Nadira Najib is a master problem solver.
Between being the first member of her family to earn a bachelor’s degree to moving to a foreign country to reclaiming a 240-acre dump, Najib has made overcoming obstacles her life’s work.
A Ph.D. student at Stevens Institute of Technology, Najib studies environmental engineering in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering. She has volunteered with the International Rescue Committee to provide Arabic translation and interpretation to new Syrian refugees in New Jersey, as well as Engineers Without Borders and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to help Palestinian refugee communities assess and plan for improvement of wastewater collection and treatment systems.
She is also a rising star in the civil engineering world, with a 2017 Rising Star award from Civil + Structural Engineering News magazine and a Young Civil Engineer of the Year award from the North Jersey chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
"I had a passion for science from an early age and decided to just go for it," she says.
Najib began her journey in Casablanca, Morocco. She was the first member of her family to finish high school—and pursue a bachelor’s degree. And a Ph.D. "My father passed away when I was only six years old. He only had eight years of education," she says. "My mother only has six years of education. Both of them were very supportive of me."
Najib is also the first woman in her family to be an engineer. "In my country, the study of engineering is not typical for women," she says. "But it was always in me to try something new and challenging."
Najib came to the U.S. to pursue that passion and continue her education. It was not easy. "I came in 2008, which I know was the worst year to come due to the recession," she says. "I continued with my Master’s study because there were no jobs, and even Americans were being laid off. I did not even know English well, but yet I decided to come anyway."
Despite those limitations, Najib spent lots of time in the library perfecting her English and studying chemical engineering. She loved the excitement and challenges of the field but wanted to do something more fun and creative. "Knowing what you don’t like helps you know what you actually like and want to do," she says. After taking environmental courses at Harvard University Extension School, Najib decided to pursue a career in environmental engineering.
"Everything we see in the world around us is based on chemical reactions," she says. "I’m interested in how we can produce [what we need] with what we have in the environment using less chemicals, less energy, less water consumption—all these. I want to be part of the green engineering movement."
Najib interning with Dar Si Hmed in Morocco, an organization that works to provide clean water systems. CREDIT: Nadira Najib.
Environmental engineers work to solve environmental and public health problems including drinking water safety, groundwater protection, wastewater treatment and waste disposal/clean up. At Stevens, the environmental engineering program integrates engineering with human health, pollution prevention, green design, climate changes and carbon sequestration, as well as the development of alternative energy.
That comprehensive overview and diversity of focus appealed to Najib. "I feel my decision to join Stevens is constantly rewarded by the many diverse opportunities offered to graduate students," she says. "I have had the opportunity to get hands-on experience in performing academic research in my second semester while I was pursuing my master’s degree. This research experience was one of the factors that led me to get awarded a full scholarship to pursue my Ph.D."
Najib works with professor and Center for Environmental Systems director Christos Christodoulatos on research focusing on the removal of oxyanions from aqueous solutions using functionalized cellulose nanofibrils. Her research uses sustainable nanofiber anion exchange resin to remove pollutants from water, and it goes hand in hand with her work as an environmental engineer at Langan Engineering and Environmental Services. Two projects caught the attention of the awards committees: one upgrading a 30-year-old municipal water system to keep contaminants out, and one reclaiming a 240-acre dump in a highly populated area to make it environmentally safe and attractive for housing.
She continues doing projects like that all over the country. "My work environment accepted my attitude [of trying new and challenging things]," she says. "Overall, I think it’s a good fit."
Najib cites the relationships she built at Stevens as key to her success. "I really like how the faculty members here at Stevens are so close to their students. They are always there to help and support students in any way they can, making the time and effort to invest in the next generation of engineers. I also like the casual relationships that I have built with multiple professors. I consider them mentors and friends."
So what does the future look like for Najib? "My immediate goal is to finish my Ph.D.," she says. "I don't see myself doing anything else besides continuing to work in environmental engineering consulting. I love working with my clients to meet their goals while protecting human health and the environment. I also would like to make my way up to managerial position in the firm that I work for. There are not that many women engineers in engineering firms that they make it to high positions."
If anyone can do it, Najib can.