Professor Suzana Nunes

Africa and the Arab States – Chemistry

Professor Suzana Nunes 2

Professor Suzana Nunes is awarded for her outstanding work in developing innovative membrane filters to purify or separate valuable resources, such as water, oil, or pharmaceutical compounds more efficiently and using significantly less energy. 

Working at the intersection of chemistry, chemical engineering, material and environmental science, her research creates membranes with high precision. Her group synthesizes new polymers and uses them for the manufacture of flat-sheets and hollow fibers with highly controlled pore sizes in the submicron or sub-nanometer level (down to a millionth of a millimeter). The membranes have selective layers able to separate pharmaceutical compounds from a complex mixture or to fractionate hydrocarbons from crude oil.  

Some 50% of the energy currently consumed by the chemical industry is used to separate chemicals. In developing specific filters for each type of separation, Professor Nunes is helping to revolutionize conventional approaches with viable, sustainable, large-scale solutions, lowering the industry’s carbon footprint. 


To help create a fully sustainable society, I am harnessing membrane technology as a lever to transform the chemical industry by achieving zero emissions and eliminating waste,” she explains. “Ultimately, I want to help prevent global warming and protect our planet’s biodiversity for future generations.”

A lifelong passion for scientific discovery

Professor Nunes has always enjoyed mathematics and science. On her seventh birthday, she was given a chemistry kit, prompting her life-long love of chemistry. At fourteen, she joined a specialist chemistry high school, following her natural calling to become a scientist. It was at university that she determined to study the behavior of macromolecules – different and more complex than that of regular small molecules. One of her Eureka moments occurred soon after her move to Saudi Arabia. She made a breakthrough in improving the thermodynamics of polymer solutions, bringing clarity to the mechanism of pore formation of block copolymer membranes using electron microscopy. Explaining this ‘order out of chaos’ led to the publication of her first paper in the country, and enabled her to reproduce morphology with different materials, while extending the development to a rich variety of systems and applications. Her subsequent discoveries have led to many accolades, including, since 2015, membership of the Royal Society of Chemistry.


An international journey to promote environmental sustainability and inspire women

Professor Nunes has worked on three continents, including her native South America, Europe and the Middle East, collaborating with scientists in multiple disciplines. When she arrived at KAUST in Saudi Arabia in 2009, it was with a view to address environmental challenges and inspire women to study engineering. The university was a brand new venture and creating a centre of academic learning almost from zero. Importantly, it was the country’s first co-education university, and the first to offer high level chemical engineering programmes to girls. The opportunity to attract more women into science attracted her even more than the intellectual challenge and promise of research excellence and international collaborations. Holding administrative roles such as Associate Dean and Vice Provost have further enabled her to fulfil this purpose. In addition, she has also helped to lead international workshops and symposiums encouraging women to pursue chemistry and engineering. “Saudi Arabia is changing rapidly, especially in the last few years, and I dare to believe that our work on education has been contributing to this evolution,” she says. 


Breaking the glass ceiling

Professor Nunes was fortunate to have supportive parents and teachers and to be born in a country where women had the opportunity to study and have role models in STEM subjects. She started her academic career in Brazil and continued to flourish at Germany‘s Helmholtz Research Centre. The glass ceiling began to appear when a change in overall leadership curtailed her freedom of research and access to resources, despite her leadership of a successful group. At KAUST, she found the right support and conditions to excel, despite the lack of women research directors. More support must be directed to helping senior women scientists navigate the challenging journey to leadership, she believes, and enabling more women to progress to this level, recognizing their expertise and promoting shared responsibilities. 

She encourages girls and young women interested in science to follow their hearts and natural interests to pursue a career in science. “Never give up – the path to success is not always smooth and straight – persevere, and success will come.”

Discover The Other Laureates

Latin America and the Caribbean

Professor Anamaria Font


Asia and the Pacific

Professor Lidia Morawska



Professor Frances Kirwan


North America

Professor Aviv Regev

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