Professor Maria Olea
Originally from Transylvania, it comes as no surprise that scientist Maria Olea's passion is saving the environment.
It’s how she inspires her students: ‘I get them to assess their carbon footprint on a calculator they can download from the internet then work out how to make it smaller. The calculator then converts the savings made into money saved, how many more miles you can do in your car and trees saved.
‘Interestingly, they are not interested in the money in their pocket – what really motivates them is seeing just how many trees they can save from being cut down.’
‘Professor Olea is working on a number of research projects on heterogeneous catalysis in her quest to save the planet for future generations including converting biomass and municipal solid waste into fuel. But teaching is also an extremely important part of her duty .
She has recently gained professorial status at Teesside’s School of Science and Engineering after a successful international career. which began in her native Romania.
After graduating in 1982, she went on to complete her master’s in chemical engineering but her PhD was delayed.
‘I studied for my PhD while teaching and researching at the Babes-Bolyai University but it took me a while. Under the political regime of Ceausescu, if you weren’t an important person in the Communist Party then you could not get a place to do a PhD,’ she explains.
‘When we had our revolution in 1989, the doors were opened for younger scientists to enrol on PhD programmes..’
In fact for a young Maria it was an unusual decision to study chemical engineering – there were few women choosing that occupation at that time. Her parents worked for the railways in Romania. However both Maria and her younger brother were inspired to go to University.
‘He studied mechanical engineering and law. He is now a lawyer,’ she smiles.
Professor Olea’s route to Teesside took her via Japan in 1999. She moved there with her family. ‘My husband and myself were invited to work with Tokyo University. Then in 2001 myself and my sons moved to Belgium when I accepted an invitation from Ghent University.
moving to Teesside
After five years in Belgium, Professor Olea moved to Teesside in 2007
‘I love it here, people are so kind. Moving from a different culture is not easy but I feel very comfortable and accepted here which is very important to me.
‘I teach both undergraduate and postgraduate in reaction engineering, environmental and waste minimisation, process improvements and control, mass balance, enzyme kinetics and catalytic processes. I’m also lucky to be able to continue my research work with a lot of support from the senior management team.
‘The process industries here on Teesside mean I can work closely with industry and my students can work on projects directly with industry. I have developed collaborations with Johnson Matthey, Aker Solutions, CompactGTL and Davy Process Technology.
‘Also I am working on a DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) project with NEPIC (North East Process Industry Cluster) looking at converting biomass waste into target chemicals set by industry partners.
‘It’s all about green catalytic technology, converting solid waste into syngas and then to produce synthetic fuel. We need to lower our carbon footprint and use renewable energy. We are seeing the depletion of natural resources.
saving the environment
‘Saving the environment motivates me. It’s good to do work that impacts on the environment and it’s good to inspire young minds to do the same.’
Maria’s own passion stems from her homeland and holidays in the Romanian countryside with her grandparents. ‘Nature is amazing and beautiful, we must use advanced technology to eliminate pollution and to protect our environment.
‘To address environmental problems I am trying to develop new catalytic processes for sustainable technologies with three PhD students. I have also been given three Prime Minister’s Initiative grants, for which competition is very strong, to work on environmental initiatives with partners from Japan –Kyoto University, China – Peking University, and Thailand – Kasetsart University.’
‘What is more, one of our undergraduate students has beat off competition to get a Nuffield Foundation grant – very hard to get – it shows Teesside is really on the map.’
Professor Maria Olea is married to Dr. Gheorghe Olea and they have two sons, Ovidiu and Bogdan. Both Ovidiu (26) and Bogdan (24) graduated from the University of St. Andrews and now work for an investment bank in London. Dr. Gheorghe Olea has a R&D position in Germany so family life involves a lot of commuting during the holidays.
I love it here, people are so kind. Moving from a different culture is not easy but I feel very comfortable and accepted here which is very important to me.