Young Women of Geoscience (YWOG)


“If you have a dream, just go for it” – Meet Safaa Naffaa, Research Assistant – Department of Physical Geography

What is your role at Utrecht University?

I work as a researcher under the supervision of Steven de Jong and Rens van Beek. I’ve been doing research for one and a half years to understand how future changes, including climate and land use change, could affect the mean rate and variability of sediment supply in the Amazon River for the Suriname coast. Up to now we’ve developed the model and we want now, together with Frances Dunn, to build and apply the climate change and deforestation scenarios.

Why did you go into science?

Before I came to the Netherlands I did a master’s degree in environmental risk management in Syria, and I worked at the ministry of the environment. Depletion of water resources as a result of water scarcity and pollution due to lack of management was one of the environmental priorities and formed a key area of interest for me. I always had a dream to do a master’s degree in Europe, and since Netherlands is the land of water and has the best reputation in water management and dealing with water problems, I came to the Netherlands.

When I did my master’s here and worked on my thesis, I realized how much I enjoy doing research and I liked the idea of being part of a global effort to make a difference and build a better world . Also when I worked at Deltares as a researcher for one year on several topics, it was clear to me that I really liked doing research. So, when I found out about the NWO Hestia program I was very excited because I wanted to have the same experience that I had during my master’s and my work at Deltares. Actually, I am very grateful for this opportunity which has led me to Utrecht University and the research that I am doing now. My goal was to improve my technical skills and combine that with the social background that I have, in order to give me a better understanding of the problems and work on solutions.

How do you find working internationally?

I find it great because we exchange ideas and we learn from each other’s experiences and challenges. In my opinion, diversity is important to get better overview of the problems not only from one perspective but from many perspectives.

Have you found differences between the countries you’ve worked in?

If I want to compare Syria, because I did a master’s degree there, I see a difference first related to the open sources for scientific journals. Universities there don’t have access to scientific journals so the only source is the library, making the research much slower, or using connections at the ministry for example to find the data you need. It’s just about networking. Also, it is common to listen to the supervisor and do your research the way he or she likes. Here is different, it is normal to discuss your ideas comfortably with your supervisor. So those are the important differences I’ve found.

Have you found that there’s big differences working as a woman in a company, or any of the countries that you’ve been in?

When I was in Syria I worked as environmental advisor for an oil and gas company during the construction of a gas treatment plant project. I was the only women working at the site in the company. It was challenging for me to be accepted as a women in this position, by the workers coming from the rural areas and also because environment in our country is not a priority. During this one year, I managed to make some changes in the workers behaviours at the site related to waste recycling, caring more about the environment, and I created an award for the best environmental employee there. After living and working in the Netherlands, I know if I would work in a similar position in the Netherlands, I would not face these challenges.

In Syria, some progress has been made related to increasing the number of educated women and employed women. However, compared to the Netherlands, a lot of work still need to be done to make things better and easier for women in the Middle East.

What are your experiences with moving from industry to academia?

Since I worked in Syria in governmental and private sectors, and I worked in the Netherlands in Deltares which combines both the scientific and private consultation parts, and now in academia, I see different challenges in every sector. Industry is more about delivering to clients the way they want things to be, while research opens new doors every time to new opportunities, to find solutions. However, using research to make a difference in society is still a big challenge since academic success depends more on paper publications than the real impacts on the ground.

What do you see for yourself in your future career?

I see myself in research where I can make an impact in people’s lives, so would like to do my PhD at Utrecht University if I have the opportunity to get funding for my own proposal or find a subject I like to work on.  Otherwise, I will look for a job opportunity where I can combine the research and consultancy like Arcadis or Deltares.

How did you find out about the Rosanna fund, which you are being awarded in a ceremony on Friday 6th March, International Women’s Day? Did they tell you why you were awarded this fund ?

My supervisor Steven de Jong told me about it, he said you are a good candidate for this fund which could support you to write your PhD proposal, so that’s why I applied.

The committee of Rosanna fund said they were impressed by my current research and my academic ambition which convinced them that I have a good long-term prospects and Rosanna fund can help me to achieve them.

What advice would you give to young female scientists?

If you have a dream, just go for it. Before I came to the Netherlands to do my master’s, because of the situation in my country, I just wanted to find a job opportunity somewhere out of Syria and bring my family out of the country. But this dream of doing my master’s kept coming to my mind. Fortunately, things happened the way I wanted and I got the World Bank scholarship and my dream came true.

Even if things become harder during your work, just be sure it’s not permanent. Ask for help when you need and you will find many people are happy and willing to help. For me, without the support I had from my supervisors, my colleagues Teun van Woerkom, Bas Knaake, and my  computer scientist friend Feico Dillema, I would have not got to this point now in my research.

We will always have challenges, but it is important to understand that it is not only about the end results, it is also about how we grow, learn and change during the process to achieve our goal. We need to look beyond the current situation and enjoy the process. Don’t stop dreaming big.

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