Making something extraordinary

For engineering researcher Dr Mohammad Taha, the best science innovations unfold when you can be yourself.

Dr Mohammad Taha wears dazzling bow ties, writes novels and poetry and makes films. They’re also one of the 30 most innovative Australian engineers for 2019.

Taha is an early-career researcher at the University of Melbourne, researching how to “change the ordinary into something extraordinary”.

By adding and removing atoms, Taha develops novel materials and flexible electronics. These can be used in diverse applications, from biosensors to communication devices.

It’s a research area that stemmed from a love of physics and mathematics, which was like a “secret knowledge that other kids didn’t have” for a young Taha.

“For as long as I remember, I have found solace and wonder in knowing how the universe is put together,” says Taha. “There is something quite beautiful about the way mathematics can translate the world … Such beauty that is to me no different from going to the ballet, a concert or an art gallery.”

An open mind for innovation

But the potential applications are also a driving force for Taha, who is passionate about the environment and sustainability. A recent focus has been developing a self-modifying coating that can adapt to its environment and limit heat loss. This is an innovation Taha hopes can address our growing energy demands and looming climate change challenges.

“When you’re in the materials business, you go where the materials take you and you keep an open mind,” says Taha.

But an open mind isn’t consistently applied in the science world, which does not always welcome differences.

“It’s a shame STEMM is not always as inviting as it can be to individuals who are not what scientists and engineers traditionally ‘look’ like,” says Taha.

“People in STEMM sometimes forget that we are all about learning new things. They can understand quantum mechanics but not gender identity—I know a little about both and I assure you quantum mechanics is way harder to wrap your head around.”

Taha is a non-binary queer person of colour under the trans umbrella and uses they/them pronouns. As an undergraduate student and then a PhD candidate, Taha strove for excellence—but also grappled with identity and acceptance.

“There is a lack of diversity [in STEMM] which led me to hiding who I was when I was younger,” says Taha. “I would have been more focused on my academic performance, rather than worrying about if I could fit into what engineers ‘look like’”.

Taha has faced these extra challenges by being resilient and having the courage to approach leadership about things that need to change. They are also “relentless” when it comes to focusing on science excellence.

“Sometimes my peers comment on my appearance because they assume that my expression is for inviting commentary, or just for vanity. It’s really just for me because it’s how I feel inside. When I’m at work I want to talk about science, not what I look like,” Taha says.

Advocating for a more inclusive sector

Now, Taha is a changemaker in the diversity and inclusion space.

“I’ve always been passionate about making the world more hospitable for people who happen to be different,” says Taha. They have co-chaired the Diverse Genders, Sexes and Sexualities working party at RMIT and been involved in a number of inclusion plans.

Taha is an outspoken advocate for diversity in STEMM and sees difference as a strength, because “individuals are more likely to succeed when they are being themselves wholly”.

“Having to compromise who you are influences not only your mental health, but also your output as a researcher and member of society,” they say.

But it’s not just individual performance that benefits from inclusivity. The future success of science as a whole depends on enhancing the variety of perspectives it embraces.

“Diversity makes sense. We are living in a constantly evolving world in terms of both fundamental research and modern problems. We need as many people with different perspectives as we can find to do that,” says Taha.

“For a long time, we have been missing out on the input of many individuals who don’t fit the stereotypes of STEMM professions, and it’s never too late to start hearing them out.”

Taha applauds SAGE as an important initiative to transform the culture of universities and science, but also notes that “more sophisticated systems” are needed when it comes to intersectionality—belonging to multiple minorities at the same time.

For Taha, being an advocate also means being a role model for other young people in STEMM, offering words of encouragement and simply being visible as a brilliant engineer.

“I want to be that person that shows young people that they can be anything they want to be, regardless of their gender and identity,” they say.

“For all the young people who feel that they need to be anything but themselves to succeed in STEMM: What makes you different is what makes your view of science and the world unique.

“The more you are yourself, the better you are at everything you do. So, for the time being, work twice or three times as hard as your peers until we can fix the systems that make the odds stack against you.

“Stay in STEMM because STEMM, this country, and the entire world need your unique life and vision.”