American University of Beirut

Building the future with female-led research at MSFEA

​March 8 marks International Women's Day: a day to celebrate all the amazing achievements of the world's women on the social, economic, cultural and political fronts. The background and experiences that women bring to any table allow for an enriched perspective on understanding the problems and challenges facing our world and the solutions and opportunities needed to solve them. At MSFEA, we are lucky to work with outstanding women who enrich the experiences of their ​students, colleagues, and departments in so many ways. This article will feature some of the exceptional work being done by only a few of the women researchers at MSFEA.

Engineers, architects, and designers are problem-solvers who use science and analytical skills to explore pressing problems and solve them objectively. MSFEA's female academics work shoulder-to-shoulder with male academics to positively impact human life in Lebanon, the region, and the world. They each have a special niche in which they explore solutions for problems, old and new, ranging from human health to traffic, machinery to environmental pollution, technology power sources to industrial management, and automation to medical equipment.

In celebration of MSFEA's female researchers, this article will shed the light on some of the stellar research work that they do to enrich our world with knowledge and progress.

Niveen AbiGhannam, MSFEA:
Universities spend tremendous amounts of time and resources studying STEM-related topics in labs and classrooms. However, much of that work remains confined to university walls and never gets to attain the intended broader impacts on society. Successful communication practices are key to ensure that relevant information will reach interested stakeholders that are on the sidelines of science and engineering, such as policymakers, business managers, or even the public at large. Dr. AbiGhannam examines and develops audience-based communication strategies that appeal to the abilities, goals, and needs of the different entities involved in a particular science or technical communication instance. Such strategies apply to formal contexts, such as in academic and professional communication settings, as well as informal contexts, such as in social and cultural settings. She also designs and runs trainings for scientists and engineers to help them improve the reach and impacts of their research by strategically communicating scientific and technical information with target audiences.

Maya Abou Zeid, Civil and Environmental Engineering:

People complain about traffic all the time. Traffic problems are in part caused by people's transportation choices as well as the existing infrastructure (roads) that people use for commuting. Dr. Abou Zeid studies people's travel choices and finds new ways to make them more environmentally-friendly and efficient. For instance, she observes people's road travel trends and decisions and then integrates them into mathematical models that can help planners assess the infrastructure needed to accommodate the resulting anticipated traffic. The goal is to help societies know how to improve road conditions and safety based on the expected flow of traffic.

Howayda Al-Harithy, Architecture and Design:

Even though people's minds are extremely fascinated by the idea of future cities, a special place in their hearts is reserved for historical ones. Dr. Al-Harithy's work focuses on urban heritage, especially concerning the debate on heritage construction and consumption in the Arab world. Specifically, she looks at post-war reconstruction and urban recovery in relation to processes of historical editing, urban trauma, and protracted displacement.


Sabla Alnouri, Chemical Engineering and Advanced Energy:

Chemical processes and reactions are at the heart of industrial production. In fact, understanding the characteristics of naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals have allowed humans to create novel materials and products. Dr. Alnouri uses computer modeling in order to understand the performance of complex chemical arrangements, as well as to design, control, and optimize chemical processes. She also develops tools that facilitate interactions among elements in large and complex chemical systems.

Mariette Awad, Electrical and Computer Engineering:

E-commerce has become increasingly popular in the last few years. Having purchases delivered to people's front doors is making shopping easier and more efficient for many. As a result, certain E-commerce companies, like Amazon, have begun shifting from contracting independent shipping companies to using their own drones to deliver consumer products. Dr. Awad studies how artificial intelligence (the ability for computers to perform tasks that require human intelligence) can help improve the coordination of independent and cooperative drones for package delivery. She works on a concept called machine learning, which allows algorithms to become computationally more efficient, robust, and biologically inspired, without being explicitly programmed to do so.

Rana Bilbeisi, Civil and Environmental Engineering:

Construction generally results in major environmental impacts given the ample resources used in the process. Dr. Bilbeisi's novel research explores sustainable construction material that can minimize environmental pollution by adsorbing pollutants from their surroundings. Her work thus involves the preparation of economical, efficient, and green construction material with novel functionalities through investigating processes that can extract anions and heavy metals from water.

