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Meet Omar Gowayed: Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering PhD Student

Updated: Feb 29, 2020

Nanotech NYC sits down with students, faculty and researchers from across the city to give those interested a glimpse into the local nanotechnology scene. Today we sit down with Omar Gowayed, a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Omar Gowayed, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering PhD student at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Tell us a little bit about where you are from.

I’m a Southerner born and raised. My family came from Egypt, but I was born in North Carolina and raised in Alabama.

Where did you complete your undergraduate and any graduate degrees prior to this one?

I left Auburn, Alabama for Ohio to go to Ohio State University where I studied Materials Science and Engineering with a minor in Computer Information Systems. I did not pursue a masters, but instead I worked in Materials Data Management in Indiana before starting my PhD.

Tell us more about your graduate studies. What group are you in and what is your particular research on?

I am currently a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in Materials Chemistry working on Non-Photochemical Laser Induced Nucleation (NPLIN) and laser tweezers with Prof. Bruce Garetz.

To clarify what NPLIN is, imagine this: in order to make rock candy, you mix two parts water and one part sugar and boil it for a few minutes. Afterwards, you let it cool down and the mix becomes a supersaturated solution of sugar water. From this point, one way to make the candy is to put a stick in the solution and over days you can literally watch crystals form and grow on the stick. Another way (which let’s be honest sounds much more cool) is to shoot it with a high powered laser. This would make crystals within the laser beam path in nanoseconds, and this is what is called NPLIN.

Optical tweezing consists in tightly focusing a laser beam in order to spatially control materials within the focal point of the beam. I use it on a thin film of a supersaturated solution of glycine and heavy water in order to make a new liquid phase in the solution. The new liquid phase has interesting properties: it is stable for minutes after formation even after turning off the focusing beam and can move with the focusing beam.

Omar building and calibrating a Dynamic Light Scattering device using a laser, apertures, and a light detector. The device is used in-situ to detect the size distribution of liquid-like glycine clusters in Laser Induced Phase Separated droplets.

My recently published paper combines these two techniques and studies the effect of NPLIN on the droplet formed with optical tweezing. Our data indicates that this Laser Induced Phase Separated (LIPS) droplet actually consists of a concentration gradient of aqueous molecular clusters, molecules that came together to reduce their free energy and sizes, with the largest clusters closer to the center of the droplet, and that NPLIN could nucleate crystals within the droplet phase.

Can you tell me about some potential future applications for your work?

High speed polymorphically and spatially selective nucleation can help make pure and specialized crystals with high throughput that can be used in numerous applications: from medicine, to cosmetics, dyes, and even photovoltaics. Currently, crystallization takes a long time, there is limited control over the size, shape and purity of nucleated crystals. However, NPLIN has the potential to dramatically reverse and overcome these limits.

You are definitely a person who cannot sit on his hands. Which other projects outside the lab do you keep yourself busy with? (Anything you want, really. You can mention March for Science of course, but I’d like to focus on Urban Food Lab, both because we featured MFS in Ingrid’s interview already, and because I think it is a really nice and appealing project to talk about here!)

I have two main projects that I work on: I’m the founder and head instructor of the NYU Urban Food Lab and the co-chair of March for Science NYC.

Urban Food Lab started with an aquaponic (which translates into using fish waste as nutrients) vertical farm that my colleagues and I built few years ago. After building the farm, my colleagues took the knowledge acquired in working in our vertical farm to start their own company called WE ARE THE NEW FARMERS, where they grow an edible algae named spirulina, while I kept working on the farm and integrated the project into a class in New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

Omar inspecting the tomatoes on the vine in the Urban Food Lab. Nothing is harvested until it is perfectly ripened.

One of the main things that I didn’t explicitly learn as an undergrad is how to design an experiment. I had to learn the hard way by making terrible over the top designs. I wanted to give undergrads a leg up, so I turned the farm into an actual class where students can learn research design and proposal writing in a unique setting, while working on a farm platform. Students in my class work weekly on maintaining and growing the farm,s all while running their own experiments. Some of the experiments include:

1) Vermi-Composting of Styrofoam: a Computer Science student uses mealworms to compost polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) and farm waste by adapting new findings in the vermi-composting field.‎ This project has moved onto a second phase, in which the student is evaluating the toxicity of the compost in the farming of kale.

