Woman of substance: the materials world of Adah Almutairi

The celebrated pharmaceutical chemist, nano engineer and inventor reveals why she has spent a career focusing her mind over matter

When the Berlin Wall came down, Adah Almutairi watched the event unfold on a television screen 5,000 kilometres away in the family living room in Jeddah.

Too young at the time to fully understand the implications, 12-year-old Adah could nonetheless tell that the moment was significant, by the reaction of her parents.

Years later, at a conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany, Ms Almutairi was on a stage in Berlin talking about her ground-breaking achievements in knocking down walls in science.

Back then, public speaking made her nervous. The knowledge that Chancellor Angela Merkel, a fellow chemist revered by Ms Almutairi, was among the 700 top international scientists and guests taking part merely compounded the feeling.

She broke the ice with a quote from the 1967 romantic comedy drama The Graduate, which earned her a laugh from the audience: “I just have one word to say,” she told them. “Just one word. Are you listening? Are you listening? Plastics.”

Ms Almutairi went on to describe herself as a plastics chemist, but she is much more besides. Her wide-ranging work combining materials chemistry with nanotechnology as well as developing tools for the future of biology and medicine makes her in great demand at conferences in the US, Europe, the Middle East and China.

The Saudi-American pharmaceutical chemist and nanomedicine engineer has won all manner of honours and recognition, including the prestigious and lucrative National Institutes of Health director’s new innovator award.

At the Falling Walls event, she gave an engaging, if sometimes faltering, presentation of her life-changing nanoparticle discovery feted in the US Congress as one of the four most important US technology breakthroughs of 2012.

“I used to be a nervous wreck before I gave a talk and would practise for two weeks beforehand,” she tells The National. “Plus, Angela Merkel is such an amazing woman, so meeting her was really special.

“She got elected just as I got my degree in chemistry and the way she spoke at that conference, and later welcomed so many Syrians into Germany, made me really respect her views on being kind citizens.”

With practice, Ms Almutairi, now 45, is much more comfortable as a public speaker. “Preparation,” she says, “is key.”

It was a lesson she learnt as a schoolgirl after a fluffed first gymnastics performance before a crowd left her sobbing on a bench. Determined never to repeat the same mistake, she rose to become the top gymnast on the team as well as the fastest 1,500-metre runner.

Preparedness forms the backbone of her professional life as she puts known scientific truths into practice while always remaining open to unexpected outcomes.

Discoveries and their effects, she and Ms Merkel wholeheartedly agree, can often surprise the scientists and engineers themselves.

“If you decide there is going to be a challenge down the road and that is going to deter you, nothing will happen,” she says. “If you go down that road anyway, you’ll solve the problem when you get there.”

No amount of planning, though, could have readied her for a year when the rug was pulled out from beneath her feet. In 2015, her beloved father died at the age of 65 and her 20-year marriage to a banker she met at university fell apart.

It was, she says, a painful time – not least because Mutlaq bin Abdul Rahman Almutairi, born into a traditional Saudi family, was his daughter’s greatest ambassador, enabling her to break free from what could have all too easily been a restrictive mould.

He was just five years old and still mourning his mother’s death when his own father packed up their goat-hair tent, strapped their few possessions to the back of a camel and made the arduous 100km journey from the Bedouin desert enclave of Al Harra to seek work and a new life in Jeddah.

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Sometimes in life, one decision changes everything ... my father was enlightened from God

Desperately poor, the family squatted on land and, when old enough, the enterprising Mutlaq enrolled himself and his younger sister in school.

His conservative father, who could not read or write, was furious and sent his daughter home. Mutlaq stood his ground and continued with his education – a moment that shaped the course of his own future and subsequently that of his five children.

“Sometimes in life, one decision changes everything,” Ms Almutairi says.

Mutlaq’s offspring have flourished in their respective fields of science and medicine. Khalid, 46, a plastic surgeon, Heba, 38, a professor in radiology, and Ahmed, 37, a dentist, still live in Saudi Arabia while Amer, 41, a professor in family medicine, is based in Houston.

Ms Almutairi was named recently on the Forbes list of the world’s Top 10 Influential Female Engineers, and often thinks of the debt owed to a father who championed her right to education.

The stance made him something of an anomaly among the Almutair tribe, whose roots can be traced back to the Quran.

“It still makes me emotional,” she says. “He was enlightened from God.

“No one around him was educated. He was the first in his entire family to learn how to read and write and go to college.

“My father and grandfather got into a lot of fights because my grandfather did not believe women should be educated.”

While she inherited drive and motivation from her father, a love of learning was instilled at a young age by her mother Najat, who, aptly enough, was a teacher.

“My family on my mother’s side were extremely well educated and my mother is very well read,” she says.

