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IAEA Profile: Nora Zakaria Paves Her Own Path in Waste Management

Nora Zakaria served as an external expert for an IAEA mission in the Marshall Islands in 2019.

Nora Zakaria served as an external expert for an IAEA mission in the Marshall Islands in 2019.

The IAEA profiles employees to provide insight into the variety of career paths that support the Agency’s mission of Atoms for Peace and Development and to inspire and encourage readers, particularly women, to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or STEM-adjacent fields. Read more profiles ofwomen at the IAEA

Nora Zakaria comes from a humble background. At eight years old, in her home country of Malaysia, she would wake up before dawn to go rubber tapping to harvest latex with her mother and sister. With mosquito repellent coils placed on their heads, she complained about the tedious work to which her mother responded, “Study hard if you do not want to work like this.”

Zakaria took her mother’s advice to heart and prioritized her studies. At university, although she planned to study chemistry, she switched her major when the Government of Malaysia offered her a full scholarship to study chemical engineering in the United Kingdom.

Chemical engineering was not her first choice, but she took the opportunity, which opened the door to the world of nuclear energy and radioactive waste management. Her studies set her on course for a career that would eventually lead to her current role as Head of the Waste Technology Section at the IAEA.

Back then, there was minimal exposure to all the educational disciplines in the science, technology, engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, Zakaria explained. Today she is pleased to see that young women have more educational and professional prospects in STEM.

“With the advancement of communication and information technology, younger generations are exposed to vast possibilities. The choices nowadays are more diverse than just between the art stream and the science stream, and new, nonconventional study and career options are on the rise. In my experience, students with a genuine passion for science are out there, and together we should continue to nurture this interest,” Zakaria said.

Nora Zakaria led an inter-state shipment of a high activity radioactive source, in cooperation with the Royal Malaysian Air Force in 2020.

Zakaria started her career as a Research Officer at the Malaysian Nuclear Agency (MNA) nearly 20 years ago. Over the past two decades, she was more drawn to the topic of radioactive waste management. At the MNA, she revamped the Waste Management Centre and rose to the challenges of undertaking radioactive waste management in Malaysia.

Zakaria’s experience working with a national organization that caters to state needs, gave her the chance to cover the whole spectrum of radioactive waste management, including formulating policy and strategies, pre-disposal aspects, disposal and disused sealed radioactive sources management, conducting field work, and leading hands-on operations.

Since joining the IAEA as Head of the Waste Technology Section, she has applied her knowledge gained from previous experiences to tackle challenges faced by IAEA Member States with radioactive waste management programmes.

Zakaria’s team at the IAEA works on strengthening the management of radioactive waste in countries around the world, providing technical assistance to these countries, disseminating knowledge and information sharing, and providing technical support to other IAEA departments where radioactive waste management is involved.

“My biggest achievement so far at the IAEA is developing the Disused Sealed Radioactive Sources Technical Centre (DSRS-TeC) peer review, a new service offered by the Agency. My team and I recently carried out the first DSRS-TeC mission in Thailand in July 2023. We received positive indications from Member States about this service, and I am proud of the added value we bring through this service,” Zakaria said.

Zakaria aspires to bring more awareness to available solutions for managing radioactive waste, as well as how to avoid generating legacy waste.

Nora Zakaria with her IAEA Waste Technology team and a group of experts during a technical visit at the Nuclear Engineering Seibersdorf in Austria.

“My team and I strive to shift the paradigm in waste management. We need to instil proactive thinking to think about the waste and strategies for managing it before it is even generated. The work in the disposal programme has recently expanded, covering new disposal options and the role of stakeholder engagement to enhance public engagement,” Zakaria said.

When it comes to advice for women interested in pursuing careers in STEM, she says not to be discouraged from seeking careers in fields dominated by men, and encourages women to leave their comfort zones “to reach new professional heights that previous generations could have never imagined.”

Her motto in life is: Be kind, and make the best of what life offers you.

The IAEA’s commitment to gender equality

Nora Zakaria celebrated two years of service at the IAEA this November and says she has found joining the Agency an enriching experience.

The IAEA is committed to gender equality and to supporting the ability of all individuals, regardless of gender, to equally contribute to and benefit from its programmes and activities. To this end, the IAEA strives to achieve gender balance in the Secretariat and to implement gender mainstreaming in its programmes and activities.

Additionally, in 2020, the IAEA launched the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP) to support the next generation of women nuclear professionals by offering scholarships for master’s degree in nuclear-related fields. A new IAEA initiative launched in March 2023, the Lise Meitner Programme, offers early- and mid-career women multiweek training visits to nuclear facilities.

Read more about the IAEA’s work on gender equality, and apply for vacancies, internships or pipelines.

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