Professor Samara Talks Environment, Sustainability

Dr. Fatin Samara is an Environmental Sciences Professor at AUS.

By Shaikha Almaazmi

Dr. Fatin Samara talked to me about the sustainability of the present and the environmental risks of the future. Dr. Samara has been an Environmental Sciences Professor at the American University of Sharjah since 2009. She is also the co-Chair of the UAE Climate Change Research Network. Her research focuses on solving local environmental problems related to environmental quality, toxicity assessments and waste-to-energy.

What inspired you to get into environmental and research on sustainability? 

When I was in middle school like grade nine, I had to do a science project and I remember that my project was highly inspired by the environment. In high school, I took a chemistry course with a teacher who was so inspirational to me. He taught me different sciences and it kind of increased my passion for sciences.  I ended up studying chemistry in college and I got a bachelor’s in chemistry, but I always felt like I wanted to use chemistry differently. When I went to Graduate School, I found a professor who had just joined, and her specialty was Environmental Chemistry. I felt that this was what I cared about and that I wanted to use chemistry to solve environmental problems.

How would you define sustainability, especially in the context of your expertise?

Sustainability has one meaning, which is the idea of meeting current needs without compromising the future, but I think that it can be viewed in a lot of different ways.  From the scientific perspective and the perspective of what I do, sustainability is seen as the fact that I’m looking at pollution and how pollutants are affecting organisms and the environment. In terms of life, sustainability is how we can keep these organisms for the future based on the food chain. I see this in the sense of climate change and how our current actions could affect organisms and our climate in the future, but sustainability can also be seen differently. Thinking of education, partnerships, and cities and construction so that is sustainability.

What research projects you are working on that involve climate change and sustainability?

I do have a lot of different lines of research, and I work on a lot on different projects. For one, I analyze pollutants in different organisms, and I think that some of this baseline data is so important because we have also looked at water quality and seen a lot of different environmental ecosystems here in the UAE.  It’s those areas that have not been explored because the UAE is new, and there is no background data on the salinity in our oceans, how that is changing, and what is the status of different species and organisms that are part of the food chain.  Another area I am exploring is the materials we have that are coming from food waste and sewage, and how we can convert these materials into something that doesn’t go into the landfill and can be used as a source of energy or as fertilizers to reduce waste, because eventually waste will be linked to climate and environmental sustainability. 

One of your recent research projects is about the Oyster Beds in the UAE, could you tell me more?

This was a big study that I did with a team of researchers from AUS, from the Emirates Nature, from the Environmental Protection Agency here in Sharjah as well as from ACP University. The idea of this research was that we have some Oyster Beds that were explored by Emirates Nature in Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain and Ajman. They have been mapped as some of the largest Oyster Beds but there is nothing known about them and with the fast development that is happening in the UAE, the concern was that if we do not understand what their status is they might later completely disappear without us understanding. 

What type of progress have you achieved so far?

After the mapping, we wanted to go in and assess the water quality. Looking into possible pollutants and heavy metals. We looked at the sediments in the bottom; we looked at the oyster population and the marine biologists were looking into the population of fish and other species that live in those areas.  As part of the project, we also did interviews with fishermen, because what I think is a big component now is called “Citizen Science,” which is looking into how the human population that has been here for a long time can support the research. We had interviews with fishermen, and they were able to tell us that they have seen changes in the fish population within this area that were also seen in the Oyster Beds areas and that they know where they are. 

What are the latest trends in sustainability?

When it comes to sustainability, materials and how can they be differently looked into are becoming a very important trend. While writing for research, I read that biodegradable plastics are not necessarily biodegradable. They’re only biodegradable in certain conditions. A big trend that could be very relevant about materials is how we can come up with materials that are biodegradable under all conditions and that will not have an impact on organisms in the environment. 

And can you share with us how sustainability evolved over the years and the changes you have observed? 

I can tell you quickly that when I first came to the UAE in 2009, BEEAH had already been established but I think that the idea of recycling was still very small. I think a lot of the population was not used to what recycling was and what was recyclable. But right now, we are exploring technologies. For example, Sharjah is opening waste energy funds, which was not seen back then. I believe with this transition, there is a lot of emphasis, in the UAE especially, on how we can be more sustainable, but I think that there is still a long way to go, not only for the UAE but for the whole world.

If the burning of fossil fuel and the activity of humans continue, what do you think is the worst natural phenomenon that can happen?

There are so many different things as we are looking into the consequences of climate change. We see an increase in hurricanes, storms, flooding and rain episodes but we also see an increase in droughts. It is a phenomenon that can increase a lot of different things.  Something that is highly talked about; is the increase in temperature, and we are already in a hot country. It is going to get hotter and as it gets hotter would we be able to tolerate the heat? Are we going to use more energy because we’re going to have to pull down more? And at the same time, what about the air that we breathe? Is it going to get more affected? I think that it is based on the area where you are located, but at the same time, I think that everything will become higher.

What do you see as the most pressing challenges for achieving sustainability today?

Awareness and education, the fact that many people think that “if I individually cannot do a lot, it has to come from the government.” This is a major challenge, because if we continue waiting for everything to come from the top then nothing is going to happen. We need to learn that as individuals we have a responsibility and once that responsibility becomes collective then it’s going to make a big difference. I think we also need to try and learn what we can do with what we have available and that is something that I would like to see a little bit more of. 

What personal actions or lifestyle changes do you believe can contribute to a more sustainable world?

I believe that we can try and take smaller steps and I try to do this. It’s a struggle because you cannot convince everybody to think this way. I try to walk a little bit more, and every time I go grocery shopping, I always take my bags.  Something that I keep talking about all the time, is the idea that you don’t necessarily need to be an environmental scientist or somebody with sciences to understand the fact that you have such a big impact when it comes to sustainability. Think about your major, your field of study, and what you’re currently doing, and see how you can incorporate that and fit it into the sustainable development goals.