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Beyond the Lab Coat: From Materials Science to Programme Management

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A national of Lebanon, Petra Salame first joined the IAEA as a Junior Professional Officer but soon found a home in the Department of Technical Cooperation, where she has thrived as a Programme Management Officer for the last eight years. (Photo: C. Karle/IAEA)

“It is the link between my work and the wellbeing of entire communities that makes my job so rewarding,” says Petra Salame, a Programme Management Officer (PMO) at the IAEA in charge of the Agency’s technical cooperation projects in China, Indonesia and Viet Nam.

She works closely with country experts to help build national capacities using nuclear technologies that support development, sustainability and quality of life. Salame’s work and coordination have helped to produce major impacts, including the dissemination of improved soil and crop management techniques in Arab States, the development of new science curricula for secondary schools across Asia and the Pacific and strengthening South-South cooperation in nuclear medicine

Between 2015 and 2019, Salame was the first woman to hold the role of focal point for the Cooperative Agreement for Arab States in Asia (ARASIA), coordinating the activities for training, research, development and applications of nuclear science and technology among 10 countries in West Asia. “Managing the ARASIA Programme is very challenging. The focal point needs to propose innovative and strategic approaches and induce significant progress in the implementation of the Agreement. Ms Salame did a remarkable job in this role,” said Bilal Nsouli, ARASIA Chairperson and head of the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission.  

At the Atominstitut in Vienna, Petra Salame participated in a practical course on experimental reactor physics and reactor kinetics. (Photo: Atominstitut Vienna)

Laboratory bound

Project and programme management had not always been Salame’s career plan. She is a scientist through and through.

At the age of 22, Salame left her native Lebanon to study physical and analytical chemistry in France. In 2006, she obtained her PhD with distinction from the Pierre and Marie Curie University, now part of the Sorbonne University in Paris. Salame then accepted a post-doctoral position at the Max Planck Institute for Materials Sciences in Stuttgart, Germany, where she led research and industrial projects in the field of material science for biomedical and energy applications.

“I always wanted to go further, to challenge myself and to try to open new doors and seize different opportunities,” she said. “Education is the first step! Young women should be given every chance to study whatever they dream of and should not be discouraged from joining any field they’re interested in.”

Beyond the lab coat

Petra Salame moderates a regional training course for teachers to introduce nuclear sciences in secondary schools in the Philippines. As a senior Programme Management Officer, she manages technical projects in various areas of nuclear science and technology. (Photo: Philippine Nuclear Research Institute)

Salame got enticing job offers from some of the world’s leading chemical companies, but she turned them down after a phone call which, she says, changed the course of her career permanently: “Congratulations, you have been selected for a Junior Professional Officer position at the IAEA!”

Salame joined the IAEA’s Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences, where she provided technical support for the development and implementation of activities in material research for nuclear and energy applications around the world.

“My next move was from a technical position to a more managerial function in the IAEA’s Technical Cooperation Department, which offered me the opportunity to manage mostly technical projects in various areas of nuclear science and technology ranging from food and agriculture to nuclear power development,” she recalls of her time working as a PMO for several Arab States. “I couldn’t imagine a better transition than one towards a position which mixes all aspects of my interests: technical, managerial and development-focussed, proposing innovative solutions to real-world challenges using nuclear technology.”

After reaching the end of her first seven-year appointment at the IAEA in 2019, Salame embarked on a collaboration with the University of Tokyo, as an invited researcher, to support the application of radiation technology for advanced materials development and radiation protection systems. “This process of constant learning is central to the work of PMOs,” said Salame, “and so the experience of exploring and applying novel technologies, made possible by the University of Tokyo, was both edifying and informative.”

The head of the team she joined in Tokyo remembers her fondly. “Petra has a remarkable ‘get-things-done’ attitude and, along with her positive personality and strong work ethic, she makes a formidable technical specialist and manager, in equal measure,” said Iimoto Takeshi, Professor at the University of Tokyo. “In particular, her willingness to take on new challenges and her outreach skills contributed to advancing important parts of our research."

She is a project manager in real life as well: while pursuing her professional dreams and contributing to tangible development impact, she is also raising three small children – a real juggling act. “Handling the constant demands of PMO duties, and at the same time giving my kids all the love and support they need, pushed me into a new dimension. It hasn’t always been easy, but you just rise to the challenge and keep going!"

In November 2020, Salame rejoined the IAEA as a senior Programme Management Officer, taking on new management and coordination duties. “As PMOs, we are determined and committed to tackling some of the most pressing global socioeconomic problems and finding and delivering solutions to them wherever they are needed.”

The IAEA pursues gender parity at the organization and encourages women to apply to positions. Read more about the IAEA’s focus on gender equality.

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