Tag Archives: United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Equality doesn’t necessarily lead to greater women’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) participation?

It seems counter-intuitive but societies where women have achieved greater equality see less participation by women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) than countries where women are treated differently. This rather stunning research was released on February 14, 2018 (yes, Valentine’s Day).

Women, equality, STEM

Both universities involved in this research have made news/press releases available. First, there’s the February 14, 2018 Leeds Beckett University (UK) press release,

Countries with greater gender equality see a smaller proportion of women taking degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), a new study by Leeds Beckett has found.

Dubbed the ‘gender equality paradox’, the research found that countries such as Albania and Algeria have a greater percentage of women amongst their STEM graduates than countries lauded for their high levels of gender equality, such as Finland, Norway or Sweden.

The researchers, from Leeds Beckett’s School of Social Sciences and the University of Missouri, believe this might be because countries with less gender equality often have little welfare support, making the choice of a relatively highly-paid STEM career more attractive.

The study, published in Psychological Science, also looked at what might motivate girls and boys to choose to study STEM subjects, including overall ability, interest or enjoyment in the subject and whether science subjects were a personal academic strength.

Using data on 475,000 adolescents across 67 countries or regions, the researchers found that while boys’ and girls’ achievement in STEM subjects was broadly similar, science was more likely to be boys’ best subject.

Girls, even when their ability in science equalled or excelled that of boys, were often likely to be better overall in reading comprehension, which relates to higher ability in non-STEM subjects.

Girls also tended to register a lower interest in science subjects. These differences were near-universal across all the countries and regions studied.

This could explain some of the gender disparity in STEM participation, according to Leeds Beckett Professor in Psychology Gijsbert Stoet.

“The further you get in secondary and then higher education, the more subjects you need to drop until you end with just one.

“We are inclined to choose what we are best at and also enjoy. This makes sense and matches common school advice.

“So, even though girls can match boys in terms of how well they do at science and mathematics in school, if those aren’t their best subjects and they are less interested in them, then they’re likely to choose to study something else.”

The researchers also looked at how many girls might be expected to choose further study in STEM based on these criteria.

They took the number of girls in each country who had the necessary ability in STEM and for whom it was also their best subject and compared this to the number of women graduating in STEM.

They found there was a disparity in all countries, but with the gap once again larger in more gender equal countries.

In the UK, 29 per cent of STEM graduates are female, whereas 48 per cent of UK girls might be expected to take those subjects based on science ability alone. This drops to 39 per cent when both science ability and interest in the subject are taken into account.

Countries with higher gender equality tend also to be welfare states, providing a high level of social security for their citizens.

Professor Stoet said: “STEM careers are generally secure and well-paid but the risks of not following such a path can vary.

“In more affluent countries where any choice of career feels relatively safe, women may feel able to make choices based on non-economic factors.

“Conversely, in countries with fewer economic opportunities, or where employment might be precarious, a well-paid and relatively secure STEM career can be more attractive to women.”

Despite extensive efforts to increase participation of women in STEM, levels have remained broadly stable for decades, but these findings could help target interventions to make them more effective, say the researchers.

“It’s important to take into account that girls are choosing not to study STEM for what they feel are valid reasons, so campaigns that target all girls may be a waste of energy and resources,” said Professor Stoet.

“If governments want to increase women’s participation in STEM, a more effective strategy might be to target the girls who are clearly being ‘lost’ from the STEM pathway: those for whom science and maths are their best subjects and who enjoy it but still don’t choose it.

“If we can understand their motivations, then interventions can be designed to help them change their minds.”

Then, there’s the February 14, 2018 University of Missouri news release, some of which will be repetitive,

The underrepresentation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields occurs globally. Although women currently are well represented in life sciences, they continue to be underrepresented in inorganic sciences, such as computer science and physics. Now, researchers from the University of Missouri and Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom have found that as societies become wealthier and more gender equal, women are less likely to obtain degrees in STEM. The researchers call this a “gender-equality paradox.” Researchers also discovered a near-universal sex difference in academic strengths and weaknesses that contributes to the STEM gap. Findings from the study could help refine education efforts and policies geared toward encouraging girls and women with strengths in science or math to participate in STEM fields.

The researchers found that, throughout the world, boys’ academic strengths tend to be in science or mathematics, while girls’ strengths are in reading. Students who have personal strengths in science or math are more likely to enter STEM fields, whereas students with reading as a personal strength are more likely to enter non-STEM fields, according to David Geary, Curators Professor of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science. These sex differences in academic strengths, as well as interest in science, may explain why the sex differences in STEM fields has been stable for decades, and why current approaches to address them have failed.

