Editor’s note: This is part of a series of weekly articles interviewing pioneering Lebanese women from various sectors.
BEIRUT: Nesreen Ghaddar is not a woman who gives up easily. Strong and confident, she sees a challenge as an opportunity for success.
“Challenges are not meant to paralyze you, but on the contrary, they are there to make you a better person and to drive you to be successful,” she told The Daily Star.
Ghaddar’s persistence has garnered her an enviable career as an associate provost at the American University of Beirut, where she holds the Qatar chair of energy studies and is a professor of mechanical engineering.
After earning her master’s and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ghaddar first worked as assistant professor at Kuwait University before joining AUB in 1990. She served as the chairperson of the Mechanical Engineering Department there for six years from 2001-07.
She is a founding member of the Energy Research Group and served as the coordinator for four years, from 2000-04. The group is a multidisciplinary association of experts that conducts basic and applied energy research in Lebanon and the region to pave the way for sustainable energy in the future.
She also played an instrumental role in developing the graduate-level program at the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture in applied energy, in collaboration with European universities, as well as the new BS/BE in chemical engineering, which began in 2009-10.
It is only natural that a woman with such achievements under her belt can speak so passionately about her work and contributions to the academic field.
“We were able to start a degree in applied energy, and though this, our graduate student enrollment increased from two to 40,” she said.
“We also ended up partnering with European institutions and setting up our own labs with external funding,” she added. “We have labs that are state-of-the-art in our area. Also, the introduction of the PhD program was an additional boost because it enables students to develop over a longer term and pursue their research more deeply.”
Ghaddar believes that every successful woman is bound to face challenges and obstacles.
“Whenever there are conflicts, you are a target as a female because you represent the weakest link,” she said, “especially if you’re somebody who doesn’t speak up so much.”
With her sharp character and confident attitude, Ghaddar was able to deal with the challenge of being the only female mechanical engineering student at Kuwait University and MIT.
“During my university years, I was able to deal well with the fact that I was the only female mechanical engineering student,” she said. “I always made sure not to step on anyone’s toes.”
“But at MIT, there was another challenge because you have a large heat transfer lab with 23 graduate students and I was the only female which wasn’t easy,” she added. “But after a while, when people see your performance and focus on the work, they forget completely about your gender. At MIT, your value is associated with your performance.”
Ghaddar said that the challenges faced by female students were different than those encountered at the professional level.
“When you get into the professional world, the focus on your capacities and abilities increases automatically,” she said.
“The worst part is when you are in a decision-making position,” she added. “Then you become a threat.”
Ghaddar explained that there were only a few women who hold such top posts.
“Female faculty members are but a few and when a new faculty member arrives, she faces some problems because there are no role models in this field,” she said.
“So if she faces conflict, she cannot find support easily.”
Ghaddar advises female entrepreneurs to go all the way with their ambitions and avoid negative comments they may face on their way.
“In the end, people can take away everything from you but not your skills,” she said. “Your degree also helps you to face anything in life.”
She also advised Lebanese women to play a bigger role in society.
“Lebanese women play a great role in society. But they should focus more on their professional achievements rather than their appearances,” she said. “Women in our society put so much emphasis on looks.”
Ghaddar’s professional achievements were recognized by the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research in June 2012, when she received the Distinguished Scholar Medal and Certificate for Research Excellence for her work in energy efficiency.
She was also nominated as one of the top 20 most influential women in science working in the Islamic world by Muslim Science, an online journal and portal dedicated to the revival of scientific innovation and entrepreneurial culture in the Islamic world.