Sara Sultan has come a long way from Haripur, Pakistan: 11,865 kilometers or 7,372 miles to be exact. The former USPCAS-E scholar from NUST is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Energy Science and Engineering (with an entrepreneurship minor) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. As part of her studies, she works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the Building Science Division. She’s also enrolled in a concurrent master’s degree program in the Mechanical Engineering Department.
Something immediately apparent is that Sara is busy. She is on a mission to improve energy efficiency and to create opportunity and connection for students in Pakistan.
“I’m an executive member of the Environment and Sustainability Committee of the Student Government Association at my university and also founder and president of the Pakistan Students Association.”
Sara is also committed to helping other students seeking to study in the United States.
“I’m a mentor with an organization based in Pakistan that helps students with the U.S. admissions process and applying for Fulbright scholarships.”
She’s also connecting USPCAS-E students and alumni from NUST.
“I also founded the USPCAS-E NUST Society to bring all the students and alumni together and guide each other for both professional growth and personal skill development. I have been leading some advisory sessions on research, technical writing, communication skills, and higher education and scholarships.”
Sara knew she wanted to be an engineer from a very young age. It turns out that she had a passion for an engineering discipline without knowing what it was called: mechanical engineering.
“I hail from a small village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where females are not supposed to pursue higher education—especially for STEM degrees. There was always a misconception that engineering is not for girls.”
Many girls face limited educational resources and a non-supportive family environment, but Sara’s family was different.
“I feel proud to have supportive parents who let me break all these stereotypes.”
Sara is trying to raise awareness about renewable energy and encourage everyone to do what they can on a personal level to adopt behaviors that increase energy conservation and efficiency in homes.
“I delivered some awareness-raising seminars to promote renewable energy research at universities in Pakistan, especially the ones in underdeveloped areas. I served as a volunteer instructor at two universities in my city to promote energy engineering and to encourage students to pursue research in energy.”
Sara loves to share her journey to energy engineering.
“During my bachelor’s program, I used to ponder my research career and would say to myself, ‘It should be something that will solve one of Pakistan’s biggest issues.’”
But the specifics were unclear to her until she took an energy course online via edX offered by Delft University of Technology (TU Delft).
“It inspired me to search all of the graduate programs in energy at NUST, which was my dream school in Pakistan. I wrote a statement of interest, did the interview, and got into the Energy Systems Engineering program.”
Sara visited Oregon State University as a USPCAS-E exchange scholar in fall 2016 and worked on a hydropower project. The project had two parts: data analysis to assess the hydropower potential in Pakistan and an evaluation of the efficiency of a pico hydropower system (for power generation of under 5 kW) with an AC generator and an impulse turbine. In addition to contributing to the group’s efforts, Sara also designed the system for a cross-flow turbine.
“I took many research design and methodology seminars, communication skills development sessions and interdisciplinary workshops at the library and in different departments at OSU, all of which helped me a lot during my thesis phase,” she explains. “I’m an explorer, a dreamer, and always open to learning and improving myself, taking any criticism positively. The experience with the USPCAS-E exchange program was significant in all aspects, from research to personal development.”
Sara says that she explored a new culture, but most importantly, she says she realized her true potential and discovered her ability to make independent decisions, even under society’s influence and with financial pressures.
Sara has worked in the areas of water desalination, solar power, and hydropower and wanted to combine aspects of all three in her work.
“I decided to work on energy-efficient buildings with sustainable thermal energy storage. Incorporating small-scale renewable energy systems to replace fossil fuels and shifting the energy load from peak hours provides a solution with economic and environmental benefits.”
Sara is also working on developing an energy consumption policy for residential buildings in the U.S.
“I want people to adopt energy-efficient behaviors and incorporate renewables in their homes, not just for the environment, but for themselves. Start with saving energy and reducing utility costs,” she says.
Where does Sara see herself in the future?
“I see myself as an influential energy entrepreneur, a well-known energy researcher, and an ambassador of U.S.-Pakistan cultural exchange. I hope to conduct some innovative research and take a lead role in ORNL’s innovation crossroads program by converting my research into a successful entrepreneurial venture. I also see our USPCAS-E NUST Society growing into a big collaborative effort between our alumni and students in Pakistan.”
Sara hopes that in the near future, the USPCAS-E scholars will be able to create more awareness about energy and higher education in Pakistan, an awareness that will eventually lead to more energy enthusiasts, researchers, entrepreneurs and policymakers.
In addition to researcher and mentor, Sara is also an artist, a traveler, and a writer. Sara wants people to look beyond stereotypes to see women as multifaceted, complex individuals, who are ready to make things happen. She also wants people to know that she is prepared to tackle anything, even the impossible.
“I’m always misinterpreted as a delicate emotional girl and judged by a stereotype that says women can’t do great things like men. I think there’s much more to women and especially to me. I don’t go by ‘this is not possible’ instead of by ‘if no one has been able to do this, this is definitely my chance to become a pioneer.’”
Sara wants to inspire people and help them find ways to utilize their true potential.
“I believe that individual and personal growth is critical to creating a strong society, and that’s my strength.”
Sara applied to the Fulbright program, but she felt that the local interview panel had concerns about her hijab and she later received a rejection letter. It was a demoralizing and disappointing experience. Sara thought that she would need a Fulbright to pursue a Ph.D. in the United States and couldn’t see another path forward. But then she applied to an interdisciplinary program offered through the Bredesen Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She was accepted and received a DOE fellowship and a chance to work at one of the most prestigious energy labs in the United States. Her message to fellow students who are navigating the application process: persevere and believe in yourself.
“I never give up and never stop believing in myself. I think it helps me dealing with stress and moving on from failures. So, I believe, what happens, happens for the best.”