Focused, determined, and infused with a huge enthusiasm to explore, Maryam Al Joaan was the first Kuwaiti woman to embark upon a scientific mission to Antarctica to study climate change.
Born and raised in Kuwait, her academic journey has taken her to the US, Russia, and now, Belgium, where she is currently pursuing her Masters in Paleoclimatology. Intent on decoding the earth’s past climate in a bid to understand the earth’s present and future, she also nurtures a passion for space exploration and given her single-minded focus and zest, she will perhaps one day charter that territory as well.
Khaleejesque spoke to this intrepid scientist and explorer about her various journeys:
Being an oceanographer, could you please inform us, for the benefit of our readers, what this field of study represents?
Oceanography is a rich interdisciplinary field that covers marine life and looks into the marine ecosystem, ocean circulation, geology of the sea floor, and the chemical and physical properties of the ocean. I am personally interested in how the ocean currents affect Earth’s changing climate and the reconstruction of Earth’s past climates.
What drew you towards this field?
To be succinct: it’s all about exploration! It’s exciting to solve the puzzle of past climates and I am attracted to field-oriented research. Oceanography offers me the opportunities to explore remote places on Earth to obtain data about past climates preserved in ice-sheets, rocks, sediments and fossil, or paleoclimate.
What are you currently pursuing or presently involved in?
I am currently pursuing my Masters at Ghent University, Belgium with my focus being Paleoclimatology. I also give presentations at schools and NGOs to raise awareness about global warming and inspire the youth to protect Earth.
How did you embark upon your journey to Antarctica?
I participated in Antarctic University Expedition 2011, which was organized by the Canadian organization ‘Students on Ice’ and joined 80 university students and 20 university faculty, scientists and educators from all over the world. In Antarctica, we went to explore and made landings along the Antarctic Peninsula, along with visiting the surrounding islands.
What did you personally hope to achieve during the 16 day expedition?
As an oceanographer, I wanted to see climate change effects in Antarctica. I along with a team from McGill University conducted a field-based oceanographic research to look at the role of Antarctica within the Earth system, particularly focusing on the Southern Ocean. It signifies the importance of Antarctica for the global climate and for nutrient cycles within the ocean; it is also crucial to understand how the Southern Ocean played a part in glacial-interglacial cycles in the past 2.5 million years. Understanding this mechanism will help us to understand the current climate change.
What was your experience like?
It’s not easy to explain! I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the icebergs’ deep blue hues and the color of the Antarctic cold waters. I felt I had been transported to another planet. I felt so small in the vicinity of this vast ocean. Antarctica was truly unforgettable: I will surely return there one day.
What has this experience taught you and which will forever remain with you?
Every time I looked over the Southern Ocean, sailing along the icy blue waters, I realized how fragile and beautiful Earth is. We all share one planet and it is our responsibility to protect it.
You were the first Kuwaiti woman to go to Antarctica on a scientific mission, setting a precedent for both your countrywomen as well as other women in the region. Was it a difficult journey or were you met with support and encouragement wherever you go?
It has been a long and difficult journey for me. I was once in a desk job and people told me I was unrealistic to follow my dreams. Yet, I was resolutely determined to continue my academic studies and specialize in oceanography, and here I am – I never expected I would have made it to Antarctica. I would like to thank VIVA KUWAIT, who sponsored me and made the expedition possible. I would also like to thank my husband, who actively supported me during the preparation of the expedition and during the expedition itself.
What are your other interests? What else do you hope to achieve?
I am passionate about motivating young people in science particularly in space. In the past, I coordinated two telebridge contacts with the International Space Station for students, which marked the first event with a Middle East school. I also hope to organize microgravity research competitions for university students. On a personal level, I hope to explore the Arctic and Northern hemisphere.
What message do you have for the Khaleeji youth regarding achieving the seemingly impossible?
Believe in yourself! Set your goal and take one step at a time – and you will surely realize your dreams one day. I would also like to especially say something to Khaleeji women: never give up on your dreams, show your family that you are passionate about your goal. Be independent, pursue your dreams as far as you can and support will come with time.
You can learn more about Maryam’s Antarctica expedition on her Facebook Page
– Priyanka Sacheti