Nov. 1, 2022

Civil and Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student Meena Ejjada traveled to Germany in June for the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Below, she shares first-hand some of the details about her experience. To learn more about Ejjada’s participation in the Meeting, read the UNLV News Center article titled Three Birds, One Stone
What were your first thoughts when the meeting was getting underway?
I witnessed that the meeting really stands out as a novel platform for young scientists like me to educate, inspire, and connect. This meeting brings individuals together from different cultural and geographic backgrounds but with a shared willingness to better human lives by applying science. The conference made me realize that beyond every great innovation and research, there is always a human connection with the problem statement, which made the breakthrough possible in any field. Also, how challenges are part of every research, and consistently pursuing the problem makes all the difference by contributing to the scientific growth of the community. 

What was the most impactful session of the meeting?
The lecture series started with the 2021 Nobel Laureate David MacMillian on the path to invention and discovery. Later, it was followed by a panel discussion with Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan and Brian P. Schmidt on the topic of Trust in Science, Trust in Chemistry. We discussed challenges and issues faced in today's public perception and acceptance of the scientific community findings. The importance of transparency, the proper framework, and means of discussion are highlighted while dealing with unprecedented times like this, especially in the research field, to build a strong relationship with the public. 

Nobel Laureate Ben Feringa personally inspired me with his story during his lecture on The Joy of Discovery. He shared how coming from a small village and being the son of a farmer shaped him in the art of building small, which led to the Nobel discovery of molecular machines. Another session was hosted by Mars, Incorporated and featured Nobel Laureate Aaron Ciechanover, Nobel Prize Outreach Chief Scientific Officer Adam Smith, and scientists from the field. The discussion was focused on how chemistry unlocks meaningful insights into health and nutrition. This session gave me significant relevance to the nexus of water and food scarcity issues, which is my research field. The story of Nobel Laureate Randy W. Schekman and his work to cure Parkinson's disease after his wife died of the same disease has been commendable. These stories don’t just educate you, but inspire and connect you to use science for a better cause. 

As a young scientist, I got an opportunity to discuss with many fellow scientists coming from more than 90 countries sharing a great passion for the betterment of the universities and research fields. For the next phase of our careers, we discussed different research and academic systems worldwide, work culture, and ways to collaborate and create a more friendly academic environment to be inclusive of students coming from all backgrounds.  

Can you tell me about your interaction with the Nobel Laureates?
I had several meaningful interactions with Nobel Laureates and young scientists, delegates, and conference organizers worldwide. It was so fun to recall on the very first day after the opening ceremony of the meeting, I was standing at one corner of the breakout room, and then Nobel Laureate Ben Feringa came and introduced himself. He was fun to interact with, we clicked pictures together, and he asked me for more details about my research area. I shared details about my research in Las Vegas about water scarcity issues. Things like this usually don't happen and made me more comfortable interacting with other Nobel Laureates.

I was so excited to meet and interact with Nobel Laureate Venki Ramakrishnan. He's my inspiration right from my undergraduate studies. Coming from the same cultural background and a brutally competitive education system, I am always inspired by how he pursued relentlessly to discover his true passion. He transitioned his research majors from physics to biology, which is very unconventional, and kept building on those small ideas which made him win the Nobel prize for his work on ribosomes. During our interactions, despite the challenges, he emphasized the importance of not giving up by being open to other innovations and ideas. He is a scientist who advocates for being not a 24/7 researcher and building interests and passions outside research.

During one of my dinners at the meeting, I sat next to Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, and we talked about our love for travel, adventure, and hikes besides science. I don't think I would have such opportunities if it hadn't been for this meeting. The overall interaction made me understand the essence of having great mentors and getting the proper guidance and exposure through collaboration at the right time, paving the way to becoming a great mentor.  

What was it like meeting a female Nobel Laureate? 
I look up to many incredible female leaders who have changed the narrative for women over the years. As a young girl, I remember reading books about Mother Teresa, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, Kalpana Chawla, Katherine Johnson, and many others.

The contributions of women like them and their successes have made it possible for girls like me to dream and achieve big, especially in STEM disciplines. Coming from a country where a girl's right to education was denied and being a first-generation graduate, it gives me immense happiness to have met female Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland. The representation of women on such global and competitive scientific platforms is significant to break all the stereotypes and gives direction to overcoming insurmountable challenges on the professional and personal front and persevering relentlessly.  

When I was planning to start my Ph.D. and move to the U.S. for my graduate studies, I was given much-unsolicited advice about low success rates and statistics of women succeeding in non-IT or other scientific fields, but it was my mother, family, and some close friends who encouraged me to pursue my passion and dreams. Since then I never looked back or questioned my journey. So, it is always important to believe in yourself and never let others' opinions change your inner voice and, ultimately, your life's own narrative.

As an international student, have you felt supported by UNLV? Does your participation in the Nobel Laureate Meeting play into that?
As an International student, I was at a disadvantage when applying to this prestigious meeting. The Council of the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting partners with academic institutions worldwide, and the educational institute has to nominate the deserving student. However, I can't be nominated through the university as I am an international student. Students like me have to go through an open application, where students from different countries apply and will be shortlisted for the next two rounds, and it is highly competitive to be selected from those pools of applicants.

I made it through these rounds by standing out due to my research and active involvement in graduate life at UNLV. The university supports students' research interests and projects through well-established research labs and facilities, scholarships, active student chapters, and funding opportunities for conferences and travel. My advisor, Dr. Erica J. Marti, has also played an important role in my active enrollment in many activities. She provides abundant resources and information related to scholarships, conferences, technical presentations, student chapters, competitions, workshops, and grant proposal deadlines and encourages me to apply and explore the opportunities. So it wasn't hard for me to adapt quickly to a new environment and excel at all the opportunities by having a supportive advisor and resources at a minority-serving university like UNLV.