“We analyzed data on 475,000 adolescents across 67 countries or regions and found that while boys’ and girls’ achievements in STEM subjects were broadly similar in all countries, science was more likely to be boys’ best subject,” Geary said. “Girls, even when their abilities in science equaled or excelled that of boys, often were likely to be better overall in reading comprehension, which relates to higher ability in non-STEM subjects. As a result, these girls tended to seek out other professions unrelated to STEM fields.”

Surprisingly, this trend was larger for girls and women living in countries with greater gender equality. The authors call this a “gender-equality paradox,” because countries lauded for their high levels of gender equality, such as Finland, Norway or Sweden, have relatively few women among their STEM graduates. In contrast, more socially conservative countries such as Turkey or Algeria have a much larger percentage of women among their STEM graduates.

“In countries with greater gender equality, women are actively encouraged to participate in STEM; yet, they lose more girls because of personal academic strengths,” Geary said. “In more liberal and wealthy countries, personal preferences are more strongly expressed. One consequence is that sex differences in academic strengths and interests become larger and have a stronger influence college and career choices than in more conservative and less wealthy countries, creating the gender-equality paradox.”

The combination of personal academic strengths in reading, lower interest in science, and broader financial security explains why so few women choose a STEM career in highly developed nations.

“STEM careers are generally secure and well-paid but the risks of not following such a path can vary,” said Gijsbert Stoet, Professor in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University. “In more affluent countries where any choice of career feels relatively safe, women may feel able to make choices based on non-economic factors. Conversely, in countries with fewer economic opportunities, or where employment might be precarious, a well-paid and relatively secure STEM career can be more attractive to women.”

Findings from this study could help target interventions to make them more effective, say the researchers. Policymakers should reconsider failing national policies focusing on decreasing the gender imbalance in STEM, the researchers add.

The University of Missouri also produced a brief video featuring Professor David Geary discussing the work,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The Gender-Equality Paradox in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education by Gijsbert Stoet, David C. Geary. Psychological Studies https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617741719 First Published February 14, 2018 Research Article

This paper is behind a paywall.

Gender equality and STEM: a deeper dive

Olga Khazan in a February 18, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides additional insight (Note: Links have been removed),

Though their numbers are growing, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female. The gender gap only grows worse from there: Just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women. This is in the United States, where many college men proudly describe themselves as “male feminists” and girls are taught they can be anything they want to be.

Meanwhile, in Algeria, 41 percent of college graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—or “STEM,” as its known—are female. There, employment discrimination against women is rife and women are often pressured to make amends with their abusive husbands.

According to a report I covered a few years ago, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other nations surveyed, girls were more likely to say they feel “helpless while performing a math problem.”

… this line of research, if it’s replicated, might hold useful takeaways for people who do want to see more Western women entering STEM fields. In this study, the percentage of girls who did excel in science or math was still larger than the number of women who were graduating with STEM degrees. That means there’s something in even the most liberal societies that’s nudging women away from math and science, even when those are their best subjects. The women-in-STEM advocates could, for starters, focus their efforts on those would-be STEM stars.

Final thoughts

This work upends notions (mine anyway) about equality and STEM with regard to women’s participation in countries usually described as ‘developed’ as opposed to ‘developing’. I am thankful to have my ideas shaken up and being forced to review my assumptions about STEM participation and equality of opportunity.

John Timmer in a February 19, 2018 posting on the Ars Technica blog offers a critique of the research and its conclusions,

… The countries where the science-degree gender gap is smaller tend to be less socially secure. The researchers suggest that the economic security provided by fields like engineering may have a stronger draw in these countries, pulling more women into the field.

They attempt to use a statistical pathway analysis to see if the data is consistent with this being the case, but the results are inconclusive. It may be right, but there would be at least one other strong factor that they have not identified involved.

Timmer’s piece is well worth reading.

For some reason the discussion about a lack of social safety nets and precarious conditions leading women to greater STEM participation reminds me of a truism about the arts. Constraints can force you into greater creativity. Although balance is necessary as you don’t want to destroy what you’re trying to encourage. In this case, it seems that comfortable lifestyles can lead women to pursue that which comes more easily whereas women trying to make a better life in difficult circumstance will pursue a more challenging path.