Cassia Boyadjian, Chemical Engineering and Advanced Energy:

The discovery and extraction of fossil fuels can be considered as one of the leading causes of the technological advancements that we are witnessing today. However, such resources are being heavily depleted, which is why it is important to find ways to use them more efficiently and/or to find alternative renewable sources of energy that are less harming to the environment. Dr. Boyadjian studies the development of novel catalytic routes for fuel and chemicals through processes involving heterogeneous catalysis and reaction engineering.  Moreover, she studies energy production and use from alternative sources, such as waste, renewable carbon sources, and solar light.

Mayssa Dabaghi, Civil and Environmental Engineering:

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, can be extremely destructive to cities and humanity at large. Because it is difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate when such disasters can occur, it is usually difficult to plan measures that can prevent resulting damages and casualties. Dr. Dabaghi studies the characteristics of earthquake ground motions and uses such information to quantify the expected hazard at a specific location. Additionally, she works on assessing the performance of structures (e.g. buildings, roads, and bridges) when subjected to earthquakes. Such information can ultimately help cities update their building codes in order to improve the safety of structures and minimize damages inflicted by earthquakes.

Salma Samar Damluji, Architecture and Design:

Every region has a special architectural fingerprint that makes it stand out in people's minds. Dr. Damluji is an architect who studies the unique aspects of Islamic architecture in the Arab region. In fact, her focus on Islamic geometry extends beyond the architecture and design of Islamic and Arab cities, and also examines its relationship with the cities' crafts, culture, and functions. Moreover, in her practice as an architect, Dr. Damluji uses Earth architecture and building technology, which involves utilizing traditional Earth material and ancient techniques to solve current modern problems.

Mona Fawaz, Architecture and Design:

To many, urban living is a necessity that can help facilitate access to quality education and career paths. However, the equitable access to cities is often hindered by unjust housing policies and opportunities that in turn further exclude certain factions in society from dwelling cities. Dr. Fawaz investigates the financial, political, and social forces that influence the processes of housing production and acquisition. More specifically, she looks at the dynamics involved in low-income informal settlements, middle-class residential neighborhoods, and high-end developments (including the actors and institutions that structure the processes in which cities are built and the resourceful strategies deployed by vulnerable urban populations, such as refugees, to overcome the challenges of urban exclusion).  Motivated by the goal of making cities more inclusive, Dr. Fawaz's research explores the role that city-planners could do to recover the right to an inclusive city.

Vida Mia Garcia, MSFEA:​

From climate change to food insecurity, data privacy to widespread lack of economic opportunity, the challenges we face as a planet are becoming increasingly interrelated, dynamic, and uncertain. Any meaningful responses to these complex issues will require an ability to come up with creative solutions and effective action in the face of tremendous ambiguity. Dr. García works to train students and faculty alike in methods that help them identify and scope problems before introducing a new solution, and to put stakeholder experiences at the center of that search. She uses her training in cultural anthropology to teach qualitative research, problem finding and framing, idea generation, lo-res prototyping, and user testing in order to cultivate a robust sense of creative confidence—one that will allow our students to take on the world's most critical challenges with a skill in humanistic inquiry that matches their rigorous technical education.​

Mona Harb, Architecture and Design:

Public policies that govern cities often have uneven effects on different communities and individuals in society. Dr. Harb studies how institutions produce and manage urban policies and services, as well as how such policies and services may in turn impact people's spatial practices and lived experiences. Her work seeks to inform urban policy and activism in order to advance social and environmental justice in cities.

Mona Itani, MSFEA:

Youth and women empowerment are gaining worldwide attention as the world faces more challenges on the economic, environmental, and social levels. There is a consensus that entrepreneurship is an effective tool to give youth and women a voice allowing them to make real change through creating businesses that do not only create job opportunities for them but also to many others around them. Itani is particularly interested in exploring the intersection between engineering, entrepreneurship, and the social good which she is investigating through the programs that she is designing and implementing.

