Scholars are choosing UAE courses in favour of offers from prestigious overseas colleges.
Graduates switch on to energy saving
ABU DHABI // Nada Al Meqbali admits that until a year ago she was not the most environmentally aware citizen.
She left on lights, didn't switch off air conditioning and never considered such issues as waste and recycling.
But after a year studying for a master's degree in computing and information science at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, she sees things differently.
"It's changed my behaviour already since being here," said Ms Al Meqbali, 25, from Al Ain. "It's even affected my family."
It was the second year the course had run and her class graduated last week. She gained her undergraduate degree in software engineering at UAE University. Going on to Masdar was not her original plan.
Ms Al Meqbali said: "I wanted to go abroad. It was my dad who suggested I come here, saying I could get that kind of education without having to go abroad."
She is glad she chose Masdar. "Having Masdar here with its links to MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US] has enabled a lot of locals to do their studies at home, especially for the girls who cannot always go abroad," she said.
She is just completing her thesis on mapping dust activity across the UAE, which will have a wide range of applications, from road safety to solar power. Dust can be a problem for solar power projects in the UAE, as it can greatly reduce the efficiency of solar panels.
Remote satellite mapping, which collects data every 15 minutes, should change that.
"It will allow us to see the best places to locate the solar panels," Ms Al Meqbali explained.
The plan is to make the map publicly available online. "It will help different people," she said, "like asthma sufferers and health care experts, helping to target problem areas of dust concentration."
She chose the project for its direct impact on the UAE. She said: "I wanted something relevant to my country, something which could make a difference."
Ms Al Meqbali now hopes to work before beginning her PhD.
Sanaa Pirani from Pakistan, who has just obtained her master's in materials science and engineering, picked Masdar over offers from institutions such as Imperial College London.
The finances were key, she says - all students are on full scholarship and even receive a monthly salary while they study.
"I think it makes a big difference to the institution in terms of who you can attract," she said. "Most of the students here also want to stay, even though there are no conditions on the scholarship.
"Especially in this job climate, it's a great place to be and Masdar has some great partnerships with big companies like Boeing and Emal [Emirates Aluminium]."
Ms Al Meqbali added: "No other institution provides this. Many of the students here had great offers from universities in places like the US but they chose to come here.
"There are even Emirati students who it's enabled to carry on studying as they can afford to, without the pressure of getting a job. Otherwise they'd have left university and just got a job."
Ms Pirani's thesis is on finding composite materials to make biodegradable packaging for carrier bags, for example.
"We've not managed to make a product as such yet as there are still so many more materials to test," she said. "But it's a step in the right direction."
She has applied to study for a doctorate at the institute.
Maitha Al Kaabi, 25, from Dubai, has long been environmentally conscious. She graduated from UAE University in chemistry, studied water and environmental engineering at Masdar, and now hopes to continue her thesis research into a PhD.
She has been looking at natural, energy-saving alternatives to the chemicals used to treat water in desalination plants.
"Some of these materials you can extract from waste," she explained.
"To make desalination more sustainable, we must do this."
Ms Al Kaabi hopes to get support for her project from authorities such as the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, and to link with them to put her findings into practice later.
She is proud to be part of the institute's second cohort of master's graduates. "People want to follow in our footsteps. We're making people aware and that will change their behaviour in terms of the environment. We take our knowledge and share it with the whole community."