SBS podcast and story - behind the science

SBS has interviewed Prof Veena for its Seen series about the drive behind some of her and UNSW SMaRT Centre's recycling technology successes.

Hosted by Yumi Stynes, Seen is a podcast series about cultural creatives rising to excellence despite arriving in a role-model vacuum.

She also interviews Dr Samane Maroufi, a lecturer in Sustainability at the School of Material Science and Engineering, who teaches courses about SMaRT's microrecycling science work and has been mentored by Veena.

Listen to the podcast

SBS says:

Growing up in the circular economies of the bazaars of Mumbai, a young Veena Sahajwalla learned the importance of reusing waste instead of discarding it.

She later stepped into the world of science, bringing her intuition and a fresh perspective.

The Professor's most notable invention to date is "green steel", which uses discarded tyres instead of coal.

"In the early days when I used to explain to people... we had already done a lot of that experimentation in our labs and we had the evidence. Yet it was a challenge… It was almost like this thing out of outer space. Like, Oh my God, she's gone crazy."

   Professor Veena Sahajwalla


(Theme music building)

Yumi Stynes: To have a mentor… To have somebody guiding you through life and your career is really fortunate… But to be guided by someone you love, well, that is wildly lucky.

Veena Sahajwalla: And I'd be just in total awe of her knowledge.

Stynes: For Professor Veena Sahajwalla, that guidance and mentorship came in the form of her mother… And it showed her the kind of woman she could become.

Sahajwalla: You know and as a doctor she wasn't just focused on, okay, you've got fever, here’s, you know, the medicine you go and have. It was much more than just prescribing, or giving prescriptions. You know it was holistic.

Stynes: Veena’s mother had a very integrated approach to medicine. She wasn’t just treating a patient, she was looking after a whole ecosystem around her patients.

Seeing her mother at work has not only shaped how Veena engages in science, but how she supports and mentors other women at work too.

Samane Maroufi: I was really impressed by Veena from day one, but the more that actually I knew her, the more I got inspired and curious about her personality.

Stynes: Today’s episode of Seen is a two-header. We’re going to meet one inspiring scientist - who sees potential - in things others have discarded.

Sahajwalla: I don't think anything should be called a waste because every product, even if it stops working, those materials that are there in those products are still alive.

Stynes: And we’ll also meet a younger woman, Dr. Samane Maroufi who, with the help of her scientist mentor, has realised her potential.

(Theme fade out)

Maroufi: The thing is that Veena already created the pathway. She already did a very difficult job. And for me, it became much easier because I'm following her.

Stynes: And today’s podcast is also about scale - helping people on a small, individual scale, and helping vast numbers of humans - which, if, like me, you’re in a state of permanent horror about looming environmental collapse, may soothe you a little.

(Theme music)

Stynes: I’m Yumi Stynes and this is Seen, a podcast about trailblazers who, invisible in the mainstream, have nonetheless risen to excellence, visibility and leadership.

Let’s start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land we record on, owners whose culture includes a rich tradition of storytelling, science and resource management, the Cammeraygal and Gadigal people, and their Elders past and present.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla was born and raised in India. She came to Australia to pursue a career in science, which is of course, an incredibly male dominated space.

And when you’re a woman, and a woman of colour, and a migrant working in STEM – well, you can probably imagine how alienated you could be.

But despite this Veena is incredibly fearless.

She’s the Founding Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at the University of New South Wales. And she has an entirely different approach to resources and waste.

Sahajwalla: Our imaginations, you know, so far have limited us to call it a waste, but it's a material that's waiting to be harnessed, to be brought back to life in different forms. And I think to me that's exciting!


Stynes: This radical vision of waste has made Professor Veena a leader in her field. She's been recognised as the 2022 NSW Australian of the Year and for good reason… She’s been working on producing a new generation of green materials, products and resources made entirely, or primarily, from waste.

Her most notable invention to date is Polymer Injection Technology or "green steel", which repurposes the carbon found in shredded tyres to replace coking coal in steel production.

(Music fade out)

Sahajwalla: So, in the early days when I used to explain to people how those experiments would work, and we had already done a lot of that experimentation in our labs and we had evidence. But yet it was a challenge because you had to explain the fact that you can have hydrogen molecules clean and green, hydrogen molecules that basically go back and grab that oxygen, remove that oxygen away and convert that iron oxide into iron and produce metal. (Mmm) That was almost like this thing out of out of outer space, you know, like, “oh, my God. She's gone crazy.”

