The Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Iraqi Women’s Fellowship Foundation present

Iraqi Women Leaders in Engineering and Applied Sciences

A panel discussion with

Dr. Mohammed Ali
Assistant Professor, College of Engineering, University of Al-Mustansiriya, Baghdad;
Visiting Scholar, MIT

Dr. Tawfeeq
Assistant Professor, Institute of Laser for Postgraduate Studies, University of Baghdad;
Visiting Scholar, Stanford University


Dr. Haleh Esfandiari
Director, Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Iraqi women at the forefront of engineering and applied sciences shared their experiences in their fields of study, working and teaching in Iraq, and the challenges they face as scientists. They spoke about their current work as scholars in the United States on fellowships awarded by the Iraqi Women’s Fellowship Foundation (IWFF).

On April 26, the Middle East Program hosted a discussion with Dr. Mohammed Ali* , Assistant Professor, College of Engineering, University of Al-Mustansiriya, Baghdad, who is currently a visiting scholar at MIT; and Dr. Tawfeeq*, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Laser for Postgraduate Studies, University of Baghdad. She is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Dr. Mohammed Ali does research and consulting work in civil engineering. She began the discussion by articulating how the concept of global warming led her to her current field of study. Since Iraq is abundant with natural resources, her goal is to create new technologies based on these resources that are indigenous to her country. Her lab at MIT is working with new, sustainable materials called nanofibrillar foams. These materials are known to have high mechanical properties and are renewable. They require less energy to produce, reducing carbon dioxide emissions. They are biodegradable and may be used for various applications. Her research also experiments with plant-based foam materials that are an improvement on those traditionally made with petrochemicals. Through her fellowship, Dr. Mohammed Ali has learned many new technologies and teaching techniques in the projects that she is working on with her MIT colleagues. She intends on implementing them to help reconstruction efforts in Iraq and expand the knowledge of her students.

Dr. Tawfeeq is specialized in lasers/electronics and communication engineering. She is considered the first female Iraqi to have received a Ph.D. in this discipline. Her field of research is in quantum cryptography which is related to the security of information. In her fellowship at Stanford, she works with one of the world’s foremost quantum information science labs. She is also interested in optical fiber communications and in starting this technology in Iraq. At Stanford, she audits courses related to her research, attends workshops and group meetings, visits international exhibitions, and visits labs. When asked about the current struggles of such research, Dr. Tawfeeq mentioned how the field of quantum information science and optical fiber communications is limited in Iraq. The UN Security Council has restrictions in place since the Saddam era, restrictions which prevent the acquisition of the latest equipment and impede scientific progress in Iraq.

According to Dr. Mohammed Ali, researchers in her field face a lack of continuous electricity and equipment. Problems continue with Iraq’s power grid, directly hindering the performance of research equipment which requires dedicated, constantly powered machinery to operate. Some of the equipment that Dr. Mohammed Ali works with at MIT cannot be used in Iraq due to their vibration and temperature sensitivity.

Both women are supervisors, and they noted easy access to Western publications for their work in order to keep up to date on the latest in scientific research. They prefer U.S. and British journals such as Science and Nature due to their high impact factor which measure how often those publications are cited in research.

In regard to the future of Iraqi women in the applied sciences, Dr. Tawfeeq noted that the number of females in electrical and  mechanical engineering was  quite low 25 years ago, while now  the percentage of female electrical and mechanical engineers is much higher, about  40-50 percent. Unemployment has always been an issue in Iraq, but a female engineer with a Ph.D. has a 90 percent chance of getting hired after finishing school, according to both Drs. Tawfeeq and Mohammed Ali.

By Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani, Middle East Program

* only family names have been used in connection with this event