Bridging the gap between research and industry
Zainab Mustafa has trailblazed a route from Penrith High School, through UNSW’s prestigious Co-op Scholarship to land a position as one of UNSW Chemical Engineering’s first Industry PhD candidates. At just 22, she is now laying the groundwork for a career at the nexus of academia and industry.
When did you start your Industry PhD (iPhD) and what is the focus?
I started in February 2018 and my research is about improving membrane technology to provide clean water for various applications. In particular, I’ll be looking at how organic materials called transparent exopolymer particles (TEP) negatively impact the efficiency of membranes. This is something that industry has found very problematic.
What are TEP and how do they impact the membrane system?
The formation of TEP in marine waters is associated with the uptake of nitrogen- and carbon-based compounds by diatoms as a precursor to the formation of algal blooms. This phenomenon is very important when contaminated waters, such as coal seam gas effluents, are treated by membrane processes known to be highly susceptible to the presence of algae and associated organic compounds. TEP increase both the amount of energy required by the membrane system and the cost of maintaining them.
In what ways is the iPhD different to a regular PhD?
The iPhD program is a new initiative specifically designed to bridge the gap between research and industry. The problem posed by my iPhD is a real industry problem that was identified as a result of a four-way conversation between myself, my supervisors at UNSW (Associate Professor Pierre Le Clech and Professor Greg Leslie), my supervisor at CSIRO and the industry partner involved.
While working on the project I’ll be able to access resources at both UNSW and CSIRO and, in addition, the iPhD includes a minimum six-month internship with my industry partner, which I think is fantastic. The activities I do on the internship will be fully integrated with the needs of the project and when I do it depends on how my project progresses. It’s very flexible and can even be done in stages if that’s more appropriate.
While working on the project I’ll be able to access resources at both UNSW and CSIRO and, in addition, the iPhD includes a minimum six-month internship with my industry partner, which I think is fantastic.
Zainab Mustafa, iPhD candidate, UNSW Chemical Engineering
What are your plans for the future?
I’m planning to go into academia as a water engineer, although I’m pretty open as to exactly what my research will focus on. I’m certain that I want to bring industry experience into it though, so after my iPhD I want to work in industry before coming back to university. This is vital and will enable me to use my industry knowledge to make my research as relevant as possible.
Why are you so passionate about water engineering?
There are a few reasons that have led me down this path. I’m Indian and although I came to live in Australia when I was seven, I have visited India many times and seen first-hand just how difficult living without access to clean water can be and how awful it is to deal with the diseases that come with that.
I was also inspired by my dad who is a process engineer and also by my Honours project which I worked on with Engineers Without Borders. I investigated a novel method of removing arsenic from drinking water in Cambodia, and after that I was convinced that I wanted to do a PhD in the water area.
What would you say to someone considering signing up for an iPhD?
I would tell them that whether you’re pursuing a career in industry or academia, the iPhD is really well designed. I’m already gaining valuable skills across stakeholder management, communication, project scoping and analytics. Industry knowledge is currently lacking in the university environment so having an iPhD will count as a very valuable experience in your future career.