Last updated November 15, 2019 at 3:41 pm
Studying geology took Sanaz Orandi halfway across the world, working on algae and completing a chemical engineering PhD.
Despite facing barriers and challenges, including completing her PhD as a single mother and self-funded international student, Sanaz Orandi was committed to continuing with “passion, determination and perseverance”. She hopes her story will encourage other young STEM researchers, particularly women, to follow their passion and curiosity, even through adversity and uncertainty.
Sanaz graduated with a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Adelaide’s Faculty of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences (ECMS) in 2013.
You began your academic career studying geology in Iran. Where did your interest in geology begin?
Yes, I completed a Bachelor and a Master of Geology in Iran.
As a child I grew up in Kerman province, in a small industrial town near Sarcheshmeh, Iran’s largest copper mine. It was a very carefree and happy time and I spent hours exploring the mine and nearby mountain. At the age of about 9, my family moved to Rafsanjan for my father’s work. He is a civil engineer. Moving to the city was hard. I had less freedom and I missed my friends and my exploring adventures.
Perhaps it was this love of nature and exploring that led to my interest in geology. I was delighted when, 20 years later, I returned to undertake a postgraduate research project at the copper mine of my childhood.
What was your research project about?
I was assessing the impact of mining waste rocks on the quality of mine water. After spending many hours in the field, waterlogged and cold, I began to notice the green algae growing in mine waters, even in the freezing cold conditions. I took some of the algae for analysis and discovered that, not only can they survive in the harsh, toxic and acidic conditions of mine water, but they can also absorb lots of heavy metals. I became fascinated with this and it led me to find out more about the cleansing nature of algae, which became my research specialisation.
How did an interest in algae lead to a PhD in Chemical Engineering in Adelaide?
Over time, I found my research focus shifted from geology to environmental science. There were only a few research institutions in the world where I could follow my research studies in algae and two of them were in Australia. This was how I came to join the University of Adelaide’s Micro-Algae Engineering Research Group in the Department of Chemical Engineering to pursue my research on biological treatment of mining waste water.
How did you find the transition to life in Australia?
It was challenging to begin with. When I first arrived in Adelaide, I was anxious about my decision. How could I, with my background in geology, be doing a PhD in chemical engineering?
Despite the many challenges of relocating to a new country, I was passionate about my research and determined to make my new life work. I flourished in my PhD studies, once I got over my initial fears. In fact my published thesis was selected by academic staff to be shown as a template example for other students to learn from and I won several prizes for the work, at a number of conferences around Australia.
What are you doing now?
Since completing my PhD, I have remained at the University of Adelaide where I keep up-to-date in my research field of environmental science and geology by peer reviewing research papers and by supervising PhD candidates (postgraduate researchers). I have also enjoyed mentoring a number of students to success in the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. In fact my first PhD student won the University finals, before going on to compete in the Australasian finals in Queensland for her work on “Sustainable Water Treatment in Developing Countries”. More recently, I assisted another Faculty finalist with her presentation on “Australia’s Copper Clean-up”.
What would you say to women thinking of a research career in engineering or science?
You must trust in your abilities. When you are determined to reach a goal, assess how much it is worth and how much you are willing to sacrifice. And then, if you decide to go for it, imagine you are on a tightrope, look ahead, don’t look down and don’t let anything stop you. If you have passion, determination and perseverance, you can move mountains.
I realised that I did not have to be an expert at the beginning of my PhD studies. I think this is something that can put students off sometimes; the feeling that you should have all the answers before you have even started. Follow your interests and put yourself on the pathway. You will develop the expertise and will be well supported along the way.