The Chemistry of Transformation
When reading Dr. Hind Al-Abadleh’s hefty list of accomplishments, it’s easy to feel intimidated. Twelve years into her academic career, Al-Abadleh has been relentless in raising awareness about the science behind climate change, while advocating for increased representation and support for marginalized groups in the physical sciences. She has established award-winning research programs in atmospheric chemistry and geochemistry, co-authored 38 peer-reviewed scientific publications in high-impact journals, and received countless research awards and invitations to speak around the world. It comes as no surprise that she has been nominated multiple times for the Canadian Arab to Watch.
A fitting title that doesn’t appear on her resume, however, is storyteller – and a warm engaging one, at that. Currently Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University, Al-Abadleh recounts her journey so far with equal parts excitement and humility.
Al-Abadleh grew up in the United Arab Emirates, while spending summers in Gaza – both places of which she speaks with great affection. It was during her high school years in the UAE that Al-Abadleh’s interest in chemistry and the environment first originated. She recalls learning about the impacts of climate change in her early 90s English-language textbook, which cited several European environmental organizations in its index. Always the inquisitive skeptic – “I wanted to make sure they weren’t teaching us fake things!” – young Hind sent a letter to one of these organizations. Sure enough, they replied with a package filled with brochures and information, encouraging her to stay in touch, and cementing her interest in the topic.
While it was during high school that she first understood pollution through chemistry, it was during her undergraduate years that she realized how chemistry can be used to solve environmental degradation. “Science can be at the service, or the destruction of humanity. It’s a tool we need to use wisely in order for us to flourish and for Earth to prosper,” she comments. Her professors took note of her potential early on, and proved to be key catalysts in her pursuit of graduate studies abroad. They all but wrote her application to the University of Iowa, and one mentor even supported her settlement upon arrival to the U.S.
Al-Abadleh flourished in Iowa, but the United States’ harsh post-9/11 climate made it clear that this was not the place for her, especially as a visible Muslim woman. Following the encouragement of her friends, she applied to immigrate to Canada, and upon completing her post-doc, made the move. She received a job offer at Wilfrid Laurier, and quickly fell in love with Kitchener-Waterloo -- which she surprisingly compared to her hometown of Al-Ain in UAE. “It’s small, green, with horizontal development - I knew it was where I wanted to live right away”.
A Canadian citizen since 2009, Al-Abadleh holds her Canadian home and identity close to her heart. “Before getting the citizenship, I felt like an invisible person on the political stage. Once you solve your political identity, opportunities open up.” She expresses a deep gratitude and responsibility towards her intersecting communities and the broader society that supports the sciences.
While her passion for chemistry and the environment has been lifelong, what drove her to “get out of her bubble and lab” occurred in one of her own classes. During an atmospheric chemistry course that she was teaching, she showed her students the documentary Suzuki Speaks. David Suzuki, the Canadian environmentalist, presented a challenge to the audience to double-check their value system, asking “What governs human relationship with nature?”. Al-Abadleh names this moment as the big shift.
“That’s when it hit me. It’s a very fundamental question. I had a passion for the topic, I research it, I teach it and talk about it, but I never asked myself that question. We think of ourselves as separate from nature when we cannot even hold our breath for more than a minute. We need clean air, we need clean water and we need clean soil, but when we look at the news of environmental degradation, of species disappearing, we are so desensitized that we see it as separate from us”.
Al-Abadleh’s philosophy is deeply influenced by her Islamic faith, which she reminds us has a rich tradition in that regard. Islam, she elaborates, teaches us to treat all of God’s creation as precious, and has countless laws that delineate our relationship with nature. The separation of human from nature is a modern phenomenon of the Enlightenment, but we needn’t internalize that particular value system. Faith and ethics, to Al-Abadleh, are powerful ways to engage the community and the human spirit with science and the environment.
“There is so much trauma everywhere. Our communities are wounded and they are struggling. Our ship is sinking and we’re consumed by inner fighting. The environment doesn't see borders-- if its gonna submerge one of us, it’s gonna submerge all of us.”
As the first woman in her department -- let alone a practicing Muslim woman -- she graciously brushes away associated challenges. Al-Abadleh is self-aware of the disruptive power her presence has in academic and scientific spaces, while also welcoming the disruption she experiences as a result as well. “When you rub sandpaper against a rough wall, both get polished!” she remarks, laughing. She sees these tensions as crucial for social and personal change, and instead focuses on the tremendous support of the faculty and surrounding community.
In a similar spirit, Al-Abadleh emphatically expresses the momentous influence of mentors throughout her life. She firstly names her family members as her biggest fans, cheerleaders, and teachers, citing her working mother as her first strong female role model, and her father as a dedicated partner in the household. Growing up in the UAE, she constantly saw female doctors, teachers, and officers, and thus relegated any tired gender roles to the dust. The rest of her academic career is peppered with professors, colleagues, and friends who both pushed her to further academic heights, while inspiring her personal growth. It is unsurprising that she places such high value on her role as a mentor and role model today.
Looking forward, Al-Abadleh begins by putting it simply: “I’d like to go from CV building to community building.”
“My dream is to be a door opener for people. I want to make qualitative differences in people's lives. Mentorship was so important to me, and I’m at the stage where I’d really like to do the same.” Which she already has been – as Al-Abadleh points out, you cannot be a researcher if you are not engaging with students, mentoring and co-writing with them, and being there for them when things go bad. “I take that to heart.”
Hind Al-Abadleh finishes with a vision: “My true hope is that my generation, and future generations, develop a passionate, compassionate, realistic eye that looks at humanity as a work in progress. And once we share a common goal, we know that we can achieve what seemed impossible.”