She was the curious little girl from Lae, PNG, who experimented with mud and cordial mixtures.
Now Yalinu Poya is one of the world’s most exciting young science talents whose trailblazing chemistry research has won plaudits from the United Nations, a string of international prizes and has made her the face of Plutonium on The Periodic Table of Younger Chemists.
In the German Parliament in Berlin on Thursday, Yalinu will be honoured as one of 25 international Green Talents award winners in the field of sustainability.
She becomes the first Papua New Guinean, Pacific Islander and student from the University of Glasgow to receive this global recognition.
The judging panel of high-ranking scientists assembled by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research described Yalinu as a standout among 837 applicants from 97 countries, writing:
“Above all, it was Yalinu’s fresh perspective on addressing the UN Sustainable Development goals and global challenges, such as food and energy security, climate change, and energy generation from renewable sources, that made the jury’s choice easy.
More later on the technical intricacies of Yalinu’s research – she makes catalysts for ammonia synthesis – and her ambitions to help feed the world with her science.
Condoleezza Rice the catalyst
But first, she made time during a two-week whistle stop tour of German research hotspot cities to tell me how it all started with a newspaper reference to the first female African- American Secretary of State. Note she was reading international politics when aged eleven.
“My parents were supportive of me while growing up, especially my father. The passion to do a PhD begun when my father pointed out a newspaper article of Dr. Condoleezza Rice”, said Yalinu.
“Being 11 years old I asked, ‘how can a medical doctor be the US Secretary of State?’ My dad told me the title Dr comes from a PhD. And there I was, instantly attracted to becoming a doctor. I made a pact with my dad that before or at the age of 30 I would receive a PhD.”
Yalinu is on target to fulfil that pact by gaining her PhD in two months.
The quest began her school in Lae, Morobe Province PNG, where her first rudimentary experimenting began.
“While growing up I had a curious mind, I loved science very much and did mundane things like mix water with dirt to see how much was needed to make muddy, then very muddy and liquid muddy textures.
I mixed different coloured cordials to see how colours changed, I would dry corn kernels and see if I can make my own popcorn, etcetera.”
Yalinu did her BSc in Chemistry at the University of Papua New Guinea and her Master’s degree in Inorganic Chemistry from the Northeast Normal University in China. Now she’s in her final year PhD student in Chemistry at the University of Glasgow specialising in Heterogeneous Catalysis under Prof. Justin Hargreaves’ supervision.
Eight awards have come her way. In May this year she collected her first international award from two world bodies: The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN).
IUPAC is the world authority on chemical nomenclature and terminology, including the naming of new elements in the periodic table. To mark 100th anniversary the body joined with IYCN to announce the creation of a Periodic Table of Younger Chemists.
Yalinu Poya – who mixed mud and cordials in primary school in Lae – was one of 118 chemists across the world to be selected. She was awarded the element Plutonium.
Despite all this, humble Yalinu has a twitter handle that describes herself as “small girl from Papua New Guinea”. She loves her country and is devoted to her family, her father from Pangia in the Southern Highlands and mother from Banz, Jiwaka province.
Small in stature maybe, but that’s where it ends. To continue the size analogy. Yalinu is a giant in her field and a wonderful role model for all young people, especially from PNG.
“I never had any local role models while growing up, as I never saw female PNG scientists,’ she said. “I am working hard trying to please my parents, but I did not expect a lot of young people looking up to me.
It’s overwhelming and I am doing my best to inspire them, showing them that nothing is impossible if you work hard, drown out negativity, and persevere through difficult times, not only in science and education but basically everything. Wherever you find your passion, just do your best, run your race and be self-disciplined.”
Yalinu’s long-term goals are simple to try to better the lives of people and society.
“That is all. I have a passion for people, I love helping people.”
Her aim is to do that via her science: “Ammonia is used to make synthetic fertilisers that feeds 40 % of the world’s population. The Haber-Bosch process is the one that makes ammonia and is an amazing one, however it has many disadvantages that are not suitable to the environment. I am trying to look into this by make a catalyst that is able to make ammonia at a small scale plant to be used for farming using renewable energy sources such as wind.”
This writer hopes that the media in PNG celebrates this talented young woman and her message.