Mixing Technology With Culture and Education

I have always been very interested in technical issues, and during my school years in Germany I was fascinated by the idea of designing pieces of equipment that could control chemical processes under extreme conditions. Therefore, when the time came, I decided to study chemical engineering at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nürnberg in southern Germany, which I started in the winter semester of 1984-85. In June 1991, when I presented the results of my diploma thesis (equivalent to a master's thesis) in chemical engineering, my professor told me that he knew of an environmental engineering company that was looking for a young project engineer. So instead of taking a 3-month holiday in Thailand, as I had originally planned, I stepped directly from the university into my first job as a project engineer in wastewater treatment.

The company I joined had just been set up and was looking into developing a new water-purification method for highly polluted wastewater. It was situated in Weiden, Bavaria, near the border of the Czech Republic, and it grew during my time there from a small team of founders to a company of 16 employees. Among them were engineers, biologists, and technicians. We all contributed to creating an interdisciplinary working environment, which I really enjoyed.

In this context, I gained the impression that as an engineer you need to be a generalist rather than a specialist; you have to be able to tackle so many different issues at once. We faced technical barriers nearly every day, but after discussions (frequently with experts in similar fields and after studying processes used in similar situations), we were able to move on with the project. During this time, I came to appreciate that every problem has a solution and that problem solving is one of the key skills needed for this type of job. Finally, after 3 years of intensive work, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Regensburg and the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich, we succeeded in inventing a water-purification system that was ready to be patented.

In addition to dealing with the technical side of our project, we started marketing the system, and this meant I had to get in close contact with companies all over Europe that we identified as potential users and installers of our system. I started getting involved by accompanying my boss to learn this side of the business. Then, gradually, I started to expand my own network. Seeing the product and its various features from the customer's side was a very important and eye-opening experience! I also realised that I liked collaborating with people from various cultures, getting to see their different points of view, and also their sometimes totally different approaches to solving technical and nontechnical problems?for example, leading negotiations to a conclusion that is acceptable to both sides.

During my first 5 years of working as an engineer in the same company, I stepped more and more into the management side of things and then became the general manager of our company. Whereas previously I had thought I was most at home with engineering, when my boss took a position in another company in the group, I was happy to step into his shoes. From then on, I had to take care of all aspects of managing a company.

So the next 5 years entailed learning a lot about economics, budgets, resource management, production, and marketing. I acquired these skills partly from mentors (the most important being a former senior consultant in the company) and partly from partners and advisers in sister companies, but mostly from being on the job. I am still very thankful for all the support I received. The world of engineering is male dominated, but I never felt discriminated against as a woman. I felt I was seen as a respected partner. In fact, I had the impression that, because I was in a minority, my voice was sometimes heard better than those of majority members.

After this period, I wanted to move in 2001 to the city of Ulm in southwestern Germany for personal reasons. I was fortunate to see a job announcement at that time for the position of co-ordinator for the German University in Cairo ( GUC), which was still in its planning phase. The idea of a German university in Egypt stems from the fact that the German art of engineering and also German education and culture are renowned and appreciated in Egypt. Ashraf Mansour, an alumnus of the University of Ulm, had the idea to export the German education system to Egypt.

German University in Cairo

Mansour founded the GUC in October 2001. My position as co-ordinator is based in the International Office of the University of Ulm and is financed by the German Academic Exchange Service. The University of Ulm and the University of Stuttgart are the patron universities of the GUC. The GUC is a private technical university, sponsored by Egyptian investors, with the aim of delivering courses such as information engineering and technology, media engineering and technology, engineering and materials science, pharmacology and biotechnology, and technology-based management.

Although the position of co-ordinator of an international university may seem distant from engineering, I found the job specification very attractive for two reasons. First, I knew that setting up such a new university would offer the possibility of bringing new ideas to fruition, of improving processes, and of optimising structures. In this case, the outcome was not a technical product, as it had been previously, but an educational institution. Second, I knew from my previous position that I thoroughly enjoyed working and co-operating with a variety of people for the new ideas and impetuses it gave me. My application was successful.

My work began during the GUC's final planning phase in 2001. We started to look for founding deans as academic partners, who would design the curricula and choose textbooks and course outcomes and goals. At the same time, an accreditation process was put into place to ensure that the necessary resources were available in accordance with German quality standards. When the GUC opened its doors in October 2003, about 1000 students out of some 3000 were selected on the basis of an admission test. In the starting semester, most students came from Egypt. We recruit our students once a year and expect that the students will come from other Arab countries when the GUC becomes better known. Graduates will be proficient in German and English (the teaching language) and thus have additional skills in co-operating with international scientists and collaborative partners.

My job is to co-ordinate the many processes involved, for example, organising meetings and co-ordinating the flow of information between our academic partners in Germany and Egypt and recruiting teaching personnel from both countries. With my educational background and work experience, I not only am familiar with the courses but am also confident working as a project manager: finding the right solutions to problems that arise in addition to having an overview of the university's development and the roles of staff members involved. It is a challenge to work with two very different cultures, and one needs to be informed about what the differences are and to be open to new ways of handling situations, not necessarily tackling them the way you would in your own environment. In this respect, my experience in dealing with customers from abroad in my previous job definitely helped me.

Whereas I love engineering, design, and technology, I see myself much more at the interface between management and technology, because there I can be close to both fields and can view and control the impact from one side to the other. Today, after nearly 3 years, I think the combination of my technical and management skills meets the demands of this job exactly. And along with my interest in working with people from other cultures, it is a great mix indeed.

In my eyes, the aim of this project is an exchange between Egyptian and German students and scientists. I hope this exchange will lead to more dialogue and tolerance between the Arabian and European worlds and will contribute to a better mutual understanding. That is what I find so rewarding about my work every day.

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