published in Elsevier’s journal Thin Solid Films(opens in new tab/window), would set the stage for the research she continues to pursue: Low Temperature  Growth  of Germanium  on  Silicon using Plasma Enhanced Chemical Vapor Deposition(opens in new tab/window).

Dr Ghada Dushaq defends her PhD thesis at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi.

A field in need of solutions

While graphene is currently the standard material of nanoelectronics and photonics, the ever-increasing demand for high-speed communications has scientists seeking new materials and processes to boost performance. Ghada is working on developing germanium-based 2D materials that can work faster and more efficiently. Recently, she explained her research as a Falling Walls Emerging Talents finalist(opens in new tab/window):

Optical communication systems consist of three major parts: transmitter, optical fiber and receiver. Let’s say you want to send a message. This message will be transmitted from the transmitter through the optical fiber to the receiver, where most of my research is. I focus on very special components called photodetectors in the receiver part.

Photodetectors, as the name suggests, are ultrasensitive to light, and we are taking the optical signal back to the electrical domain, which is the language that our devices can understand. Typically these photodetectors are made of materials such as germanium, indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) and III-V compounds. However these materials cannot accommodate for the high, ever-increasing demand of high speed communication. They are always suffering from a tradeoff between ultrasensitivity and high speed. Therefore my solution focuses on innovative and new emerging materials that can boost the current performance of optical devices.

“I’m breaking the wall of high-speed optical communication”

Dr Ghada Dushaq was a Emerging Talents finalist in the Falling Walls and Berlin Science Week World Science Summit(opens in new tab/window). In this global science communication challenge, early-career researchers have just 3 minutes to explain their breakthrough work in a way the public will understand. Watch her video(opens in new tab/window).

This is a new field, Ghada explained, and it could take more than a decade to develop a marketable solution. “There are many questions we have to answer regarding the chemical stability, reproducibility and the integration process,” she explained. “So it’s a longterm project which actually needs a lot of research to be in the production line.”

Ghada Dushaq in a lab

“This is going to be something amazing.”

Ghada’s Photonic Research Group, which was established in 2018, has eight members in various disciplines. Because NYU has campuses around the world, Ghada and her team members already collaborate with researchers in different countries.  But she believes this award will open even more doors for collaboration and expand her global network.

“As a young researcher, I think this will create a lot of visibility,” she said.

Beyond that, the recognition is its own reward:

Somebody is recognizing and rewarding you for your work, so that’s actually great motivation. You will go into the lab with a different psychology that you are actually recognized – your work really matters. Of course, you have to have perseverance, persistence … and you will have ups and downs. But if somebody is telling you that your job is great, this is going to be something amazing.

About the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award

Since 2012, the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World(opens in new tab/window) have recognized the achievements of researchers who have made significant contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge. The program represents a longstanding partnership between the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD)(opens in new tab/window) (OWSD) and the Elsevier Foundation(opens in new tab/window).

Each year, five winners are selected from the following regions: Latin America and the Caribbean; East and South-East Asia and the Pacific; Central and South Asia; the Arab region; Sub-Saharan Africa. Prizes are awarded annually on a rotating basis among the disciplines of Biological Sciences, Engineering Sciences and Physical Sciences.

Each winner is sponsored to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)(opens in new tab/window), where they present their research at a special networking ceremony. There, they have the opportunity to attend workshops, meet experts in their field and visit local laboratories and institutions, establishing contacts and collaboration networks with colleagues from around the world.

With the 2021 winners, the program has awarded 45 scientists from 20 countries. 


Portrait photo of Alison Bert