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Rawan AlmallahiKEYS TO SUCCESS

Chemical Engineering Student Rises as Future Leader in Renewable Energy Research

05/04/2017 | By Claire Andersen

Rawan AlMallahi’s college career embraces all the elements of an American success story: hard work, persistence and victory against all odds. Just five years after coming to Houston from the United Arab Emirates, AlMallahi is one of the recipients of the 2017 National Science Foundation research fellowship award. 

It was during her senior year of high school that AlMallahi and her family moved first to Dallas and then shortly thereafter to Houston. With graduation quickly arriving, she faced an uncertain future as she had missed most college application deadlines due to her family’s recent move. She ended up at a local community college and was immediately successful.

During her first year at San Jacinto Community College, AlMallahi won a photography competition with a photo titled “Open the Door,” accompanied by a quote offering that success can be found for those who adamantly seek it out. Four years later, AlMallahi said she still lives by the quote:

“A door may symbolize a bridge to success, a detour, or simply an obstacle that can’t be overcome, but it is up to the people to do the interpretation. It is up to the people to find the keys to their doors and open them. It is not always difficult to find that key, but it is definitely not easy either.

Sometimes, it is only a matter of looking above you and below you to find what you’re looking for. Sometimes, what we may have been looking for, might have been simply right under our noses. So open your eyes to the world, and set out on the adventure of finding the doors of your goals.”

After a year at the community college, AlMallahi transferred to the University of Houston to pursue a degree in chemical engineering.

Since then, AlMallahi has taken courses and participated in research that inspired her to focus on renewable energy. Above all, AlMallahi loves the challenge and independence of research.

“I like challenges. They present you with this challenge, they give you resources and they tell you to go solve it. I like that idea,” said AlMallahi. “I like to be independent and try to work on addressing world-wide issues like finding alternate energy sources.”

Her favorite assignment is the current research she is doing under her advisor, Megan Robertson. The project focuses on synthesizing epoxy resins from renewable sources. AlMallahi has been working to find an alternative to traditional epoxy resins, which are derived from nonrenewable sources and are often harmful for people and the environment. She is testing the possibility of replacing these harmful elements with soybean oil and vanillic acid.

Now a senior at the Cullen College of Engineering, Rawan AlMallahi is racing towards her future. In addition to attending the prestigious Harvard-Amgen Scholars Program last summer, AlMallahi was recently selected for the National Science Foundation (NSF) research fellowship, one of just 2,000 selected out of 13,000 applicants.        

“I thought I had a good shot. I knew it was very competitive,” said AlMallahi. “I was going to apply to grad school anyways, so this is just an extra. And here we are.”

Previous NSF fellowship recipients include Google co-founder Sergey Brin, several Nobel Prize winners and numerous professors at leading universities.

Her success during her undergraduate career and the bonus of receiving the NSF fellowship gave her several impressive opportunities for continuing on to graduate school.  

With offers from top universities, AlMallahi has decided to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan after she graduates in May. Among other things, she said that one professor’s research on solar energy particularly intrigued her about the program. There she will continue her research on renewable energy, particularly the solar energy applications of nanomaterials. 

Despite her achievements, AlMallahi still is hesitant about her upcoming transition to graduate school. 

“I’m not a big fan of transitions but knowing what I’m going to do, I’m really excited. This is just a part of life,” she said. “Having this fellowship and getting to work on a research project that I get to choose will be really exciting.”

Long term, AlMallahi plans to return to Houston, where her family still lives. She hopes to join the industry and continue her effort to find renewable energy sources. Beyond this, she would like to encourage other students, particularly minority and female students, to find the keys to their success. 

“I want them to know that it’s possible. It’s a big commitment, but it’s worth it in the end because of all the exciting things you get to do,” she said.