Masdar Institute and rainmaking

Water security, of course, is a key issue and of particular concern in many parts of the world including the Middle East. (In the Pacific Northwest, an area described as a temperate rain forest, there tends to be less awareness but even we are sometimes forced to ration water.) According to a July 5, 2017 posting by Bhok Thompson (on the Green Prophet website) scientists at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [UA]E) have applied for a patent on a new technique for rainmaking,

Umbrella sales in the UAE may soon see a surge in pricing. Researchers at the Masdar Institute have filed for a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for their discovery – and innovative cloud seeding material that moves them closer to their goal of producing rain on demand. It appears to be a more practical approach than building artificial mountains.

Dr. Linda Zou is leading the project. A professor of chemical and environmental engineering, she is one of the first scientists to explore nanotechnology to enhance a cloud seeding material’s ability to produce rain. By filing a patent, the team is paving a way to commercialize their discovery, and aligning with Masdar Institute’s aim to position the UAE as a world leader in science and tech, specifically in the realm of environmental sustainability.

A January 31, 2017 posting by Erica Solomon for the Masdar Institute reveals more about the project,

The Masdar Institute research team that was one of the inaugural recipients of the US$ 5 million grant from the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science last year has made significant progress in their work as evidenced by the filing a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

By filing a patent on their innovative cloud seeding material, the research team is bringing the material in the pathway for commercialization, thereby supporting Masdar Institute’s goal of bolstering the United Arab Emirates’ local intellectual property, which is a key measure of the country’s innovation drive. It also signifies a milestone towards achieving greater water security in the UAE, as rainfall enhancement via cloud seeding can potentially increase rainfall between 10% to 30%, helping to refresh groundwater reserves, boost agricultural production, and reduce the country’s heavy reliance on freshwater produced by energy-intensive seawater desalination.

Masdar Institute Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Dr. Linda Zou, is the principal investigator of this research project, and one of the first scientists in the world to explore the use of nanotechnology to enhance a cloud seeding material’s ability to produce rain.

“Using nanotechnology to accelerate water droplet formation on a typical cloud seeding material has never been researched before. It is a new approach that could revolutionize the development of cloud seeding materials and make them significantly more efficient and effective,” Dr. Zou remarked.

Conventional cloud seeding materials are small particles such as pure salt crystals, dry ice and silver iodide. These tiny particles, which are a few microns (one-thousandth of a millimeter) in size, act as the core around which water condenses in the clouds, stimulating water droplet growth. Once the air in the cloud reaches a certain level of saturation, it can no longer hold in that moisture, and rain falls. Cloud seeding essentially mimics what naturally occurs in clouds, but enhances the process by adding particles that can stimulate and accelerate the condensation process.

Dr. Zou and her collaborators, Dr. Mustapha Jouiad, Principal Research Scientist in Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Nabil El Hadri and PhD student Haoran Liang, explored ways to improve the process of condensation on a pure salt crystal by layering it with a thin coating of titanium dioxide.

The extremely thin coating measures around 50 nanometers, which is more than one thousand times thinner than a human hair. Despite the coating’s miniscule size, the titanium dioxide’s effect on the salt’s condensation efficiency is significant. Titanium dioxide is a hydrophilic photocatalyst, which means that when in contact with water vapor in the cloud, it helps to initiate and sustain the water vapor adsorption and condensation on the nanoparticle’s surface. This important property of the cloud seeding material speeds up the formation of large water droplets for rainfall.

Dr. Zou’s team found that the titanium dioxide coating improved the salt’s ability to adsorb and condense water vapor over 100 times compared to a pure salt crystal. Such an increase in condensation efficiency could improve a cloud’s ability to produce more precipitation, making rain enhancement operations more efficient and effective. The research will now move to the next stage of simulated cloud and field testing in the future.

Dr. Zou’s research grant covers two more years of research. During this time, her team will continue to study different design concepts and structures for cloud seeding materials inspired by nanotechnology.

To give you a sense of the urgent need for these technologies, here’s the title from my Aug. 24, 2015 posting, The Gaza is running out of water by 2016 if the United Nations predictions are correct. I’ve not come across any updates on the situation in the Gaza Strip but both Israel and Palestine have recently signed a deal concerning water. Dalia Hatuqa’s August 2017 feature on the water deal for Al Jazeera is critical primarily of Israel (as might be expected) but there are one or two subtle criticisms of Palestine too,

Critics have also warned that the plan does not address Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to water and the development of infrastructure needed to address the water crisis in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians in the West Bank consume only 70 litres of water per capita per day, well below what the World Health Organization recommends as a minimum (100).

In the most vulnerable communities in Area C – those not connected to the water network – that number further drops to 20, according to EWASH, a coalition of Palestinian and international organisations working on water and sanitation in the Palestinian territories.

The recent bilateral agreement, which does not increase the Palestinians’ quota of water in the Jordan River, makes an untenable situation permanent and guarantees Israel a lion’s share of its water, thus reinforcing the status quo, Buttu [Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team] said.

