Nouf Aldossari becomes first Saudi to earn PhD in soil microbiology

July 06, 2021

Dr. Nouf Aldossari is the first Saudi to earn a doctorate degree in soil microbiology; she defended her thesis in May. This accomplishment was highlighted by the popular Arabic language website and social media accounts First Saudi.

Aldossari says she is “pleased and honored” to be the first, and she hopes to be a role model for other Saudis, especially young women, with a passion for science. 

After First Saudi posted about her to their 285,000 followers, Aldossari began receiving messages of support and congratulations; she also had people asking how she got to where she is, and for advice on how they could do it too: “They want a guide. They want to be like me but they don’t know how.”

Aldossari was born in Saudi Arabia to an Egyptian mother and a Saudi father. When she was a child, Aldossari was fascinated by fruit succumbing to mold; she would save her moldy specimens in bottles and watch them change over time. Now as a microbiologist, she cultures mold and other microorganisms in petri dishes in the lab.

Her education in Saudi Arabia was traditional, and she wasn’t exposed to mentors or science in practice. However, Aldossari’s family would visit Egypt in the summer, and while she was there she would go out of her way to talk to scientists; she wanted to understand if the reality of being a scientist matched up with what she was reading in textbooks. Those conversations inspired her to continue on her path as a scientist. She earned her undergraduate degree in biological science from King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia and then went on to pursue a master’s in microbiology at Ain Shams University in Egypt. 

Earning a doctorate degree has been Aldossari’s goal since she was in high school. In science classes and textbooks, she would read about doctors and professors doing science and wanted to be one of them. 

Aldossari moved to the U.S. to improve her English and continue her pursuit of science. She volunteered in Prof. Satoshi Ishii’s lab: “I was looking for labs to adopt me,” she recalls. Later she was awarded a scholarship from Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to study the beneficial characteristics of fungi.

When she joined the graduate program in Land and Atmospheric Science, Aldossari was advised by Ishii and Prof. Brandy Toner. Her research involved isolating fungi from the environment that have the ability to remove nitrate from agricultural waste water. These fungi can be added to woodchip bioreactors that filter excess water from the soil before it enters a lake or stream. An added benefit is that the fungi can survive at low temperatures, down to 41° F (5° C). 

In addition to her research, Aldossari was involved in the university community: “My four years at the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate provided me with a unique opportunity to enhance my academic knowledge and skills… Our department is diverse, so I was honored to organize EAT Night to get to know other students and faculty from different cultures, different countries.” In the summer of 2020, she was involved in the diversity, equity, and inclusion “roadmap” process undertaken by SWAC under the leadership of Prof. Toner. “I learned about discrimination, and how I can deal with it and help other people deal with it. Thank you Prof. Toner for this opportunity and your support,” says Aldossari.

Now that she has graduated, Aldossari wants to continue in academia. “I want to prove my theory,” she says with a laugh. She is applying for postdoc and faculty positions. “I want to learn more, and to teach a lot of people.” She also hopes to find ways to inspire girls from Saudi Arabia, the Middle East, and around the world to pursue their interests in science.