Featured photo: Sheeba Dawood (photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring)

In celebration of AAPI month, TCB will be sharing stories by PAVE NC, a local volunteer-run organization that highlights the stories of Asian-Americans in the South for the month of May. Find this and other stories at pavenc.org.

PAVE NC sat down for a conversation with Sheeba Dawood, an Indian American scientist whose multicultural upbringing informs her approach to science and religion.

Journey to the US and becoming a scientist

The National Science Foundation I-Corp Program helped me do customer discovery and see if there really is a need in the market. I was selected regionally to do 50 interviews and that increased my interest even more. Then I got to the national level and they funded $50,000 for more discoveries around the world. I did about 200 customer discoveries to understand the whole ecosystem. So now Minerva Lithium (Sheeba is CEO) is trying to build a filter system that can extract valuable minerals, like lithium, nickel, and cobalt, to build the batteries from waste water resources. 

Sheeba Dawood (photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring)

Childhood and growing up in India

I was raised in India in a happy family. Both of my parents are educated with master’s degrees. I would say we were privileged because most Indian families do not have access to education, especially the girls. Things have changed now, but while I was growing up (my father is Islam and my mother is Christian), his family would have limited education at a certain point. All of my siblings, which includes a son and three daughters, are educated. 

Sheeba Dawood as a child (courtesy photo)

Her inspiration

My mother is my inspiration. When I was young, I saw her leadership skills in action in a large crowd, many of whom were men, when she was able to play a very significant role in addressing and solving issues. She was powerful, balanced, and believed in herself, and not aggressive, dominant, or arrogant. I wanted to become like her. It was difficult for my mother to get her education, and my parents supported us. When I had the opportunity, I went and grabbed it, and now here I am building things on my own.

Sheeba’s first multicultural experience 

I did my bachelor’s in India and my master’s in Australia. That played a significant role, as it was my first international experience and exposure to different cultures and communities – Italy, Malaysia, China, Japan – and it built me into what I am today. The beauty of research and science is different people working on one project and trying to make life better for all other people. 

Overcoming fear 

While in Australia at age 21, I was very timid and didn’t know how to express myself. We were having problems on our project, and I was afraid to use my voice and was keeping the pain and suffering all to myself. I am sensitive as a person and couldn’t fight for myself. My professor encouraged me to stand up for myself and fight for myself, which stayed with me and was a learning experience. 

The path to science

Sheeba Dawood (photo by Nancy Sidelinger Herring)

As a kid, I always wanted to do something very different. In my career, I keep choosing paths where people have said it’s difficult or even impossible. That is my character. Science is what the whole universe is created with. You can do things differently in science, and your growth is not stuck. It’s creative and critical thinking, which excites me. In science, and research especially, you’re creating, improving, and redesigning new things. The President of India, a scientist, was talking about nanoscience. Then in Queensland, I was able to create and analyze materials at nanoscale. This built up my interest. Science helps to improve things we already have.

Becoming a pastor

I am a pastor and am trying to build this church. I read and study the Bible, but find from my interactions that many people don’t understand it. From my PhD, I’ve learned how to break down and explain concepts, and I apply that to the Bible. I’m a scientist and follower of Christ. I just got a pastor license, and now I am a Christian pastor. I founded Emmanuel Ministries in 2020 and have 25 followers. 

During research, I definitely get weird looks when I say I’m going to pray about it. I believe God is Creator, and he is with me and leading me. Anything I do, including my research in science, my feet are grounded. The wisdom that comes to me, I’d rather go to God and humble myself, and put myself down to God, but not equal to God. 

Encountering difference

Differences exist everywhere. I developed a thick skin. Let me move forward and when I’m successful, people will follow me. I won’t let others hinder my growth. Some want to collaborate because of being smart intellectually. Others help me progress in my life, so I associate with these people. 

Integrating into culture

Americans are curious about Indian cuisine. Food at potlucks helped break the ice with neighbors and helped develop friendships. We do have a large Indian friend group. I also want to hang out with the Nigerians, Americans, and others. I see more isolation in groups here, and it wasn’t like that in Australia, where everyone mingles together. I would like downtown to have a cultural program to mingle and get to know and learn from each other. 

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