Issue Date: June 27, 2011
Saida R. Aliyeva doesn’t have to try hard to be a chemistry cheerleader in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. She assumes that role quite naturally. “I’ve loved chemistry since I was in eighth grade,” says the 32-year-old native of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. She also became fascinated with biology early on.
These days she works at the interface of the two fields. Aliyeva is a specialist in microbial biochemistry, which she studies in her role as senior scientist and project manager at the Microbiology Institute of the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences. She also teaches genetic engineering at Baku State University.
Sometimes, practicing scientists point to an especially charismatic teacher from their youth as the source of scientific inspiration. In Aliyeva’s case, it was the experiments and laboratory demonstrations that grabbed her attention. Those lab activities lifted science from the pages of a textbook and brought science to life, she says.
Aliyeva’s early interest in science was also cultivated in her home. Her mother is an ophthalmologist and her father is an expert in geographical information systems, a topic based on cartography and statistical analysis that he teaches at Baku State University. Both of her parents hold doctoral degrees, but earning them required a particularly strong commitment to education that Aliyeva came to appreciate as she grew up.
“Life wasn’t so easy during Soviet Union days,” she says. Her parents, like others of their generation who were university students in Azerbaijan when it was a Soviet republic, always struggled to make ends meet because little financial support was available in those days for students pursuing advanced degrees. Even after graduating, scientists and doctors practicing in the former Soviet republics often earned meager salaries. Yet Aliyeva says her parents were always enthusiastic about science and excited about learning. Their attitude rubbed off on her.
Aliyeva majored in chemistry and biology in her undergraduate days at Baku State and then began focusing on microbiology—specifically, microbiology pertinent to petroleum pollutants in the Caspian Sea, which forms Azerbaijan’s eastern border. Development of the country’s petroleum industry over the past several decades has been a boon to Azerbaijan’s economy, but lax industrial practices have exacted a heavy environmental toll.
For Aliyeva, the opportunity to do research for a Ph.D. thesis in a subject area that could directly benefit her country’s shoreline was a win-win situation. She investigated mechanisms by which microorganisms degrade crude oil and hydrocarbon products isolated from waters off the Absheron Peninsula, the landmass on which Baku is located. She completed most of the work at the Microbiology Institute in Baku. Then Aliyeva received a grant that enabled her to spend several months doing Ph.D. work with biochemists at Lund University, in Sweden. While at Lund, she learned essential chromatography skills and benefited from state-of-the-art lab instruments not readily available in Baku.
Not long thereafter, Aliyeva headed off to Washington State University as a postdoctoral Fulbright scholar to do bioremediation work in the chemical and bioengineering department. Like her previous experience in Sweden, doing science in the U.S. gave Aliyeva the opportunity to learn about new analytical methods and technologies. Additionally, it exposed her for the first time to the professional networking benefits of being involved with the American Chemical Society.
Aliyeva hardly knew a thing about ACS when she arrived in the U.S., but she quickly discovered that her American colleagues were getting a lot of useful information and developing valuable connections through the society. When she joined, she became one of only eight members in Azerbaijan and the only female member.
Being involved with ACS, and in particular with the Division of Petroleum Chemistry, “opens the door to research collaborations overseas and gives me new opportunities to communicate with many scientists,” she says. In addition to fostering collaborations with researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Texas Tech University, Aliyeva’s ACS connection is helping advance her plans to commercialize a microbial preparation she patented for bioremediation of oil-contaminated water and soil.
“People in Azerbaijan don’t really know about ACS,” Aliyeva says. But the Baku microbiochemist who describes herself as “still in love with science” is spreading the word.
- Chemical & Engineering News
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