Building an International Chemistry Career in Grad School

By Allison Proffitt

Alaa El Din Mahmoud, Ph.D. candidate

What does it look like to build an international chemistry career? Alaa El Din Mahmoud has some expertise. A Ph.D. candidate, he began his career at Alexandria University in Egypt, and his academic journey has taken him to Greece, Germany, and beyond. Along the way, Mahmoud has received recognition for his teaching and his research. In 2013, he was recognized by Alexandria University during the Day of Excellence for scientific contributions in teaching and research, and he was awarded a National Commission Young Scientists Award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere program.

Beginning the master’s track

As an undergraduate, Mahmoud studied environmental sciences, an interdisciplinary degree that included coursework in chemistry, biology, and geology focused on sustainability. After he had acquired his bachelor’s degree, he joined the academic staff in the department as a laboratory demonstrator. While taking on responsibilities for courses and workshops, Mahmoud began his graduate studies in environmental chemistry.

Mahmoud chose environmental sciences out of a strong interest in water and wastewater treatment technology. “It’s crucial to understand, protect, and sustain our available natural resources for future generations,” he says. “It should not be only our responsibility as specialists or government, but also as people all over the world.”

During his master’s work, Mahmoud published peer-reviewed papers. He attributes his success to the support he received from his supervisor, Professor Manal Fawzy. “She is very supportive and inspired me to be motivated,” he says. After completing his master’s degree, Mahmoud was promoted to be an assistant lecturer. As an instructor, he taught courses in environmental chemistry, but he took his position a step further by taking his students on field trips to give them an opportunity to understand both the practical and the theoretical sides of chemistry.

Mahmoud took students to two area lakes, Lake Mariout and Lake Edku, as well as scientific research stations to practice water and soil sampling techniques. “Other field trips have been done to industrial facilities to understand the application of environmental chemistry on a large scale and know more about safety and risk management,” he adds.

Changing course for a Ph.D.

When it came time to advance to his doctoral work, Mahmoud wanted a change in location. He applied for a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), with funds from the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education, to study Energy and Environmental Chemistry at Friedrich Schiller University Jena, in Germany. The program is a partnership between the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education and Germany for students to continue their studies and research in Germany.

The Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education has several international partnerships with countries in the European Union, including France, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Mahmoud chose Germany because German universities have outstanding reputations—the strongest in Europe, he says—and all Ph.D. programs are conducted in English. Mahmoud also believes that the green chemistry being done there is some of the most powerful in the world. For Mahmoud, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, one of Germany’s 10 oldest universities, was the right place to earn his Ph.D.

The scholarship field was competitive, but Mahmoud was chosen and enrolled at the Center for Energy and Environmental Chemistry Jena. The scholarship covers more than just acceptance to the program. In Egypt, Mahmoud and other award recipients had courses on German culture and integration. The scholarship program also arranged for insurance and visas for the students. Once they moved to Germany, they had additional German language courses before beginning their research.

Settling in

Those language courses and cultural experiences have been invaluable in Mahmoud’s transition. Most of the science is done in English, he says. So it would be possible for international students to speak their own languages and use English to converse in the laboratory. But you would miss out on so much, Mahmoud warns.

Mahmoud believes that students who want to be involved in research away from home should learn the local language to better understand the culture. According to Mahmoud, language is essential to being involved in activities, to understand what others are thinking, and the local faculty and students appreciate it. “They are happy you can speak their language,” he says. “That shows that you appreciate everything here.”

Understanding the language and culture also helps build connections with international students. The local language can become the common language for students from all over the world, allowing friendships and connections to be made.

It’s natural, Mahmoud says, to be frustrated, afraid, and homesick at first. “Sometimes it’s not going smoothly,” he says, observing that many students want to give up and go home after about three months. “These are normal emotions!” But it’s worth pushing through. “You have to deal with this; you have to adapt,” he advises.

Beyond academics

After delving into the language and culture, Mahmoud soon looked for ways to be involved in the university community outside of his research. After he had been at the university for a year, he became an academic mentor for incoming undergraduates who were in the International Baccalaureate program. He also volunteered with a sports-buddy program offered by the university.

In addition, he was elected as a member counselor for Ph.D. students. In that role, Mahmoud helped organize social and scientific events. “We provide assistance with any issues concerning Ph.D. students, afford opportunities for academic and social networking, and serve as a listening ear for other students,” he says. He was also invited by Dr. Anna Görner (the managing director) to present a talk titled “Critical Thinking and Environmental Management” at the Centre for International Postgraduate Studies of Environmental Management (CIPSEM) at Technical University Dresden, in Germany. “It was a real opportunity to meet—and discuss the emerging issues related to water and climate with—international professionals from such different sectors as universities, ministries, and agencies, to improve our knowledge base and skills,” he says.

Staying the course

Of course, despite all his mentoring and community activities, Mahmoud is first and foremost a researcher. He focuses on wastewater treatment and management, which he says is a big area of concern for Germany. He is exploring various techniques for ecologically safe water treatment, specifically removing or degrading micropollutants. He has also been busy traveling to international conferences to share his work. “Participation in conferences and workshops has many merits.... Sharing your findings and knowledge is essential to update your ideas and make the world better,” he says. “Also, to grow your network.”

As a mentor, Mahmoud has this advice for students embarking on a Ph.D.: “You should have a plan to know what to do in the short term, and what you want to accomplish in the long term. Also, have your biggest dream and a plan for how to achieve it.” 

About the Author

Allison Proffitt is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN. She has worked for various ACS publications and in the Education Division.