Inspired by Marie Curie, Motaza became a co-founder and vice president of the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry.
Born in a small town called Hehya located in the agricultural province of Sharkia, Egypt, Motaza was one of the few middle class girls allowed to complete education up to university level. Having excelled at both primary and secondary school level, and with the encouragement of her mother, she convinced her father to allow her to finish her university education. She explains how her love of science started at secondary school:
"At school I enjoyed all subjects and tried to be one of the best girls in my class. At secondary school I found science and mathematics easy to understand and I enjoyed entering class competitions in both of these subjects. We had excellent teachers and well equipped labs so my interest continued to grow."
An inspirational story
When she was thirteen years old, Motaza read The Life of Madame Curie for her English literature course. She remembers admiring Madame Curie’s determination as she struggled at the start of her career before becoming one of the most famous women in science. This story inspired Motaza to study chemistry and later to go into research. With the help of her mother, uncle and teachers, she was able to enrol at the Faculty of Science at Cairo University to study chemistry. There, she enjoyed support from her professors and colleagues who helped her overcome challenges – both professional and social.
After graduating in June 1958, she joined a team working to implement the five year industrialisation plan of Egypt. She describes this time as “a really important period” in her career – an opportunity to test what she had learned at university and apply her knowledge to real life situations. This experience also allowed Motaza to expand her networks and she was able to work with many foreign experts and influential people from the industry.
In 1959, she moved to the chemistry department at the Faculty of Science, Cairo University and there she completed a Master's degree in analytical chemistry and a PhD in the structure and applications of coordination compounds. She continued her research at the University of Vienna, Austria, and the University of Birmingham, UK, where she was awarded two post-doctoral scholarships.
Positioned for influence
As well as being active in research, Motaza has held influential positions on many boards and has worked to connect researchers from different countries. She was appointed as the Egyptian Cultural Counsellor at the Egyptian Embassy in Austria and represented Egypt in the Working Party of Analytical Chemistry (WPAC) and the Federation of European Chemical Societies (FECS).
In 2006, she attended the Ethiopian Society of Chemistry Conference where she helped to found the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry (FASC) and was elected as its vice president. Her role involved bringing together scientists and decision makers from all over the world to solve societal problems in Egypt, Arab and African countries, and to encourage young scientists to engage with multilateral projects to solve problems. She enjoyed this opportunity to play a part in “using analytical chemistry to provide a better quality of life for all people internationally.”
Motaza has also been politically active for many years. She held membership in Egypt's Socialist Union party in the sixties and was later appointed as a member of the Political Bureau of Egypt’s Party. She also took on leadership roles for the women’s section of both the Socialist Union and Egypt’s Party.
Finding the balance
Despite being such an influential figure and devoting so much of her time to both science and politics, Motaza has been able to successfully balance her career with her family life. She got married at the age of 22 to Maher Abdel Rahman, who was head of the legal department at Al-Shark Insurance Company but sadly passed away in 1981. She now has three children and seven grandchildren. Her elder son, Maged, is an ambassador at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign affairs and her two daughters, Manal and Manar, have both graduated from the faculty of Economic and Political Science at Cairo University. Supported by both her mother and her husband, she has learned to juggle both family and work duties but feels it is important to always give priority to her family.
The importance of education
From a young age, education has been a key part of Motaza’s life and she has always sought to increase her knowledge and use it to positively influence the world around her. Unlike many women brought up in Muslim families in Arab and African villages, her religious beliefs have reinforced her quest for knowledge. She explains:
"One of the fundamental principles of Islam emphasises the value of education and puts it as an obligation for every Muslim man or woman."
With such an emphasis in her own life on education and teaching, Motaza recognises the crucial role that teachers play in preparing their students for roles in science and the difficulties that can arise when science is not taught properly. “It is difficult for many Egyptian and African children to enter a scientific career because of the lack of good teachers and facilities in schools. As a result, many students prefer to study literary subjects that are generally perceived to be easier than scientific ones. Unfortunately, some Arab and African teachers and politicians still underestimate the importance of providing enough resources to ensure proper education of scientific subjects and they do not fully comprehend its vital role in the development of society,” she says.
Her final advice to anyone who feels alone or underrepresented in their scientific field is:
"Don't ever give up on your dreams; spend time and effort updating your knowledge and keep following advanced and new applications."
Words by Motaza Khater and Vicki Davison
Images courtesy of Motaza Khater
Published December 2015