A commitment to sustainable energy in research and education

An interview with Professor Fathy M. Hassan of the United Arab Emirates University

I believe innovation in chemistry is the key to a prosperous future worldwide. With the proper chemistry education and research focus, we can produce sustainable energy and food, protect our environment, provide safe-to-drink water, and promote harmony between humans and our environment.

— Professor Fathy M. Hassan

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Professor Fathy M. Hassan is a researcher and educator in the Department of Chemistry at United Arab Emirates University. After graduating with a master’s degree in physical chemistry from Cairo University, he went to the University of Waterloo to do a PhD. He was a finalist for the Reaxys PhD Prize 2016 for his work on engineered nanoarchitectures as anode materials for lithium-ion batteries, and he has gone on to win several other awards since then. As a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo, he worked on a collaboration with General Motors, and then went on to join the teaching staff. He has been at United Arab Emirates University since August 2019.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Professor Hassan. We’d like to begin by asking what chemistry means to you.

First and foremost, I believe innovation in chemistry is the key to a prosperous future worldwide. With the proper chemistry education and research focus, we can produce sustainable energy and food, protect our environment, provide safe-to-drink water, and promote harmony between humans and our environment.

What attracted you to researching electrochemical energy systems and nanostructured materials?

Every day, we receive an enormous amount of free energy from the sun. By developing highly efficient energy storage and conversion devices, such as batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells, we can maximize the utilization of solar energy and indeed other renewable energy sources, such as the wind. Electrochemical energy is safe for the environment, with no emission of harmful gases. I believe this is one of the best choices for a sustainable energy.

These energy systems are not without their issues. Developing innovative nanostructures or architectures can give us materials with exceptional properties to solve these challenges, providing excellent performance, stability and safety. That is what motivated me to explore the world of nanostructure materials and to develop next-generation electrochemical energy systems. I see my work as part of the solution for a global problem.

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Being a finalist of the Reaxys PhD Prize was an early accolade for you. How did it impact your career in academia and your professional network?

Being a finalist for one of the most competitive international prizes in chemistry helped me feel proud of the value of my achievements. It was like the sustainable fuel that ignited my motivation to continue in the same direction, hoping to do more for life, humanity and the environment.

What are your memories of the 2016 event?

The whole event is vivid in my memory, starting from the first moment I arrived at the hotel in London! When I met with my fellow finalists, we started to explore the incredible achievements everyone had in different fields. Naturally, I enjoyed the presentations and the opportunity to ask and be asked questions. Overall it was a great experience, and I would like to thank everyone who contributed, including the team who dedicated their time and effort to make it very successful event.

Have you had specific opportunities that came with Reaxys Prize Club membership?

Unfortunately, I have not yet had the chance to benefit from the club membership, but I believe I can do in the near future. For example, there are the possibilities to apply for discounts to Elsevier conferences or receive a networking grant.

What would you say to a PhD student who’s considering applying to the Reaxys PhD Prize?

I advise PhD students who value their research to apply to the Reaxys PhD Prize. It’s an opportunity to put a global spotlight on your work and achievements and receive recognition for being the finalist or winner of a hugely competitive award.

What advice would you give to a PhD student who’s considering a career like yours?

I advise PhD students to be more subjective when it comes to success rather than solely focusing on getting a degree. This means you need to understand the value of your work and enjoy solving a problem that may change the world. Success is easy: you just need patience and persistence.

Your profile mentions the importance of scientific knowledge and education in environmental protection, economic prosperity and sustainability. Could you present your view on the role of a chemistry researcher in these areas? And do you feel current education programs do enough to address this?

Awareness in scientific knowledge and education are strong tools for a sustainable society that lives in a clean environment. Education produces both the decision makers and the researchers. Both need to have sufficient awareness of the correct direction so that society can grow in a sustainable and clean manner. That is why we always need to update and invest in learning strategies. Already, many education systems have recognised this and started to adapt. I believe we need to continue improving our system to develop a stronger society with more public awareness, and to adapt the education style to effectively use the new technology.

This can take several directions, including 1) developing interdisciplinary competence; 2) embracing the flexibility and adaptability of modular design as part of the education system; 3) focusing more on experiential learning; 4) integrating instructional design in the field and updating it in parallel with technology; 5) involving the students in research, i.e., bridging the divide between research and education to create balance and harmony!

What are your best moments as a chemist?

Whenever I solve a problem! For example, when a material is difficult to synthesize or manipulate, it can prevent me from sleeping…Then when I succeed, it feels like such a triumph. On the other hand, the best moment as a chemist can also come when a property or a result look odd and there is no clear explanation. When effort, thought and analysis yield the answer, that can be a great moment.

But I must also say that succeeding in delivering a difficult concept to my students brings me enormous satisfaction. When I see understanding in their eyes, I feel very happy — especially with challenging concepts in physical chemistry and thermodynamics.

Professor Hassan, thank you for your time.

Connect with Professor Hassan on LinkedIn or check out his Scopus author profile.

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