This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. In observance, USAID is spotlighting innovative women working in these fields. Below is an interview with Grace Abou-Jaoude Estephan, Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering at the Lebanese American University.

Your work entails putting together a hazard map of Lebanon for earthquake-induced landslides. Why is this work important?

Grace Abou-Jaoude Estephan, Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering at the Lebanese American University. Photo credit: Grace Abou-Jaoude

Lebanon is a country that is located in a relatively active seismic zone. Its rugged topography makes it vulnerable to earthquake and landslide hazards. Astonishingly, records from 303AD describe the destruction of houses, cities, and monuments. Although Lebanon has not experienced any major earthquake since 1956, the recent discovery of an active thrusting fault close to its coastline has significantly raised its risk of being hit by a high magnitude earthquake. Unfortunately, no effort has been done to assess the impact of a seismic event on the risks of triggering landslide hazards in the country.

The goal of my project is to produce an earthquake-induced landslide hazard map of Lebanon that clearly shows the critical areas prone to earthquake-induced landslides. The map will be used as a reference for anyone concerned with public safety, urban planning, and disaster management.

Describe your own career path – how did you first get involved in science? What obstacles did you face along the way?

Science and math were the main topics that interested me during my school years. There was one particular female math teacher who highly influenced my interest in mathematics through her teaching style and devotion to her mission. I knew I wanted to become a civil engineer help design and construct the amazing structures I’d long admired.

After receiving my Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering (with distinction) from the American University of Beirut in 2001, I worked at one of the largest consulting companies in Lebanon. I found myself eager to learn more about design, construction, and geology. I pursued my graduate studies in geotechnical engineering at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana in 2002, where I obtained an M.S. and Ph.D in Civil Engineering from there in 2003 and 2006, respectively.

I returned to Lebanon in 2007 and took a faculty position at the Lebanese American University (LAU), in Byblos, where I have been an assistant professor since 2007. Today, I’m a registered member of the Order of Engineers in Lebanon, an associate member of the American Society of Civil Engineering, and a member of the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering.

Why do you think it is important for women across the world to be involved in science?

Women across the world have a great potential to excel in science and there are many examples of the contributions females have made to science throughout history. Women have surely faced many obstacles and barriers along the way, but that never discouraged the female achievers from reaching their goals. I believe it is very important to maintain constant support and provide encouragement to female students interested in pursuing careers in science and engineering.

Cultural expectations and social restrictions on women, combined with outdated stereotypes of women’s roles and abilities, often dissuade girls from considering careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as professional options. Challenges of combining responsibilities for a household and family with a professional career also present a major constraint. Women who keep challenging these long-held stereotypes by holding careers in fields of science and technology are vital to encourage the new generation of female students to be involved in fields of science and engineering.