Pakistani exchange student makes people, chemical connections
By Edwin Smith
aha Yusuf has made many discoveries since she arrived on the University of Mississippi campus last August.
As a cultural ambassador through the U.S. Department of State and the International Research and Exchanges Board, the senior chemical engineering major from Pakistan is experiencing true Southern hospitality from UM faculty, staff and students as she furthers her already exceptional education.
"I had never in my life imagined that I would be here," said Yusuf, who is enrolled in the National University of Sciences and Technology, or NUST, in Pakistan. "Girls are not very encouraged for schooling, let alone for higher education and career in fields like engineering."
Encouraged by her father, Yusuf began to study hard. She made good grades, and her parents made sure she received the best education possible. By the time she was in eighth grade, she had to decide whether to do the Metric system of education (Pakistani government-regulated education) or British system of education through the University of Cambridge.
"It was the biggest decision of my life," Yusuf said. "I have a transcript from the University of Cambridge, but it is very expensive. You have to pay lots of money for that."
After high school graduation, Yusuf entered NUST, where her life began to change. She was selected among 25 semifinalists from 43 countries for her "Piezoelectric Solution to the Pakistan Energy Crisis" and was invited to the Second Global Summit on Entrepreneurship by the prime minister of Turkey.
"I made a customized engineered shoe," Yusuf said. "When you wear it, you put your mobile battery in and you go for a walk. When you come back, your mobile will be charged."
Since being assigned to Ole Miss by the State Department, Yusuf has had many enjoyable experiences.
"The most memorable experience is difficult to choose because I believe that every single day has been memorable for me here," she said. "All my experiences here have made me more independent, direct and strong."
Still, one event Yusuf particularly treasures is her participation in Rebel Run, in which all new students run onto the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium field during a home football game.
"I did Rebel Run for my EDHE class and had to write a paper on that. That was indeed the most thrilling and crazy thing I have done so far, and I will cherish that forever," Yusuf said.
Yusuf's creative ideas and work ethic have made a very positive impression upon UM engineering faculty members who have worked closely with her.
"Maha joined my thermodynamics class on the last day of registration," said Wei-Yin Chen, professor of chemical engineering. "She submitted all the homework and earned the highest grade in the class two weeks after that. She constantly asks good questions in and out of the classroom."
Yusuf has been equally impressed with both the academic rigor and helpfulness of her professors.
"To be honest, I would not have been able to survive if they wouldn't have been so helpful and encouraging," she said. "Professor Chen was very helpful and supportive in every respect: academic, advising on personal issues, research and so forth. Even though it was only for two months, the lab work I have done with him has given me insight in the research field. I've always dreamt of being a researcher and becoming a Nobel laureate one day."
Yusuf joined the Ole Miss chapter of Engineers Without Borders and is planning to establish a similar chapter on her campus in Pakistan upon her return. She is also trying to establish a hub in this region for the Global Shapers of the World Economic Forum.
After Yusuf receives her degree from NUST, she has a standing job offer at a fertilizer plant where she has interned before. Her preference is to attend graduate school and become a researcher.
"After I earn my Ph.D. in chemical engineering, I plan on teaching thermodynamics and conducting research at my home university," Yusuf said. "I'd also like to start my own social venture with the name 'Brains.'"
For her final-year research project, Yusuf is developing an absorbent material for capturing CO2 emissions from combustion sources, thereby helping to create a collaboration between UM and NUST.
"Maha is hungry for research," Chen said. "She reads articles and quickly puts ideas into action, and has been a great asset in my group."
Yusuf is concerned with enacting change in her home country when she returns. Many Pakistanis, including her parents, have never left the country, and her family is often shocked when she expounds on her American experiences.
School of Engineering Dean Alex Cheng recently invited Yusuf to give a talk to engineering seniors in one of his leadership classes. Her presentation impressed both the administrator and Yusuf's peers.
"Maha is full of energy," Cheng said. "In her short time here, she is already making all kinds of connections for Ole Miss and Oxford with the world."