2) Farm-to-pharmacy cosmetics using fresh calendula: a Chemical Engineering student has made a face cream using calendula, a flower grown in the farm. The project team is currently collaborating with Dr. Grier, a Physics professor at NYU, to use holographic imaging to explore how active ingredients from the fresh calendula binds to the lipids in the solution’s oil.

3) Ferris wheel farm: a Mechanical Engineering student is building a small prototype for a vertical farm to become more ergonomic, so that one does not have to climb a ladder to take care of the plants.

4) Air quality analysis: a Sustainable Urban Environments student is exploring air quality (CO2 and organic particulates) in and around the farm in order to determine the effects of building a farm space in an active working environment.

Inclusiveness and ease of approach are fundamentals of the project, and are reflected by the variety of backgrounds of my students. There are 14 experiments currently ongoing in the class and they are all awesome!

Students also have the opportunity to get extra credit by engaging in activism around sustainability. They have volunteered at voter registration drives, attending the Social Good Summit as a part of the UN’s Youth Climate Week, marshaled March for Science events, and more!

Speaking of March for Science, along with another NYU Tandon student, Ingrid Paredes, I am the co-chair of March for Science NYC. This organization focuses on mobilizing scientists to advocate for the use of science for the common good! You can find more info about our organization on the interview the Nanotech NYC team made with Ingrid. Here, I am really excited to announce that we will be marching April 19th from Foley Square in 2020!

Omar talking to volunteers and attendees at the NYC March for Science 2019. Most of the people in the picture are also Urban Food Lab students and volunteer (photo taken by Diego Rojas).

You are very enthusiastic about all these initiatives, and mostly about the Urban Food Lab. Why is it important to foster such project, both from a scientific point of view and in the framework of your School’s academic offer?

It is really important for me, on a personal level, to learn how to teach. As someone who is exploring himself academically, I think it is fundamental to go beyond the research and into learning how to properly and creatively teach. As a PhD candidate there is very minimal focus on giving us true experience with teaching and I feel the need to correct that for myself.

As mentioned previously, I see it as important for undergraduate students to learn about experimental design and proposal writing, but it is also important for them to learn about sustainability and to advocate for themselves. The farm itself offers a perfect opportunity for that. Every proposal developed within and for the farm has to explain how their personal project will advance sustainability. They have to look at the materials lifecycle when they are putting in requests to order new supplies. This really puts into practice how to think about an engineering project. Something that we definitely need more of.

As an advice for other students, how do you manage to balance the time and energy spent on extracurricular activities with your PhD work? Was it ever source of friction between you and your Advisor?

I try to go to work focused every day. I sleep in, take my time waking up, eat a filling breakfast, drink coffee, and watch a show. When I feel right, I go in. This allows me to be always focused when I am on campus. I don’t sit back and zone out. I just jump from one task to the next. If my laser is heating up, I will go work on something for March for Science or the farm. If I am writing a manuscript and I lose focus, I find another task. If I feel overly stressed, I’ll go exercise or for a walk. Being calm and having these extra projects actually keeps me constantly focused on my research. It has also trained me to use new equipment and think more creatively in solving my research problems. If I need a new aperture for a high powered laser beam, I know how to make a temporary one downstairs in the Makerspace where I work on the farm.

My advisor has been a great supporter of this. I think I am wired to work slower if I only have one task. I lose focus and start to daydream or get lost on social media. However, when I have more than one thing to do, I can always have fresh eyes, a new perspective, when I am looking at a problem.

Your family origins trace back to Egypt, and you have always proven yourself proud and connected to your culture. How does this aspect motivate your professional choices?