Indeed, her parents met because Mutlaq had become besotted with Ms Almutairi’s great-aunt Hilal, an intellectual who was one of the first dentists in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the 20-year age gap, he approached the family to ask for her hand in marriage but was advised instead to wed the daughter of Hilal’s brother, with whom he would build a strong bond.

“My father appreciated a smart woman,” Ms Almutairi says. “He didn’t go after the young, pretty girl. He initially went for the older woman he enjoyed talking to.

“Now when I think back, I realise how special and unique he was, and how much respect he had for women.”

Mutlaq studied criminology and justice administration in Portland, Oregon, where Adah Almutairi was born, before returning to his homeland to become a police investigator.

The young Adah attended international schools in Jeddah and Riyadh, excelling not only at sport but in maths and science.

On leaving school at 16, she was at a loss as to what to do next. Her mother was applying for teaching posts so, on a whim, Ms Almutairi submitted an application to Najd National School in Riyadh – and surprised everyone, including herself, by landing a job teaching English.

“I didn’t have a degree, and when the headmistress realised how young I was, she said: ‘Don’t tell anyone, just put some lipstick on.’

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‘You remind me of myself’ is one of the nicest things you can say to a young person if they look up to you

“It was the best job ever. I loved every minute of it. I had such a connection with the girls. I used to take in copies of my mother’s Reader’s Digests and make up writing exercises around them.”

A year later, she began applying to universities. King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah turned her down but she secured a sports scholarship to Occidental College in Los Angeles, Barack Obama’s alma mater.

The opportunity once again put her father at loggerheads with her grandfather and members of the Almutairi clan, who did not think a young woman should travel overseas alone. Unperturbed, Mutlaq sent her anyway, even though he and Najat had doubts about her choice of subject.

The couple wanted her to be a doctor but Ms Almutairi chose maths as her major before switching to chemistry in her second year.

The lightbulb moment came when her tutor, the widely loved chemistry professor Tetsuo Otsuki, told her she was “a diamond in the dirt”.

“He made me feel smart and capable, and worth being taught,” she says.

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I like to solve problems and have a positive impact on the world

“I have twice been told the phrase: ‘You remind me of myself’. It is one of the nicest things you can say to a young person if they look up to you. It really sat in my heart.”

Chemistry appealed because it was based on “concepts where once I wrapped my head around them, I could use them in so many ways”.

A scholarship to continue her studies at the University of California, Riverside, led her to create lightweight plastic polymers, or molecules, capable of conducting electrons that had uses in everything from robotics to space research.

“Around that time,” she says, “Hideki Shirakawa was winning the Nobel chemistry prize for his work with conductive polymers, and both Nasa and Walt Disney were funding and supporting that work.”

She may not have become a doctor of medicine as her parents had wished, but Ms Almutairi did turn her attention to the field during postdoctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked with Jean Frechet, a chemist innovating in the area of in-vivo imaging to diagnose disease.

After being turned down for jobs in Saudi Arabia, she took up a post at the University of California, San Diego, going on to lead an interdisciplinary research group at the Centre for Excellence in Nanomedicine and Engineering.

Perhaps one of Ms Almutairi’s proudest moments was collaborating with an ophthalmologist for a decade to come up with a way to regenerate failing retinas and prevent blindness.

“That particular innovation is now commercialised and makes me feel really good about myself,” she says. "I enjoy all sorts of application materials but medicine is especially rewarding. I like to solve problems and have a positive impact on the world."

Her work with lanthanides – popularly classed as rare earth elements but actually, she says, abundant – involves a chemical reaction that could be applied to the delivery of drugs and diagnostics in medicine but also solar energy harvesting.

She has more than 100 patents registered, including one with her brother Khalid to use gold molecules in liposuction.

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My work is very rewarding, and my father was very proud of me

“My work is very rewarding,” Ms Almutairi says, “and my father was very proud of me. When I became well known in the US, it was a big moment because the people who were criticising him for sending his daughter away were the same people congratulating him.”

A strong proponent of the “health is wealth” philosophy, she may no longer run, but she does lift weights regularly and spends time in the garden with her 10-year-old son cultivating avocados, figs, and citrus trees, and growing aubergines, tomatoes and cucumbers.

She has visited Saudi Arabia many times to see her family and speak at conferences. One in particular that has stayed with her was a graduation speech at Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh.

There was no film quote for these graduates of the largest women’s university in the world. In a clear voice, without a hint of nerves, she instead passed on the words of that staunch defender of her own access to education.

Remain forever curious about the world, she told the audience, and live a meaningful life with impact.

It was clear that the woman of substance standing before them had been shaped by her father's advice. She didn't need to ask if they were listening.

Updated: August 28th 2021, 5:25 PM
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