BY SARAH SAWLER
Najwan Al Barghouthi is a graduate student in the chemistry department at Saint Mary’s University, currently working in a nanotechnology research group under supervisor Dr. Christa Broussard. She’s researching a new way to quickly detect and identity environmental contaminants. “We want to create a portable device that you can take anywhere, to any lake, to any water, and you can tell if the water is contaminated,” says Al Barghouthi. “No one can drink this water, or swim in this water.” Broussard elaborates on the research: “We hear about the neonicotinoids that are effecting the honey bee population a lot. And so, what we want to look at is the impact of those insecticides and herbicides in the environment. “The National Nanotechnology Institute defines nanoscience and nanotechnology as “the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering.” According to Broussard, if you want to test for contaminants now, you have to “collect a sample, and go back to the lab and do a couple days of prep. Then a couple days of analysis and then a couple more days of data and treatment.”
If Al Barghouthi is successful, people will be able to use a hand-held device in the field that gives results within just a few minutes. Al Barghouthi just started her PhD a couple of months ago, but she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry over a decade ago, and family and cultural pressures made it hard. “In Jordan, when you’re 18 or 19, you have to marry,” says Al Barghouthi. “So when I was 18, it was like, ‘Hey, you have to think about marriage.’ Not now. ‘Yes now.’ No, not now. ‘Yes, it’s now.’ But I want to finish my studies.” Al Barghouthi soon married, with her husband’s agreement that she’d continue her education. “Thankfully he was supportive,” says Al Barghouthi. “He said, ‘OK, if you want to finish university I don’t mind, I will support you. But we have to have children.’” After moving to Libya, where her husband was working, she did a four-year chemistry degree in Jordan, travelling between semesters. And she also started her family; by the time she was 21, she had two children. “It was really hard,” says Al Barghouthi, “but I said [to myself] ‘OK, you know, education is the only way you will have a future. I’m not going to give up my university whether it’s hard or not. I will keep studying. “But when she was done her degree, she couldn’t work in Libya because she was Jordanian. Her husband suggested that she simply stay at home and raise the kids. For a while she did that, but she wanted to do more. In the end, Al Barghouthi proposed moving to Canada. Her husband agreed that she could go, with the children, “and whatever happens, [they] would deal with it.”
In 2011, when she was 29, she arrived in Canada with three children and pregnant with another. The move overwhelmed her. She was in an unfamiliar country and needed to find work and care for her children. And she was lonely. “It was the hardest feeling to have,” Al Barghouthi says. “Going to sleep at night, I was really lonely. I was really scared. Thinking I’m going to have to wake up again and chase another miserable day. For me, the loneliness was terrible. When I was sick, I had no one to support me. I had my three children to take care of me.” She also worried about what would happen to her children, if something happened to her.
“It was a very hard decision,” she says. “You have no family, you’re all by yourself. I hear about culture shock, but thankfully, I didn’t go through this stuff. I was strong enough to handle it. But when you first arrive, you think ‘Oh, why did I do this by myself? No one knows about me!” She had acquaintances, of course, but no one she knew well. Over time, though, things got much better. She started taking English classes and workshops at ISANS, and her kids started making friends at school, and before too long, she started making friends of her own. Now, she
says moving to Canada is the best decision she’s ever made for herself and her children.
“Now, I can harvest,” she says. “My son is going to the United States for a championship with his soccer team, which is awesome. Think about this opportunity. Would he have the same opportunity if we were back in Libya? Never. He’s so excited.”
As she began to settle in, she started to notice something. “Here, it’s not only men who can work,” she says. “I looked around, and I said ‘Oh, that lady is working. That neighbor is working. Why am I staying home? Everyone is working! Why are women supposed to stay home and look after their children? So I said, ‘I don’t care if my husband is working or not, it’s my time now.’” She wanted a Canadian degree, so she started inquiring with professors at Saint Mary’s University. They suggested that she take a couple of undergraduate courses first, because they’d had a fairly big gap between degrees. She took an introduction to instrumental analysis with Broussard, and did so well that Broussard suggested she start her graduate degree. “She was spending a lot of time studying compared to her classmates who were in their second year, and hadn’t taken a leave of absence,” says Broussard. “She was doing just as well as them, and she ended up in the top 10% of the course. I saw that she was very dedicated to pursuing this goal of doing a graduate degree.”
She started with a master, but took another step forward after Broussard suggested doing a direct transfer, which allows students with high grades and a personal goal of earning a PhD to move into a PhD program. The option shaves a bit off the time spent in school. “We had some conversations coming out of the course about her future plans and goals and I told her to apply,” Broussard recalls. “She did, and that’s where she is today: she started last May and did the direct transfer just about a month ago.” Al Barghouthi is passionate about her graduate work. “I work with many students and often graduate work is sort of their plan B,” Broussard says. “Maybe they didn’t get into medical school, or they couldn’t figure something out for their future, so they just did a master’s degree, but for her, that was the goal. She wanted to be able to get a good job and support her family. And it was just her time. I appreciated that.”
After a three-year immigration process, Al Barghouthi’s husband is now here as well, awaiting his permanent residency status. And Al Barghouthi is excited about the future: “I look at my daughter, and I see that she will be able to do anything she wants to do. She has so much opportunity.”