walaa ali smiles and poses with a statue on campus

Egyptian Geologist and UT Alumna Returns to Forty Acres as Fulbright Scholar

  • Jun 10, 2021
  • Jenan Taha

Egyptian geologist Walaa Awaad Awaad Ali (M.A. ’09) first took the leap of faith to leave her home and community in Alexandria for UT Austin in 2006, because she believed that by experiencing the world, she could help change it. Fifteen years later, having earned a master’s from the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT, a Ph.D. in marine geology from Suez Canal University in Egypt, and numerous distinguished positions in petroleum geology, her journey comes full circle as she returns to UT as a 2021 Fulbright visiting scholar.

Growing up in the coastal city of Marsa Matruh, Ali achieved her bachelor’s in geology at Alexandria University. As she prepared to pursue her master’s, she spent time volunteering as a teacher with orphanages and women in local Bedouin communities. After reading about the prestigious Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program in the newspaper, she decided to apply.

Ali was one of only 28 chosen to receive full admission to UT from among 3,000 applicants. The thought of leaving the people she helped behind made her hesitant to accept the scholarship, but she knew this opportunity would give her the chance to conduct research that could benefit all of Egypt.

Before she began her first semester at the Jackson School, she refined her English in the English Language Center’s (ELC) Academic English Program in Fall 2006. Ali says the ELC helped her prepare for a career in academia and make lifelong connections with peers from around the world.

a group of four people stand in front of a building

“Studying English as a foreign language not only improved my communication and memory skills, but it also increased my cultural knowledge and allowed me to communicate efficiently with professors in the university and learn how to write a scientific report,” Ali said. “Improving my English also allowed me to make new friends, visit new places and know new cultures. I had the opportunity to grow as a person and expand my horizons. It was the best time I had at UT Austin.”

In the single semester she was at the ELC, Ali’s English teachers made such an impact on her that she still keeps in touch with them to this day.

“I loved my ELC instructors so much,” Ali said. “Truly, they were the ones who made me love Austin and encouraged me to do my best to achieve my planned proposal for the scientific research work at Jackson School of Geosciences.”

After completing the English program, she began her master’s studies in energy and earth resources at the Jackson School in Spring 2007. Ali wanted to make a difference in her home country and said that as an Egyptian at the Jackson School, she felt a significant responsibility for her country, further motivating her to achieve her goals.

While at the Jackson School, Ali authored a research thesis at Pickle Research Campus on unconventional Barnett Shale. She says she had a strong connection with her master’s thesis supervisor, Dr. Julia Gale, and had the opportunity to work with research scientists and oil companies on economic issues in geology.

From conducting petroleum geology research across the U.S. to making new friends, Ali remembers her time at UT fondly. She says one of her favorite experiences was participating in the many hands-on fieldwork projects for her courses.

walaa stands with a large group in a snowy area

“For my sequence stratigraphy course in New Mexico with Professor Charles Kerans, we did geological fieldwork with a research group from the Petrobras oil company from Brazil,” Ali said. “I liked the cultural exchange I got from new friends during this trip and the teamwork. Sometimes I feel those days were the best I lived during the last 10 years.”

After graduating from the Jackson School, Ali returned to Egypt and pursued her Ph.D. in marine geology as her country went through the historic 2011 Arab Spring. While working on her Ph.D., she made great strides in various geology roles, but struggled to find a job she was passionate about.

The turning point in her career came when she began instructing university students part-time as a faculty member at Alexandria University. She enjoyed lecturing and conducting geological fieldwork with students in the Sahara desert.

Ali completed her doctoral degree in 2016, and two years later was selected to teach in the petroleum and mining sciences department as an assistant professor at Matrouh University. She currently holds a position as a lecturer of reservoir sedimentology and petroleum geology, teaching students, leading research teams and practicing the aspects of geology she loves most.

“Geology is an interesting subject; it is not only the study of rocks but also the study of how they change through time,” she said. “It makes me live a life full of adventures, exploration and findings.”

Ali’s latest achievement, her research proposal to the Fulbright Committee comparing unconventional shale reservoirs in Egypt and Texas, was awarded a 2021 Fulbright Visiting Scholar grant. She is currently conducting research as a visiting scholar at her alma mater, the Bureau of Economic Geology at UT, working alongside her former research supervisor Julia Gale again.

walaa stands in front of a view of the UT campusAs a visiting scholar, she uses data from the Western Desert of Egypt to analyze source rock—the organic material that creates oil—to predict whether it will become economical in the future, and comparing it to similar sources in Texas.

“I have enjoyed being back at UT this year because I like working with these research scientists I respect and love," she said. "I like the healthy and productive environment of the BEG research center. I also like Austin too much; I have a tremendous love for squirrels and [like to] feed them, capture photographs and videos and share these photos with my family in Egypt. Texas, in general, was a place of dreams to visit and live in when I was a child. So, I feel that [my] dreams came true.” 

Ali says her experiences at the ELC and UT have greatly influenced her life and career trajectory, and she encourages other international students and scholars to take advantage of the array of resources offered by UT, such as international financial aid and English instruction.

“I advise students to communicate with native speakers and make friends with the good ones, since practicing language is the first step to mastering it. Read a lot and spend time doing your assignments—this is the best way to enhance your level of English. Don’t feel shy, the instructors are there to help you. And, stay with an American roommate!”