Innovation, failure and perseverance
There’s no age to find new solutions to a cleaner and better future
February 8, 2023
In November 2022, as part of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Nature Inspiration Awards, NSERC had the pleasure of presenting the Youth Award to an extraordinary young woman for her contribution to environmental science. Naila Moloo, a 16-year-old innovator from Ottawa, is developing a transparent and flexible solar panel that can be used on any surface. She is also a passionate advocate for women in science and an inspiration for people of all ages.
Manal Bahubeshi, Vice-President of Research Partnerships at NSERC met virtually with Naila to discuss her passions, her accomplishments and to learn from her perseverance and thoughtful advice.
Manal: It's a real pleasure to speak with you Naila.
Naila: Thank you for having me.
NSERC is proud of our initiatives and partnerships to promote science and engineering to youth, and we feel that your achievements are a real inspiration for young Canadians, particularly young women. I was amazed by everything that you've done at such a young age, and our hope is that by sharing stories like yours we can inspire others to use their talents and make contributions towards building a better future. How were you first inspired to pursue a passion for environmental science?
I think I was exposed to climate change from a young age. For example, when oil spills were happening, my parents were keeping me informed with the latest news, and then also about cool innovations within renewable energy. That kind of sparked an interest for me.
I did a grade five project on renewable energies, and that was the first time I really researched it in depth, and from there I kind of knew that I wanted to pursue something in the environment down the line. Writing was also something really big for me when I was younger, but now, I spend more of my time centering on climate change research. I started looking more into technologies that I could do when I was in grade nine, seeing if I could build something to contribute to the many solutions that are being put forward.
You touched on also being interested in writing, and I note that you have diverse interests. You've written a couple of books, you host a podcast, and you've been doing research. What would you say are some of your proudest achievements so far?
In terms of research, definitely getting into the labs. Getting into the labs themselves was pretty difficult, but really cool as well, because I get to work on building out my projects and have a professor recognize that it was a product with potential that they wanted to put their own time and space towards. I feel just that in itself was an achievement for me. Getting to work on my projects is really cool, but obviously there's a lot of failure involved with lab work and research. I remind myself when I'm going through failure that at least I'm in a lab, because that in itself was pretty difficult to do.
Getting my books out there was another one of my prouder achievements. I am not really doing too much fantasy writing anymore, but it was a huge part of my life for a really long time. Working on the publishing side of things, and the editing, and working with illustrators, and on the marketing, and getting into bookstores, that has been so much fun.
It sounds like persistence and perseverance have played a big part in what you've been doing. You also talked about the fact that with innovation comes failure. Can you speak a little bit more about encountering failure and things not going as expected? How do you push yourself through that and work towards the outcomes that you want to achieve?
I think there is so much failure involved in lab work. I try to say enjoy the journey, but you know, failure is a part of it. I was spending my Christmas break working on my solar cell in Toronto, and there was so much failure every day, and sometimes I’d come home and feel defeated. When you're working on something for a long time, or even just a few days, and it ends up failing, it can be really disappointing. But I do think when you're trying to work on building a solution, like for me when I'm trying to build something that hasn't been built before with potential new applications: if it was easy then you wouldn't encounter failure, because other people would have already done it. I think recognizing that along the way is really important.
Thank you for that thoughtful answer. I know you've had the opportunity to speak with leaders and experts from a variety of fields. What insightful advice or pieces of information have you gained from those discussions that have stayed with you?
From speaking to people on my podcast, quite a few have mentioned surrounding yourself with the right people, and going out there and networking, and exposing yourself to opportunities, increasing your serendipity. Who you spend your time with is who you're getting feedback and advice from. It's going to shape what you're doing and who you are as well.
I think a big thing for me has been networking and reaching out to people, although that can be kind of scary at first. None of my products would have progressed at all if I hadn't reached out to people to see if I could get feedback or if I could work in a professor's lab. Even if there's someone that you think is never going to talk to you, just try to reach out, and if they don’t respond to you, you didn’t really lose anything, you’re in the exact same situation as you were in before. But if they do respond, then suddenly you do have this conversation with someone that you really admire, and you can gain a lot from, and a lot of cool things can come from that.
That is such great advice. Thank you so much for that. This is a difficult question, but if you're asked to look into the future, where do you see yourself ten years from now?
I honestly don’t really know. I probably, hopefully, will be doing something within climate. I’m hoping to study engineering so hopefully I’ll have an engineering degree, and I’ll either be working on my own start-up, or potentially with a start-up, trying to create meaningful change.
As the recipient of the Nature Inspiration Award in the Youth category, what message would you like to convey to young Canadians?
There are so many resources available now more than ever, and so if you have an interest or you have a project that’s been lingering at the back of your mind, I would just say to start now. There are a lot of people that are willing to talk to young people and there are a lot more opportunities, even getting involved in your local community is super important. If you feel kind of stuck, I would just start reaching out to people to get feedback on your ideas, seeing if there's anyone that could help you take them off the ground and not really letting age be a barrier. I don't really think it's about smarts, I think it's just about if you're curious, and you're really interested in what you're doing and have a little bit of perseverance along the way.
That was such an inspiring discussion with you, Naila. Whether you're young or old, I think we could all learn a lot from what you’ve shared with us. I look forward to seeing you pursue that engineering path, and perhaps in the future our paths will intersect as NSERC can support your research down the road. I’m really excited to see where you'll go next Naila, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you so much!
For more information and to stay informed about Naila’s activities, you can visit her website at nailamoloo.com.
Please note that this interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.