Scholar Spotlight - Sophia Waseem Khan

Laidlaw Scholar, Sophia Waseem Khan, on revolutionising agriculture through waste recovery.
Scholar Spotlight - Sophia Waseem Khan

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Sophia Waseem Khan, a Laidlaw Scholar at Durham University, champions sustainable agriculture through innovative ion recovery.

Research title: The Recovery of Ammonium, Phosphate and Magnesium ions from Struvite 

My research investigated different methods to extract ammonium, phosphate and magnesium ions from struvite, a by-product formed in wastewater treatment plants, see Figure 2. Why exploring the recovery of these ions was so important to me is because phosphate, magnesium and especially ammonium are the foundation of the fertiliser industry, essential to global food production and ensuring food security for all. 

The potential real-world impact of this project is far-reaching and widespread. Anywhere in the world where struvite is a by-product of wastewater treatment plants, the recovery of ammonium magnesium and phosphate ions is applicable. 

Recovering these ions from struvite could contribute to internal fertiliser production in countries, which could potentially decrease the cost of fertilisers for farmers and the agricultural sector.

Furthermore, this research project also tackles negative public perceptions of the reuse of waste materials.

Figure 2. Formation of struvite in wastewater treatment pipes.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

I was really excited by the idea of taking a waste product, something completely devalued by society, and turning it into something useful. 

Always looking for the potential and possibility in something, whether that be an idea, material (such as struvite in this case) or even the people around us has always been a part of my personal philosophy, and looking back, I can definitely see threads of this in my research ideology and process! 

What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw scholarship experience so far?

I have so many precious memories from my Laidlaw scholarship experience, but I think one of the most memorable moments was during our residential to Peat Rigg, some of the other scholars including myself decided to go for a walk after the day’s activities. Having wonderful conversations and fun we made it to the top of this hill, and I distinctly remember thinking, ‘What a lovely, amazing group of people, how lucky am I to be here right now, looking down this beautiful valley, with a bunch of people who are going to change the world.’

What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys so far, and what did you learn from it? 

In my research, one of the challenges I encountered was learning about mineral chemistry, a brand new area of chemistry for me. I had to do a lot of reading to ensure the experiments I designed had the best chance of success. Similarly, in my leadership journey, overcoming resistance to change proved to be a significant challenge. I learned that effective communication, transparency, and involving team members in the change process were crucial. By addressing concerns, providing a rationale, and demonstrating the benefits, I was able to gradually navigate through resistance. This experience taught me the importance of patience and perseverance in leading others through transitions.

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

For me, being a Laidlaw Scholar is about continuous self-development, seeking new, challenging opportunities, always being open and curious to learn from others and helping people as we go on our own journeys.

Quick-fire Questions

🎥 Currently Binging: I am currently rewatching season 1 of Suits, Harvey and Mike are one of the best duo’s on TV in my opinion! 

📚 My top book recommendation: 

This is a hard one, but one that has had a big impact on me recently was Horizon by Barry Lopez, which describes the author’s experiences from more than fifty years of travelling around the world. It was a splendid, immersive read, which simultaneously made the world feel so big and yet so small as well!

🎶 My quarantine anthem: The positive, hopeful music of the band ‘Surfaces’ was definitely a big part of my quarantine experience, reminding me that goodness is always there, even if it is hard to find sometimes!

🎵 Podcast obsession: 

The Sleeping At Last Podcast - Sleeping at Last is a musician and for music which has been so pivotal to my leadership and personal journey, it is an honour to be able to hear about the process of how it is made and the inspiration behind his music. 

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: 

Noticing all the small ways that spring is melting into early summer, such as the leaves unfurling, baby creatures roaming about and the weather getting better day by day!


You can find Sophia on LinkedIn. If you want to learn more about Sophia's work, explore her research here.

Sophia is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at @Durham University. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Scholars Undergraduate Leadership and Research Programme.

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

⚡️ Thomas Williamson, a Laidlaw Scholar at Durham University on the hidden world of stress granules.

⚡️ Keir Chauhan, a Laidlaw Scholar at University College London on the power of birds in bridging humanity and nature.

⚡️ Lucy Nyamaah, a Laidlaw Scholar at Oxford University's Saïd Business School on pushing past gender norms and envisioning a female-led future in the energy sector.

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