“They have moved away from the idea that water is a shared resource and instead adopted the approach that Israel controls and allocates water to Palestinians,” she added. “Israel has been selling water to Palestinians for a long time, but this is enshrining it even further by saying that this is the way to alleviate the water problem.”

Israeli officials say that water problems in the territories could have been addressed had the Palestinians attended the meetings of the joint committee. Palestinians attribute their refusal to conditions set by their counterparts, namely that they must support Israeli settlement water projects for any Palestinian water improvements to be approved.

According to Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, “There are many things to be done together to upgrade the water infrastructure in the PA. We are talking about old, leaking pipes, and a more rational use of water.” He also pointed to the illegal tapping into pipes, which he maintained Palestinians did because they did not want to pay for water. “This is something we’ve been wanting to do over the years, and the new water agreement is one of the ways to deal with that. The new agreement … is not only about water quotas; it’s also about more coherent and better use of water, in order to address the needs of the Palestinians.”

But water specialists say that the root cause of the problem is not illegal activity, but the unavailability of water resources to Palestinians and the mismanagement and diversion of the Jordan River.

Access to water is gong to be of increasing urgency should temperatures continue to rise as they have. In many parts of the world, potable water is not easy to find and if temperatures continue to rise areas that did have some water security will lose it and the potential for conflict rises hugely. Palestine and Israel may be a harbinger of what’s to come. As for the commodification of water, I have trouble accepting it; I think everyone has a right to water.

Sustainable water desalination with self-cleaning membranes

This desalination technology comes from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). from an April 13, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

An advanced water treatment membrane made of electrically conductive nanofibers developed at Masdar Institute was highlighted by Dr. Raed Hashaikeh, Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Masdar Institute, in his keynote speech during the 3rd International Conference on Desalination using Membrane Technology held last week in Spain.

An April 13, 2017 Masdar Institute press release by Erica Solomon, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Self-cleaning membranes offer a critically needed solution to the problem of fouling, which is the unwanted build-up of organic and inorganic deposits on a membrane’s surface that reduces the membrane’s ability to filter impurities. Water treatment and purification membranes that can easily clean themselves when fouled could make pressure-driven membrane filtration systems used to treat and desalinate water more energy-efficient.

“Keeping membranes clean, permeable and functional is a great challenge to membrane desalination technologies. When a membrane becomes fouled, its pores get blocked and its flux is severely reduced, which means that much less water can pass through the membrane at a constant pressure,” Dr. Hashaikeh explained.

Conventional methods for cleaning fouled membranes involve expensive and harsh chemical treatments, and often lead to water treatment plant shut-downs, which can cost millions of dollars in lost operational hours. In the UAE, annual spending on desalination is already estimated to cost AED12 billion, indicating a pressing need for solutions that avoid costly shut-downs and treatments.

In addition to posing a heavy financial burden, fouled membranes are also a sustainability issue, as once a membrane becomes fouled, the higher pressure needed to push water through clogged pores significantly increases the plant’s energy consumption. The harsh chemicals used to clean a fouled membrane are also bad for the environment and require neutralizing. Thus, finding a way to easily and quickly clean fouled membranes not only makes financial sense, but environmental sense.

In a country like the UAE, where natural gas-powered thermal desalination produces over 80% of the country’s domestic water, innovative technologies like self-cleaning membranes to support a shift toward lower-energy and lower-cost membrane-based desalination are essential for achieving economic and environmental balance while meeting the UAE’s water demands.

And now, Dr. Hashaikeh’s research group may have brought the UAE closer towards realizing a more sustainable and economic approach to membrane desalination through their research on the application of advanced nanofibers for enhanced, self-cleaning membranes.

The group has leveraged the electrically conductive nature of a special kind of nanofiber, called carbon nanotubes (CNT). CNTs are tiny cylindrical tubes made of tightly bonded carbon atoms, measuring just one atom thick. But the CNTs Dr. Hashaikeh’s team used, which were provided by global security, aerospace, and information technology company Lockheed Martin, are not ordinary CNTs.

“The carbon nanostructures supplied by Lockheed Martin are special; they are networked. This means that they are composed of many interconnecting channels that branch off in all directions. This interconnectivity is what enables the entire membrane to become completely cleaned when electricity is applied to it,” Dr. Hashaikeh said.

The networked CNTs, also known as carbon nanostructures (CNS), coupled with the team’s expert membrane fabrication know-how, resulted in the development of two different types of membranes that can clean themselves when a low-voltage electric current is run through them.