Stynes: Right.


Stynes: Since Professor Veena invented this technology, she’s literally diverted millions of tyres from landfill… She’s not only turning waste into something productive, she’s giving the steel industry a raw product they actually need in their production line.

(Music fade out)

Sahajwalla: I think that's the exciting bit that when we talk about markets and opportunities and right scale, well, we have to be able to do is talk about what's fit for purpose. (Mmm) And in this case, it's not just, of course, the science and technology, but really thinking about globally. What this could mean for the world is exciting. It kind of gets me all sort of goose bumps, and going ohhh! (Laughing)

Stynes: It’s very contagious. Your excitement, Professor, I really like being in your in your own company!


Stynes: Veena’s achievements are off the charts cool if you ask me! The fact that she’s created a practical solution to our serious issues with waste management is pretty bloody heart warming. And it’s been a thousand tiny influences from the most unexpected places that has shaped Veena’s approach to life and science.

So let’s scroll back to Young Veena, a middle-class Indian girl, running through the bazaars of Mumbai, full of curiosity!

(Music fade out, soundscape: Mumbai markets)

Sahajwalla: For a kid, it's like it's. It’s something you don't have at home. There's that organised chaos. That's a good way to think of it, you know, all these little shops and, and stores and you know, everybody's got their own little space carved out. So, you know, you've got a guy who's, of course, on the street. But, but you know, he's basically fixing shoes. That's fantastic service because he knows how to get your old shoes repaired to become perfect for another many years. And then you've got all these people who are taking all these old electronic devices, you know, taking old TVs. And of course. What's so exciting about watching them in action is that, you know, you could really see the master at work. And I love the fact that no matter how busy they were, they'd always take time to chat to a really nosey, annoying kid.

Stynes: Is that you Veena?

Sahajwalla: How did you guess Yumi? (Laughing) You'd sort of want to be the kid who, you know, kind of tugs away at someone going, but tell me more, you know, but “what are you doing now? What are you doing now?” And I think to me, that's what I loved, the fact that someone would even give respect to a little, you know, kid who was just kind of, let's face it, really annoying. I'm sure what it was was just, you know, heartwarming in a, in a nice sort of way. I mean, they'd never tell you which they could tell you to just shush and go away.

Stynes: Sure, so this is you hassling these sort of artisan crafts people who are repairers and fixers of broken things? What sort of questions were you asking?

Sahajwalla: Oh, look, I mean, I'd want to know where were they getting their parts from? Because, I mean, if a part was broken (Mmm), they'd be testing every little part and hey’d basically go back into those electronic devices and see if a particular part was broken. And then if they came to the conclusion that something was was broken, they'd have this, you know, another stash of other old parts from other you know old devices. (Mmm).

So then I'd basically go back and ask them what that particular part was or what it what it did. And how would they know that it was now good to go, you know, so they kind of show me how they'd, they'd be testing all of this and I’d think to me, those are the kinds of things that to me what was exciting, was it reflected not just what was the science and and engineering behind what they were doing, but also it was about, you know, maybe an insight into their world of economy. This was the classic, you know, what we are calling now circular economy. But it was in action. Happening in the bazaars of Mumbai, (Mmm) you know, all those years ago.

Stynes: So culturally, a reluctance to discard or waste.

Sahajwalla: Yeah. And culturally and and of course, therefore, from the context of everyone, it was a way of supporting each other.

Stynes: Yeah. Professor, let's talk about some of the people that you had to lead the light for you; to show you the pathway. The first was probably your mum. Tell me about her.

Sahajwalla: She's yeah. Doctor, a medical doctor. And um, and yes. So even in that, I remember, you know, sitting in her, her clinic and I'd be just in total awe of her knowledge. And yet the fact that, you know, she was strong and tough and she's very clear on how she'd give instructions to the parents about how they should be looking after their children. And I thought it was interesting how as a doctor she wasn't just focussed on, okay, you've got fever, here’s, you know, the medicine you go and have. It was much more than just prescribing…

Stynes: Tending to her community.

Sahajwalla: Yes, exactly… that empathy in her and I'd see her care for her patients and the way she kind of did the whole analysis, it was very holistic. And I, and I’d often ask her, oh, so you were doing this and you were touching, you know, taking pulse and you were, looking at all the, you know, the vital signs. What were you looking out for? So I think to me, her diagnostic methodologies was what inspired me as well, because, I mean, you know, she didn't have all the fancy instruments and everything else in her clinic. Yeah, but what she was using was her intuition because she’d then ask parents questions.