Rouwaida Kanj, Electrical and Computer Engineering:

With the advancement of technology, today's systems can handle very complex functions, however, system errors and failures occur all the time. It is therefore important for companies to be able to determine and design against the root of such failures in order to minimize their effects either at design time or by adapting to the fails during operation so that they can reduce the costs and time needed to deal with any errors. Dr. Kanj explores novel design methodologies and novel technologies and machine learning algorithms for enhanced computational powers and reliability of future designs. This helps companies manage computational systems better and use them for what is needed in the age of big data.

​Hiam Khoury, Civil and Environmental Engineering:

Construction is associated with the growth and prosperity of communities and societies. People are in constant need for more spaces for living, working, and leisure. However, construction is a long process that requires various teams of varying specialties. It also takes a long time from the planning phase to the final execution phase. Dr. Khoury works on automating various construction tasks (e.g. planning and scheduling, inspection, safety monitoring) by developing IT applications. This allows the construction process to become more efficient and straightforward.

Yara Khoury Nammour, Architecture and Design:

Many publications in the Arab region are produced in two or more languages in order to cater to the multi-lingual readers. Several complications, however, may arise due to the incompatible formatting of Arabic and Latin scripts. Nammour studies the structural and typographic formats of printed bound documents that use both: Arabic and Latin characters. In other words, she identifies the factors that need to be considered by designers and documents the findings in a decision tree schema. Nammour also looks at the possible relationships between Arabic and Latin scripts in bilingual settings by comparing their respective anatomies, letter frequencies and visual impressions.

Elsa Maalouf, Chemical Engineering and Advanced Energy:

Even though we are seeing an impressive shift to renewable sources of energy in many places, oil is still essential as a raw material to synthesize industrial chemicals, plastic, synthetic fabric, medicine, and many more everyday products. Dr. Maalouf studies the properties of rocks and soil under different conditions using numerical modeling and experiments to ensure safe and efficient drilling of oil and gas reservoirs and enhance the production of oil.

Nadine Moacdieh, Industrial Engineering and Management:

Technology has become ubiquitous in our societies. It is difficult to imagine any area of life that is not associated with a technological system. (Think about medical displays, airplane cockpits, and car interiors.) Such technology systems are constantly being updated and improved; and every time an update comes along, people have to spend some time getting accustomed to it for optimal use. Dr. Moacdieh analyzes new ways by which people interact with technology and then integrates such interactions into technological systems. She thus designs interfaces that fit the users' needs and perform their tasks efficiently and correctly. For example, by using an eye tracker, a device that tells her where people are looking at on a screen, she can understand how people interact with computer screens and what they need to find on such a screen.

Roula Nassif, Electrical and Computer Engineering:

Even though technology has helped us solve so many of people's problems, it also is often the source of so many of their frustrations. System overloads and errors, for instance, are some of those frustrations that people have to deal with as they use complex networking systems online. Dr. Nassif studies the effects of local interactions among agents in a network on the global behavior of the system. Moreover, she develops strategies to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of complex networking systems in order to make them more efficient and seamless.

Darine Salam, Civil and Environmental Engineering:

The Earth's oceans are in dire danger due to visible and invisible pollutants that are lurking in the world's bodies of water. Such pollutants can have destructive effects on the safety and health of our planet. Dr. Salam studies the process by which microorganisms (bacteria) can break down crude oil in marine ecosystems, a process called bioremediation, along with the mechanisms in which emerging environmental contaminants can biodegrade. She also looks at improving the efficiency of alternative renewable energy sources, such as through developing nanoparticles with enhanced catalytic performance in biodiesel production, in order to limit the environmental degradation of our home planet.

Soha Talih, Mechanical Engineering:

Despite a consensus regarding the health effects of smoking, tobacco use is still on the rise in many societies. Additionally, many people are mistakenly under the impression that new products, such as e-cigarettes, are safe. Dr. Talih studies the toxicants that are produced by tobacco products (specifically electronic cigarettes) and writes physics-based mathematical codes to predict these emissions based on simple user-defined inputs. The goal is to analyze toxicant emissions from different tobacco products and help users switch to products that have lower health risks.

Happy International Women's Day from the MSFEA family to all the women problem solvers of the World!


This article is written by the MSFEA Communication CREW​ (a collaboration between the MSFEA Communication Office and the Semaan Communication Initiative).​

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