Advice to students: “knowledge is a key to success, learn as much as possible, participate in training workshops, and take internships to improve professional and communication skills. Learning English as an international language will help to broaden [your] knowledge and enable better connections with mining companies and prominent researchers around the world.”
Sepideh Javanshir was the first Iranian woman to graduate in the field of mineral processing and hydrometallurgy. She finished as the top student among all M.Sc. and Ph.D. students at Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran, an exclusively graduate university and among best universities in the country. In her current role as an associate professor in the Mining Engineering Department at the University of Birjand, her research interests include recovering valuable metals from primary and secondary resources, wastewater treatment, and synthesis of nanoparticles. She is passionate about training and educating entry-level researchers, and finding solutions for mineral processing challenges.
By Kathy Sole
Iran possesses several valuable mineral resources but is not widely known as a mining country. What attracted you to study mining and metallurgy and to choose mining as a career?
Although Iran is more famous for oil and gas resources, and most economic revenue comes from the petroleum industry, in 2019, the country was the second-largest world producer of gypsum, as well as a major producer ofmolybdenum (the 8th-largest world producer), antimony (8th-largest producer), and iron ore (11th-largest producer). In addition, Sarcheshmeh, the world’s second-largest copper mine, located in Kerman province, contains 5% of the world’s total copper ore.
I was born in Khorasan province, which has the most operating mines in the country. Looking back over years, geological phenomena, mountains, and rock types were always fascinating for me. Besides that, my uncle was working as a mining engineer and managing director of a local mine, so I was familiar with the mining sector since my childhood. After high school, I passed the university entrance exam and chose to continue my studies in mining engineering. As time went on, I became more interested in mineral processing and metallurgy. In addition to my immense interest in the extraction of valuable metals, what doubled my motivation was that raw materials were mostly exported without processing and mineral processing was the missing link in the mining industry in Iran. Therefore, the production of value-added products and increasing GDP [gross domestic product] in the future seemed necessary. All these factors encouraged me to study in this field and finally became the first female Ph.D. graduate in mineral processing in Iran.
All in all, I am satisfied with my choice. Facing new challenges has brought me professional fulfillment.
Please describe your career progression and your current role.
I received my master’s degree in mineral processing at Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran, Iran. My research aimedat developing a sustainable hydrometallurgical approach for extraction of valuable metals from copper anode slime, which was untreated, sold at a low price, or even dumped at the mine site. The project was funded by the National Iranian Copper Industry Co. because recycling precious metals from secondary resources brings a lot of benefits for the company.
My doctoral dissertation examined the hydrodynamic, thermodynamics, and kinetic parameters affecting solvent extraction in a mixer-settler. During my Ph.D, I continued my research in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Instituto Superior Técnico, Portugal, as a visiting researcher under the supervision of Prof. Jorge M.R. Carvalho (2009–2010).
In 2010, I joined the University of Birjand as an assistant professor in the Mining Engineering department. With great effort, I set up the first hydrometallurgical laboratory with financial support of the projects as well as the university’s budget. Despite limited and basic equipment, my group has done a lot of research and some industry-based projects. Over the past ten years, in addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate students, my research focused on recovering valuable metals from primary and secondary resources, wastewater treatment, and synthesis of nanoparticles. Recently, my colleague and I established a knowledge-based company in the field of hydrometallurgy, and we hope to play an effective role in this industry in the future.
Please describe your most interesting and/or challenging technical project to date.We face challenges in almost all projects and that is one of the beauties of research. What I remember now and reminds me of a good memory is related to the time I was working on precipitation of gold particles from a loaded organic phase that was time-consuming. After two months of hard work, I did not succeed in accelerating the reaction. One day I made a small mistake in doing the regular test and surprisingly I got a very good result. Then I noticed that I had accidentally found the solution thatfinally led to introducing a new reductant. The result was later presented and published in a professional seminar.This sweet memory always reminds me to accept and embrace our mistakes, as they are the portals of discovery (James Joyce).