Stynes: So wait a sec. So when you're talking about that inspiring you.

Sahajwalla: Yes.

Stynes: Do you use intuition in your work?

Sahajwalla: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Stynes: Do you? But you're a scientist, what do you mean?

Sahajwalla: Oh, look. You got to have that certain intuition and that X factor and that hypothesis and that imagination. We were talking about those molecules in tyres… I didn't know that it would work on that scale, but the fact that those scientific experiments in the labs were showing what they were showing meant that you had to have some intuition in the way you thought about delivery of those waste resources into those large industrial scaled up operations.

Stynes: It’s this type of intuition that’s led Veena to win the Australian Museum Eureka Prize, which is a huge deal if you’re into science research and innovation.

Sahajwalla: I think in the early days, it's always going to be that struggle because you're you're talking about something that is, you know, both capturing the world of science, but it's also capturing that world of inventions and practise and bringing in those multi faceted, you know, points to it. And yes, the scientific community might look at it and go “that's fantastic.” And I remember back in the day, in the early days when for the scientific research, this work won a eureka prize. It was fantastic.

I mean, I'd never considered that I'd be in that league of scientific leaders. (Mmm) I did not think that I was ever going to be getting one of those, those Eureka prizes. To be seen, to be serious and to be taken in that serious way. I think part of that challenge also was that the research in the early days was kind of seen as "well, it's waste recycling, really? Why do we have to bother? You know, there's plenty of resources but really, you know, it's not going to make a difference.”

Stynes: So that's changed now?

Sahajwalla: That attitude's changed dramatically. And I think to me “Oh, thank goodness!”

Stynes: Do you remember when it changed?

Sahajwalla: Oh that’s a really good question Yumi! It's been happening over a period of time, of course. (Mmm) And I think for me, it's been important for me, if nothing else, at least, you know, to give me that inner strength.

I remember walking into this factory and, you know, every time I'd gone there many, many times where you kind of feel no one's listening and you say, okay, yeah, no one's really listening. It's going to be another one of those meetings and conversation where no one's going to be listening. And I'll be back again. Don't you worry. I'll be, I'll be knocking on your door hundred times. But I just remember this one point in time when they had asked me to join in for a meeting. And I just remember walking into this meeting room and seeing all these people in that room to listen to what I had to say. I almost sort of shut the door and walked out because I thought, oh, I must be in the wrong room. (Laughing) I didn't expect that there were going to be so many people.

Stynes: One of the things that I’m enjoying from talking to you, Professor is, I recently interviewed an animal expert and I realised that he’s so good with animals because he goes inside the animal mentally and he pictures what life is like for that animal. And he’s got a lot of empathy and also understands (yeah) the different types of animals that there are. And in you, I see you going inside materials and understanding them at a molecular level and seeing the potential of those molecules. (Yes) Is that right? Is that a correct characterisation?

Sahajwalla: It’s a really lovely way to put it Yumi. Thank you for that, because I kind of feel myself then as you describe me as, the as the materials whisperer or something!

Stynes: Yes!

(Music transition, fade out)

Stynes: Having an almost empathic relationship with materials is something that after 18 years of Professorship, Veena applies in human, mentoring relationships.


Sahajwalla: Sometimes it's just about conversations where, you know, the word mentor may not even be mentioned.And I think people need to be supported in doing their best. My mum inspired me with her actions. Yes, it's about the talk and the inspiration, but it's also through your actions. And sometimes, you know, the words are not even necessary. It's through what you might do through your actions that that matter.

Maroufi: Five months back I had a very unexpected family tragedy.

Stynes: This is Dr Samane Maroufi, a lecturer in Sustainability at the School of Material Science and Engineering at the University of NSW.

(Music fade out)

Maroufi: Um, the thing is that, I lost my mum and very unexpectedly, and when I received a call from my sister. I live here alone and I don't have anybody. The first one, the first person came to my mind to call was Veena, and I called her.

When I was crying. I told Veena, I need to go back home. I'm not ready to lose my mom. She told me, “just go. Don't think about everything,” many hours she sit with me. She cried with me. And you know, she was trying to show the sympathy.

Stynes: If anyone knows about how Professor Veena is walking the walk, and not just talking the talk, it’s Samane. The two first met in 2012 when Samane was a PhD student, and since then the mentoring she’s received from Veena has been - well, in a word, it’s been holistic.

