Inspired by the coming-of-age films about university life that she grew up watching on TV in Dubai, Huda Ahli wanted “a whole different experience” by studying abroad.
She will take that to another level as part of a cohort of Emirati PhD students in the UK set to represent their country at this year’s Cop26 after an initiative to raise the profile of Stem researchers from the UAE garnered the attention of the country’s largest renewable energy company.
“I wanted to represent my country in a way that I wouldn't be able to if I stayed there and couldn’t share the stories about what we do,” she says.
Masdar, a global leader in sustainable urban development, is sending a delegate of post-graduate students as part of Youth 4 Sustainability to Glasgow in November to highlight the future skills needed to work in sustainability using augmented-reality technology.
Ms Ahli, one of the chosen students leading the charge, told The National it was an honour to represent her country on stage at the most important climate change summit this year.
“When we attend the Cop26 in Glasgow we will already be playing major roles and leaving our fingerprints and showing that this is what the young Emiratis are doing. We're no longer a plan for the future. We are going to showcase what our country is doing and that we are definitely and already ambassadors of Stem,” says the post-graduate specialist in plastics electronics at Imperial College London.
Ms Ahli graduated from high school with the highest grades in the country in her year. The accomplishment garnered a phone call from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, to congratulate her, which she called a “huge motivation".
A scholarship to study sustainable energy engineering at Queen Mary University in London followed. After winning the Institute of Mechanical Engineering award for best energy project for her work on a transparent solar cells, Ms Ahli was offered a doctorate place at Imperial, where she is developing flexible solar cells for wearable applications. What she once thought would be “three or four years max” living in the UK capital has turned into nine and counting.
In early 2019 she and four Emirati PhD students founded the group UAE Stem in the UK to promote and support students from the Emirates in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The inspiration came from attending a series of events at the Science Museum, known as "Lates", on topics from biology to climate change.
Listening to some of the sharpest international minds make science accessible was exciting, says Ms Ahli, but the absence of a UAE presence was something she resolved to change.
“I know how amazing my colleagues are in their own majors and how rare their majors are, whether it was genetics, whether it was conservation, whether it was a space, I knew how much they were working and the elite universities they were studying in, which speaks a lot about our capabilities here in the UK,” she says in the canteen of the Imperial College campus in London’s South Kensington district.
Prestige, proximity and longstanding links between the countries have made the UK a popular destination for Emiratis wishing to study abroad and Ms Ahli felt a need to connect and amplify their voices.
Supported by the cultural attache at the UAE embassy in London, UAE Stem became the ambassadors of Emirati STEM students in Britain. Acting as "middlemen", as she calls it, they highlight the brightest Emirati minds in their fields at regular events held at the Science Museum as well as at festivals and schools across the country.
“Another thing that drove us to do this is the very old stereotype is that if I say maths and science, immediately people will think of scary equations. But what they don't realise and what everyone seems to forget is that we deal with science, technology, maths, engineering, every day, right?”
Whether it's traffic, baking, or sports, Stem, Ms Ahli enthusiastically points out, has a positive effect on them all and she wants Emirati talents to make the process of learning these subjects “fun and magical”.
“I genuinely believe that it's actually a duty of every scientist to showcase and to speak up about what you’re learning and not just keep it for yourself so that everyone is inspired.”
It helps to have the backing of Ambassador Mansoor Abulhoul whom she says understood the important role of the UAE youths’ “soft power”.
“We’re showing how in the UK we play a major role in Stem in general and are also showcasing the UAE position in that role within the region and internationally,” she says.
The UK's UAE Stem group, which Ms Ahli runs with four other Emirati PhD students, and her other social initiatives have kept her closely connected to her countrymen and women. Surrounded by people that share a cultural understanding has, she says, been a “huge support” during her many years away from home.
Ms Ahli’s circle of friends is not strictly Emirati and she has embraced the internationalism of the UK capital in the same manner as her famously cosmopolitan birthplace of Dubai.
“When you are with Emirati students you tend to talk about how it is back home and what you miss. But when you're gathering with non-Emiratis, which is amazing, you teach each other about your country and about your morals, about the food and everything else.
“Every time. you're talking to people who are passionate about their own country. It’s something very unique that you can only experience abroad, which is originally why I left and came here.”
Despite her strong desire to “give back to her country”, Ms Ahli is not planning a return just yet. She wants to put her studies into practice first by working in either the industry or development sectors.
“Because it shows you what leaves the lab and how goes into different international projects … and how these different technologies are actually making a huge difference in people's lives.”