What are you passionate about in your work?Ever since I have known myself, I had a great desire to do scientific research. Facing new challengesand working on solutions is something that always motivates me to become engrossed in studying and working, even during some weekends. The joy when I come to a conclusion cannot compare with the feelingof anything in my career life. Moreover, learning new technology is always exciting to me. I like working with researchers from all around the world and with the younger generation to come up with new ideas and to share my knowledge and skills. One of the reasons I enjoy working at the university is that it gives me the opportunity to help young researchers growing to fulfill their potential.
What challenges have you experienced by virtue of working in an industry that is predominantly male? Do you feel you have had to adapt to ‘fit’ the industry? Are there any challenges that are particular to academia?One of the difficulties at the beginning of my career was that I had to prove myself to my classmate,colleagues, and even some professors. I worked harder than my male peers to validate myself. The situation was even worse in the industry. I was mostly underestimated, and sometimes I was not even allowed to attend some field trips as a female student. What an unpleasant memory!Over time, the situation has improved and society is realizing that effort, perseverance, and skills are more important than gender. We as women are responsible for breaking these wrong structures and misbeliefs, and should fight for promoting gender equality in mining sector.
You spent six months working in Portugal on sabbatical. Please describe that experience. What were the main differences in the professional environment (positive and negative) that you found there compared with your home country?
That was actually the first time I left my country. I vividly remember when I got the grant to go abroad after a great deal of effort. I was eager to experience new challenges but, at the same time, I was anxious about my journey.
The diverse variety of laboratory and equipment I could use for my research attracted me more than anything else. The staff were really friendly, supportive, and helpful. They gave me access to all materials and equipment that I needed. Their kindness in this regard was priceless because my grant just supported the cost of living and, without their help, my research could not proceed. Despite all the difficulties of a young girl who lives alone in a foreign country, it was an amazing experience. This opportunity changed my outlook on academic life and made me more confident in continuing my research in hydrometallurgy.
Roughly what proportion of your graduate and undergraduate students are women? Are these numbers increasing with time? Does Iran have specific programmes in place to attract women into STEM careers?
Approximately 70% of Iranian university graduates in STEM are women. In the field of mining engineering, the number of female students is still in the minority due to the work environment, in which men are predominant and preferred. For example, in my department, 5 out of 30 students are women; in the master’s program, the situation is even worse, so that in the last 10 years we have had only six female master graduates in the field of mineral processing and hydrometallurgy. Most women working in this field are engaged in universities or the R&D sector of mining companies; however, a small number of women are employed in positions such as mining and project managers. Thus, with such a high number of STEM graduates, there is a push to get women more involved in Iran’s economic scene, and government should provide equal opportunities for women in jobs that are currently dominated by men.
As a mentor and teacher of young people entering this field, what advice would you give to entry-level professionals? Do you have particular advice to young female engineers from your country?
As the only woman in the Department of Mining Engineering, I have intimate relationships with students and have been always involved in their needs. I always advise all students that knowledge is a key to success, learn as much as possible, participate in training workshops, and take internships to improve their professional and communication skills. Learning English as an international language will help them broaden their knowledge and enable better connections with mining companies and prominent researchers around the world. This opens doors for a brighter future and helps them to take more job opportunities. Providing examples of inspiring role models can be the most effective way to increase engagement, boost confidence, increase the quality of their learning experience, and encourage students to take an active role in pursuing their careers.
To female engineers:– Time is the precious gift given to us, spend it wisely– Develop your science skills – Build your professional network– Do not underestimate yourself; you are much better than you think– You can achieve any goal if you build a strong mindset– Never sell yourself short– Effort, perseverance, and practice are always fruitfulFinally, yet importantly, be the best version of yourself and have a work/life balance.
What is the next step that you are planning for your career? What would you love to do next?
My goals for the next step of my professional life focus on two parts. First, I am enthusiastic to have some international cooperation with other academics or industrial scientists to embrace new challenges, work on international projects, gain knowledge, show my abilities, and become a recognised expert in hydrometallurgy among my peers and in industry. Secondly, I would like to expand my company and play an effective role in mining projects.
Have you any hobbies, pastimes, or secret talents that you would like to tell us about?Hobbies are a vital part of human life that help us to release the stress built in our daily lives. My leisure activities are photography and traveling during weekends or holidays. Playing with my little daughter, physical exercise, andthrowing a party with my family and friends are quick solutions that recharge me.