Samane is from Iran.

Maroufi: Coming from a conservative background in regard with women. I was really impressed by Veena from day one, but the more that actually I knew her, the more I got inspired and curious about her personality. Her positive, strong, energetic. I don't know, highly motivated and resilient personality was so inspiring.


Maroufi: I came to Australia early 2012 to do my PhD And I can still remember the last year of my PhD. I wanted to talk to Veena to approach her for my post PhD career, and at that time I was not sure. I went to my supervisor. He told me, “Veena can teach you something that none of us were able to do.” At that time, I was not realising exactly what he meant but today, after seven years and half now I can realise what he meant.

Stynes: What he meant I think is that mentoring is more than just meetings in offices to talk about research. It’s seeing people as whole - who have lives, backgrounds, families, emotions - as well as moments of workplace brilliance. Qualities that Professor Veena has been able to recognise and celebrate.

(Music fade out)

Sahajwalla: Ahhh! Samane was a Ph.D. student in the school in materials, science and engineering. When you chat to people, the one thing you hear in their voice is how passionate they are about the work that they're doing. And it doesn't take more than a few minutes to get that sense of vibe and that excitement (Mhmm).

And, you know, it doesn't matter if your experiment has worked or doesn't work. Even from, even from the the failures in your experiment, you know, you sort of get to hear about the fact that, they are passionate about things and they've made it work and they've overcome a lot of challenges and hardships. So I think to me, I always get inspired when people tell me their stories of, you know, what are the hurdles that they've had to overcome?

Stynes: So within all this, you could hear the enthusiasm (Yeah, yeah) in Samane’s voice.

Sahajwalla: Yes. Yes. And she's an awesome lecturer.


Stynes: The mentor - mentee relationship is crucially about seeing each other. The mentor needs to see the junior player, see her needs, support and guide her - and also understand her humanity. The person being mentored needs to feel seen, but also look up to someone - who is worth seeing.

(Music fade out)

Maroufi: A part of the learning and self-development for me just happened naturally because I was with her, because, you know, you are working with somebody that, you know, inspire you. And at some stage she becomes your role model. You want, you know, to be like her and, you know, try, you know, to observe her very carefully to see that, okay, what I can do, what I need to do, to be like her.

So that actually happened to me. You know a part of the learning and the self development came naturally and I thought to myself wow, I've changed a lot. You know, I develop, you know, different, you know, skill just because I was with Veena and that's how basically my career shaped over basically years. And that was because, you know, being with Veena.

Stynes: Wow. I love that. What has been your experience of navigating these white spaces within the academic world?

Maroufi: So working with Veena as a basically woman that who was able to push the boundary in a male dominant area and a person who was able to be pioneer - gave me hope, confidence and motivation that- showing me it is possible to be like like her. With Veena I was able to see the horizon, so I was able to get that confidence, that confidence that, you know, I will be able to be like Veena, at least, you know, one day. Without that, I think it's going to be quite, quite challenging for women. It is really important to see that vision, (Mhmm) to build that confidence that, you know, they were able to see that.


Stynes: Only 16% of Australia’s stem-skilled workforce are women, and within that small percentage those women are likely to earn 14.2% less than their male colleagues.

Of all the people I’ve interviewed for this podcast, Professor Veena was the least willing to see or acknowledge any prejudice, racism, sexism or oppression that she may have experienced. And I don’t think it is denial - I think she’s just too busy thinking about science!

I asked Dr Samane why it is so hard to be in those male dominated spaces.

(Music fade out)

Maroufi: A part of that, I think it goes back to our self that, you don't feel that most comfortable when you are in a male dominant area because you doubting about yourself. You feel like… you know. For our field of study, it's about how to implement the science that we are developing into the real life practice. So that transition phase, you know, from the university to the industry is even more challenging that, you know, you're going to face more challenge because that part is even more, heavily male, male dominated, dominant.


Stynes: Samane, where do you think you would be if you hadn't met Veena?

(Music fade out)

Maroufi: The thing is that Veena already created the pathway. She already did a very difficult job. For me, it became much easier because I'm following her. (Mmm) That's what actually I'm trying to do for girls after, after me. I know that when she paved that pathway, when she was trying to create that pathway, she has struggled a lot. She had to face a lot of, you know, problem and difficulties. But for me, it's going to be much less difficult because I'm following her to that that pathway.

