Students from Abu Dhabi’s Petroleum Institute on the edge of an engineering breakthrough

Casually ask a group of female students from Abu Dhabi’s Petroleum Institute what first drew them to science and they answer in unison, somewhat indignantly: “Engineering. We’re engineers.”

Yes, of course, duly corrected.

These students of chemical and petroleum engineering are mostly prospective 2016 graduates and will be the sixth batch of female students to have gone through the Petroleum Institute’s programmes since it opened its doors to women eight years ago.

The group are just back from a fortnight’s tour of some of Germany’s most advanced petrochemical facilities – a regular feature of the institute’s educational programme, which brings students abroad to not only learn industrial methods but also to give them a chance for a little immersion in other cultures.

A trip to Germany for engineers is, of course, a little like a pilgrimage to the industrial holy land, with the country’s centuries of industrialisation and a reputation for world-leading engineering development, especially in chemicals.

Most of these women are no strangers to foreign travel for professional development. As Aisha Nasser Al Khouri, a geoscience engineering senior, points out, part of her course has involved stints in Italy and Spain to study geological structures that are similar to those found in the UAE – though, of course, without the subsurface oceans of oil.

But this German trip, Ms Al Khouri says, gave her a chance to see for the first time the full geological assessment process in a professional context. The host of the trip was Wintershall, Germany’s largest international oil and gas company and a division of BASF, the world’s largest chemicals company. Students travelled on their first day to Barnstorf, 60 kilometres south-east of Bremen, to see Winterhsall’s geo-processing operations centre.

The students all have an attachment to one of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s operating companies, and Wintershall is an Adnoc partner on a number of UAE projects, for example as operator of the Shuwaihat field in the western region, a “sour gas” field that is one of the most challenging geological and chemical environments to operate in.

Merriet Gamal Kamel, a chemical engineering student from Egypt, says one of the best aspects of these extended professional field trips is to put their chosen study areas in a broader context.

Talking of the excursion to the mining museum at Rammelsberg, where there has been mining in the mountain for more than 1,000 years, Ms Kamel says: “It was fascinating to see drawings of how they were able to do it in the old days with almost nothing, no tools at all. And then, as a chemical engineer, to be able to see at BASF [a few days later] how these days ethylene gets processed into everyday products for hair, clothes and so on.”

About 300 women have now entered the Petroleum Institute’s programme, and there is a sense from the students that some are a little jaded being asked for a “female perspective” – especially a Middle East female perspective.

“You know, there were some places we visited that it was the first time that they have seen female engineers in these fields,” says Mariam Abdulrahman Al Baloushi, a chemical engineering student in her junior year, adding that it is not only in the UAE that women are breaking through in engineering fields,

As Ms Al Khouri says, she had a chance to talk to a German female engineer a few years older than the students, who had already had an overseas posting to a Middle East country. “She had the experience of getting into a new environment, a new world, had to experience different weather, different food. She told me how she, as a female engineer, progressed through her work in this situation,” Ms Al Khouri says.

The trip through some of Germany’s oldest cities, including Heidelberg, sparked an interest in the country’s culture and for some the possibility of pursuing postgraduate study abroad.

The visit also took in Clausthal University of Technology, which is now offering postgraduate programmes in English and German, a growing trend among continental European universities that are looking to attract foreign students.

The field trip ventured outside the students’ specific fields, with a full-day outing to the EADS Astrium in Bremen to hear about the latest in space technology. They also investigated solar technology, although some of the students were a little underwhelmed, despite the fact Germany is Europe’s leading solar-tech country.

“We have Masdar,” shrugs Shamma Mahmoud Al Qaissieh. “The technology is much wider here than what they have shown us,” adds the petroleum engineering senior.

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Anthony McAuley

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