The first type is a microfiltration membrane, which has pores sizes ranging from 100 nanometers to 10 micrometers, where a nanometer is approximately one hundred thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair and a micrometer one thousand times larger than a nanometer. The second is a nanofiltration membrane with pore sizes ranging from one to ten nanometers. Both membranes demonstrated the ability to clean themselves in response to an electric shock, which resulted in the immediate restoration of the membranes’ flux.

Dr. Hashaikeh’s investigation of a self-cleaning membrane began four years ago, when he realized that electrolytic cleaning – which is the process of removing soil, scale or corrosion from a metal’s surface by subjecting it to an electric current – could also be used to clean membranes. To prove his theory, he coated a membrane with ordinary CNTs. When a voltage was applied to the membrane, the parts of the membranes that were coated with CNTs were successfully cleaned. Dr. Hashaikeh filed a patent for this in-situ electrolytic cleaning process with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 2014.

However, there were limitations to this discovery, namely that only specific areas in the coated CNTs were cleaned, not the entire membrane. Thus, to develop an efficient, self-cleaning membrane with commercial potential, Dr. Hashaikeh required a material that would easily allow electric shockwaves to penetrate through the entire membrane’s surface area.

The unique, interconnected structure of Lockheed Martin’s carbon nanostructures proved to be just the right type of electrically conductive, nano-fibrous material required.

“We immediately recognized that Lockheed Martin’s CNTs might enable electricity to pass through the entire surface, but we had to modify the nanostructures to transform the material into a membrane. To do this, we controlled certain properties, such as wettability and pore size, and improved its mechanical strength by incorporating polymer materials,” he explained.

Dr. Haishaikeh’s team successfully developed a self-cleaning microfiltration membrane in 2014 and a paper describing the research was published in the Journal of Membrane Science. But they did not stop there; they wanted to take their research a step further and find a way to develop a self-cleaning nanofiltration membrane. While microfiltration membranes are useful for removing larger particles, including sand, silt, clays, algae and some forms of bacteria, nanofiltration membranes can go a step further, removing most organic molecules, nearly all viruses, most of the natural organic matter and a range of salts. Nanofiltration membranes also remove divalent ions, which make water hard, making nanofiltration a popular and eco-friendly option to soften hard water.

To create self-cleaning nanofiltration membranes out of Lockheed Martin’s networked CNTs, the team needed to overcome the problem of the CNTs’ large pore sizes, which prevented the material from functioning as a nanofiltration membrane.

To achieve this they looked to a second advanced nanofiber material previously developed by Dr. Hashaikeh’s research group, known as networked cellulose. Networked cellulose is a modified type of cellulose made from wood pulp. When dried, the networked cellulose gel shrinks in volume, but maintains its integrity and shape, becoming harder as it shrinks. The research team asserted that the networked cellulose gel could reduce the membrane’s pore sizes while maintaining its structural integrity.

The researchers then mixed the carbon nanostructures with the networked cellulose gel and as the mixture dried, the networked cellulose shrank. The shrinking of the network cellulose in turn pressurized the nanostructures in the membrane. The resulting membrane is strong with much smaller pore sizes. Dr. Hashaikeh reports that the pore size dropped from 60 nanometers to just three nanometers with the addition of the networked cellulose in a paper describing the study, which was published in the journal Desalination last month. Co-authors from Masdar Institute include PhD student Farah Ahmad and postdoctoral researcher Boor Lalia, along with Dr. Nidal Hilal of Swansea University.

Dr. Hashaikeh’s prolific scientific contribution to the field of membrane desalination has led to his recent appointment as an associate editor for the journal Desalination; a position that is essential to the quality of the international journal and its peer review process.

The innovative research conducted by Dr. Hashaikeh and the team will help position Abu Dhabi as a leader in membrane desalination research and technology development. This project has already yielded a patent filing, and is hoped to provide the emirate with novel intellectual property in the critical industry of desalination.

Here are the links and citations for the 2014 and 2017 papers,

A novel in situ membrane cleaning method using periodic electrolysis by Raed Hashaikeh, Boor Singh Lalia, Victor Kochkodan, Nidal Hilal. Journal of Membrane Science Volume 471, 1 December 2014, Pages 149–154 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.memsci.2014.08.017

Electrically conducting nanofiltration membranes based on networked cellulose and carbon nanostructures by Farah Ejaz Ahmed, Boor Singh Lalia, Nidal Hilal, Raed Hashaikeh. Desalination Volume 406, 16 March 2017, Pages 60–66 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.desal.2016.09.005

Both papers a behind a paywall.