Specifically between our working with industry, even that that part is more challenging to prove yourself, to build that trust to to make them to believe in you. It's quite, quite challenging. But observing Veena that you know how successful she was and that that gave me hope and confidence that you know I think I have been lucky to be with Veena and I was able to get that confidence that I will bre it's going to be possible to be like her over time.

Stynes: Did you experience anybody trying to block your path because you're a woman or because you're from somewhere else?

Maroufi: It's about, you know, feeling. I mean, that doesn't necessarily, you know, somebody directly block you, (Mmm) but sometimes you feel like that, you know, you are not seen or sometimes you feel like, you know, you won't be able to do that because you are not confident. You don't see that that vision. You need somebody to encourage you to, to help you to to build that confidence, to to trust yourself that you are what actually with Veena. She create the opportunity and sort of force you to, to, to move out of your comfort zone and to make you to, to believe in yourself that you are able to do that.

Stynes: When that colleague told Samane that Veena would be able to give her something that no one else could - it wasn’t just the mentorship of another scientist who was born in another country, with brown skin and a wholly different experience of culture and religion, although those things were deeply meaningful. It was also someone who could show up for her when her heart was broken… When her mother tragically passed away.

Maroufi: During that grief time, I had the problem that I was not feeling sympathy from people, even from my close friend. But with Veena I would say that the only person in Australia that I could that sympathy from her and that I believed in was a lot of pressure from me because you feel like you've got somebody in Australia. When I was, you know, after four months when I wanted, you know, to come back, I was feeling like I- at least I have Veena in Australia.

It’s far beyond my expectation. Successful woman like Veena, she is boss, she is you know director, she is you know supervisor, she is. But at the end of the day, those tough times she was with me. I'm trying to find myself. But she is she's she keeps, you know, supporting me. And I felt that, you know, I was fully understood by her. And, yeah, I mean, not only me, my, my whole family, my dad, they never actually saw Veena but the way that actually she supported me in the past five months. Every member of my family back home, they are grateful of her.


Stynes: In your future, do you see yourself mentoring others?

Maroufi: Yeah! I feel like I'm responsible. Because the way that, you know, I have been behaved, the way that, you know, I have been mentored by Veena. I specifically, after, you know, that tragedy. I feel like I have the responsibility to be the same with other girls. To let this cycle continue.

(Music fade out)

Sahajwalla: I think Samane is absolutely brilliant scientist, I think for someone like Samane to be there to inspire all the future generations of scientists. If there is a little bit of, you know, what we could be passing on to scientists who are coming through the pipeline, that would absolutely be so humbling for me to see that. I guess together, really taking this whole world of science and technology and bringing not just that foundational science, but all the other multifaceted ways in which we think about science and what it means in terms of the impact that we can deliver to our communities and I think to our businesses and to really bring together all of that requires a lot of passion and commitment. And I absolutely see that in Samane and the drive and the motivation I'm so proud of her! (Laughing)

(Theme music)

Stynes: This has been Seen. Hosted by me, Yumi Stynes, created by Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn with Audiocraft, in collaboration with SBS.

From Audiocraft this show was produced by Bernadette Phương Nam Nguyễn and Cassandra Steeth, our Junior Producer is Alison Zhuang. Sound design and mix is done by Ravi Gupta, and executive producer Kate Montague.

The SBS team are Caroline Gates, Joel Supple, and Max Gosford.

Our podcast artwork is created by Evi O Studios. And music is by Yeo.

(Theme music fade out, music sting)

Stynes: I just want to show you, just coincidentally, I didn't plan to do this, but I wore these shoes today. Had them for years. And I posted on Instagram was something that I had to get them resoled.

Veena Sahajwalla: Yeah I can see that.

Stynes: So I took them to a shoe guy and he put a new sole on. (Right) I don’t know why I put it on Instagram, but someone was like, “Yumi are you poor?” Like what? And it was a friend. It was like, is everything okay that you have to go and get your shoes fixed and not just buy new shoes? And I was like, No, no, everything's fine. I just quite like these shoes. Yes. But culturally, I thought, gosh, isn't that interesting that she's worried.

Sahajwalla: That's exactly what I do. And I've got my favourite person who does my repairs in Rockdale area. So we've got to give him a bit of a shout out. And I think to me, that the thing we should be talking about. That should be seen as the norm that you go and get things repaired and you extend life of your products. And that's really what sustainability should be about.

(Music sting)