My grandfather was the first in my family to leave the Gowayed Village, a village close to Shubra Kheit located in the Nile Delta, and pursue an education in dermatology. He became the first Dr. Gowayed. He’s also the first to pursue urban farming in our family. In our apartment complex in Egypt, he had planted a mango tree, guava trees, and papaya trees. He also kept bees, chickens, and roosters.

Since my grandfather made that decision, education in pursuit of one’s dreams has been a strong driver in my family. My father came to the USA for a Ph.D., my mother has her masters, my sister and I also pursued PhDs. I believe that, in a way, I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps by building an urban farm in a big city while seeking an education.

Mango tree growing outside of Omar’s apartment in Cairo, Egypt. A good example of practical Urban Farming.

A fun anecdote of how my family roots ties into my scientific career comes in the decision to grow off-season watermelons in the Urban Food Lab. There’s a family legend about my seventh great grandfather Abd al-Rahman. There are many versions of this story, so I will give you a general overview. As it is told, once upon a time, over two hundred years ago, my great great great great great great great grandfather Abd al-Rahman was a trader. One day, while he was on a trade trip with his business partner, he was betrayed. His partner killed him and beheaded him. Years later when that murderous business partner was on the same route, he found a watermelon patch with watermelons being grown off season. Excited by the uniqueness of the discovery, he takes a watermelon to the local Bedouin chief for a reward. When they open the watermelon, the found Abd al-Rahman’s head… a miracle! The story varies on what happened next, if the head talked, or the killer confessed, but the one and only part of this story that is verifiable is that they built a tomb for Abd al-Rahman and a mosque around that tomb. Bedouins moved around this mosque and settled. The town became known as Sidi Abd al-Rahman or “Sir” Abd al-Rahman. It’s a town that I have visited often as a child and even as an adult. I’ve seen the mosque and the tomb, but I mostly go for the amazing beach.

You can all visit its gorgeous crystal clear, turquoise beaches on the Mediterranean in between Alexandria and Mersa Matruh. When there, you should ask the locals for their version of the story. Trust me, it varies. While thinking about the answer to this question, I wanted to see if I could find an online source for the story, and I found one written in a book (No One Sleeps in Alexandria by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid). It’s definitely going to be my dad’s next birthday present.

Science seems a strong cornerstone in your life. What brought you into the STEM field and why do you think science should be at the very center of public dialogue?

My father was a professor at Auburn University in Polymer and Fiber Engineering. As a child, I would visit his lab often. I loved it! This early exposure to STEM definitely made it a cornerstone in my life.

It’s not necessarily STEM that I believe should be at the center of public dialogue, but evidence. STEM and other fields study humanity, reality, human expression, and how we can make our lives better. I think that it is absurd to have this wealth of knowledge and information on how to make our lives better, then make our policies about arbitrary unsupported beliefs or even worse, disproven nonsense.

How did you figure out you wanted to start a PhD program and specialize in your research area?

I fell in love with Materials science when I was an undergrad in Mechanical Engineering. I took the intro class and then switched majors the next semester. It was fun, it made sense, and I loved it, but it caused me to graduate a semester late. As an undergrad, I did research and had an internship working on metals. They were both fun and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get a PhD or go to industry, so I applied for both. I got a job first as a consultant with a company called Materials Data Management Inc. in Indianapolis, Indiana. I later got accepted to PhD programs and deferred enrolment until I was sure that I wanted to pursue this path. Eventually, I missed research too much. I liked playing with toys and learning all day, so I accepted the position.

Where do you hope to take your career after you complete your PhD?

As long as I get to research and teach, I am happy. My dream is to be a professor, have my own lab, and create new classes for students to learn in unique ways.

What do you do outside of the lab for fun?

Day to day, I enjoy unwinding by going to the gym or taking a fun workout class. My partner definitely keeps me focused on my humanity. She knows the best desert spots and always has an awesome new adventure idea. I wouldn’t be able to do any this without her.

If you could go back to the first day you started your graduate work and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

It’s usually better to do no work at all, than to do the terrible work we do when stressed. When stressed, go watch a silly show, read a book, go on a walk, or sit in some random park, but stop working.

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