Working for one of the largest research institutes in the world, 24-year-old Mounia is representing her home, Morocco, in the best of ways.
Rabat – Dr. Mounia Malki, 24, is one of the youngest Ph.D. holders in Morocco, if not the youngest. After she submitted her thesis in mechanical engineering, Dr. Malki sat down with MWN to share her inspiring story, and also to pay tribute to her parents who are on the frontlines of Morocco’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mounia Malki was born in the small town of Zaouiat Cheikh, between the mountains of the Middle Atlas. Her birth coincided with the graduation of one of her aunts, Mona, as a topographic engineer.
Overwhelmed by happiness from the two occasions, Mounia’s grandfather decided to name her after her aunt. Mounia, one of the Arabic words for “wish,” represented her grandfather’s hopes for the success of his grandchildren.
“I want this little girl to be an engineer one day. She is my little wish,” the grandfather told his family after Mounia’s birth.
Growing up in the town of Azrou, a short drive away from Ifrane, Mounia received exceptional care from her parents who always encouraged her to learn sciences and languages.
“I remember as a kid, one of my parents would read a story to me before sleeping, and my dad would encourage me to read one loudly during the weekends, so that he can correct my pronunciation,” Mounia recalled.
“My mom helped me learn physics, mathematics, and science. She made me love those subjects thanks to her simple and fun explanations. She was so patient with me learning those subjects,” she continued.
As the Latin expression “Mens sana in corpore sano” suggests, “a healthy mind in a healthy body,” Mounia’s parents did not only nurture their daughter’s intellect but also encouraged her to practice sports.
“Playing sports was one of the things that are inarguable with my parents. I practiced karate for about seven years, then I switched to Taekwondo, which I practiced for about three years. I also played basketball, and in university, I did more running,” she said.
During her adolescence, Mounia started forging the personality that would eventually lead her to success. The young teenager was determined to reach her goals and overcome all challenges, thanks to the support she received from her parents. Mounia’s relationship with her parents flourished more than ever in her teenage years.
“At that point, my parents were friends rather than parents. They were by my side. I could discuss anything I want with them, without feeling ashamed of anything,” she beamed.
Looking at the sky
When she started going to high school, Mounia dreamed of becoming a doctor to save lives. However, when the time came to choose an academic major, Mounia’s mathematics teacher refused to let her study biology to apply for a medical school.
“My mathematics teacher refused to sign the options sheet. He called my dad and told him that there is no way a girl with exceptional maths skills goes for a different major. He did his best to convince me to choose the mathematics option,” she recalls.
The teacher’s speech convinced Mounia to renounce her dream of being a medical doctor. Remembering her grandfather’s wish, Mounia shifted gears towards engineering.
Out of all the possible engineering options, Mounia opted for one of the most challenging: Aerospace engineering. The young student was always fascinated by aircraft and sought answers for questions that haunted her curious mind.
“How do aircraft fly? What is happening inside of their cockpit? Who is behind their design?” were some of the questions that led Mounia to pursue a career in the field.
When Mounia obtained her high school diploma, the International University of Rabat (UIR) was the only Moroccan institution to offer an aerospace engineering degree. Mounia’s high school grades allowed her to receive a partial scholarship to pursue her studies.
Mounia finished her undergraduate studies at the UIR and received an invitation to pursue her dream in the US in 2016. The young student’s hard work earned her an excellence scholarship at Mississippi State University (MSU), where she would go on to continue her studies.
Flying to the US started a new chapter in Mounia’s success story. Studying at MSU introduced her to a number of renowned engineers and physicists, including NASA astronaut Jim Newman, who supervised Mounia’s master’s thesis.
“From Dr. Newman, I learned how to be passionate about my research and how to be completely devoted to it and patient with it,” she said.
Meeting with and learning from the big names of aerospace engineering motivated Mounia to put her curiosity into optimal use and work as a researcher: “When I obtained my master’s degree, my hunger for science had only just begun. I wanted to learn more, to discover more, and to give something helpful to humanity.”
Mounia continued her academic quest at MSU and enrolled in a mechanical engineering Ph.D., which she completed in a record time of less than three years.
Mounia’s work dealt with the development of a mathematical model that captures the physical behavior of magnets. The model could be used in the design of rare-earth-free magnets used in the automotive and aerospace industries.
The young Moroccan’s impressive resume earned her a job offer from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of the largest research institutions in the world. Mounia is the first Moroccan to ever work in the laboratory, which is nearly 80 years old.
“It feels awesome to do research,” she said. “The feeling when you discover something new is incredible.”
Grandfather gets his wish
Mounia encourages young Moroccan students to believe in themselves and to be patient when pursuing their dreams.
“There will be times when you will doubt yourselves and your goals, but it is part of the process. Don’t let it put you down. Keep moving!”
Despite residing across the Atlantic, Mounia’s thoughts are with Morocco in its ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
With many of her family members on the frontlines of the fight, including her father who works as a police commander, Mounia is very aware of the efforts Moroccans are making to protect their country: “I would like to thank them for putting their lives in danger to protect us and our country.”
Boasting an impressive list of achievements at a young age, Mounia is raising the Moroccan flag high in the sky of scientific research, fulfilling her grandfather’s 24-year-old wish.