Setara, KTU PhD student from Bangladesh: I embrace challenges

Important | 2023-08-29

“In my culture, traditionally it was considered that women are born with the skill to cook, although the mindset has changed in recent decades. However, I was never interested in household work and kitchen is the worst part of it,” says Most Setara Begum, a KTU PhD student from Bangladesh.

A young researcher, who has once been the Head of the Quality Assurance Department at a textile plant, and Head of Textile Engineering Department at a University in Bangladesh; is now pursuing a doctoral degree in materials engineering at Kaunas University of Technology, Lithuania.

As Setara puts it herself, her journey to KTU was “unexpected”. In the winter of 2020, when Covid-19 happened, she was working as a visiting researcher at Technical University Chemnitz, Germany.

KTU student from Bangladesh
During her time at KTU, PhD student Most Setara Begum from Bangladesh was going to numerous Erasmus+ opportunities

“My visit was about to end, when coronavirus pandemic broke. All flights were cancelled and I got stranded in Germany, without knowing what will happen to me next. The situation was unpredictable and I was alone,” Setara recalls.

Despite getting an extension to her visit, she was still unsure whether she would be able to stay or when she would have a possibility to go home. That’s when Setara heard about KTU, and applied to a PhD programme here.

“I needed a funded PhD in Europe, and I didn’t want to study for a second master’s, although I had this opportunity in Germany and enrolled in a university there so as to survive during the pandemic,” says Setara.

Travels for new knowledge and skills

Currently a third-year doctoral student at KTU, Setara has travelled for research to Aalto University in Finland with Erasmus+ funding more than once. She also went for two months of research traineeship under Erasmus+ mobility in India, received a grant to attend the Sustainability Summer School 2022 in Germany, and has visited several international conferences while studying. In September 2023, she will attend an international conference in the USA. Setara believes that travelling has to be not only entertaining but also – an enriching experience.

At KTU, Setara is working on flame-retardant textile technologies for natural fibres. These could be used in upholstery, curtains and other interior elements to prevent fire from spreading. Together with her scientific supervisor, Setara has an idea of creating a unique product – inflammable and recyclable welding gloves made of flame-retardant jute fibre.

Was KTU a right study choice, then? Setara says that she is very grateful for the support of her scientific supervisor who is also an excellent mentor. However, the doctoral fund that the PhD students use for conferences, scientific materials and publications could be more generous, and there could be more collaboration between different departments in the university when it comes to research. Nevertheless, when the young scientist needs additional support for her research – she travels.

“I needed a certain equipment for my research, which we don’t have in Kaunas, so I wrote to one professor in Aalto University in Finland and convinced him to take me for the Erasmus+ mobility. Now, I have been there a couple of times and will go again in October. The greatest thing about doing research at Aalto is that they will teach you how to use and operate the equipment – before anything, you must take training,” says Setara.

doctoral student KTU
During her bachelor's back home Setara was the only girl in her class, and later – the only female employee in her department of a textile plant.

A young researcher admits that she discovered the beauty of education while studying for her master’s at Zhejiang Sci-Tech University in China: “There, one has a plethora of opportunities – you can do whatever you want for a constructive research, and not to worry about the funding, as this is supported by the University or the Supervisor.”

Gender should not dictate one’s study choices

Another thing that Setara noticed while studying in China, was the outstanding number of girls in science and engineering classes. This, according to a young engineer, is not typical for Lithuania or Bangladesh. While Setara thinks that gender balance in science would be welcome, she believes that everyone should choose their vocation according to their interest, skills and heart desires.

“Students must study the field that suits their own interest – not what their parents, their country or anyone else demands. If you don’t have an interest in it, you will not have the passion to do your best,” says Setara, who in her bachelor’s was the only girl among 88 students in her class.

She also recalls being the only female employee in the quality assurance department of a textile plant. A manager of the lab, Setara was the one who was creating formulations for the textile dyes and chemicals. She says that people were always surprised to see a young woman managing a whole department.

“Maybe, in my character, there is something that I embrace challenges,” says Setara.

She goes on to explain that while living in China she learned basic conversational Chinese (to prove it, she speaks a bit of it during the interview): “I learned only 1,200 Chinese characters out of 10 thousand available in the ancient Chinese (or 5,500 in a simplified version of Chinese)”.

However, Setara also admits that she has never had any interest in household chores, especially cooking.

“In our culture, it is believed that a girl is born with the skill to cook. However, I first cooked a meal, when I was already in the last year of school. I have five sisters and one brother, and our mother used to divide our household chores among us to teach us the basic household tasks. Whenever was my time to cook, I would swap with one of my sisters,” says Setara with a laugh.

She further added that prolonged periods of living alone have made her turn into an expert chef on selective dishes. Now, Setara has a different opinion on cooking as she believes that cooking is an art and a very special skill anyone may grasp.

Halal meat in the mosque

It is food that presents the most issues for her in Lithuania. Setara, a Muslim, as the majority of her country’s population, says that the greatest challenge here is to find halal meat.

“Sometimes people think that we only don’t eat pork and the rest of the meat is halal, which is not true. Muslims can only eat meat, which comes from the permitted animal slaughtered in an Islamic way,” explains Setara.

Recently, some places where one can buy halal meat in Kaunas have opened. Also, according to Setara, Kaunas has an active Muslim community meeting in the mosque. During Ramadan, one could get a free warm meal there in the evenings for Iftar, which is served by the expat Muslims from different countries. And in the time of Eid al-Adha festival, which is one of the biggest Muslim celebrations, people were sharing fresh meat with the community.

“In Islam religion and Muslim belief, for Eid-al-Adha, if you slaughter an animal, you must divide the meat into three parts – one goes to your relatives, one to your neighbours and poor people, and only one third you can leave to yourself. Muslims living in Lithuania often don’t have relatives here, and they don’t know poor people, so on the day of the festival, they brought the meat to the mosque. I know some students who took several packages of free meat that day!” says Setara.

Both by preference and necessity, Setara became nearly vegetarian in Lithuania. She loves vegetables, so she does not see this lifestyle as a challenge. Except… There is not enough variety.

Bangladeshi student KTU
“Look at me – I wear colour, and I eat colour!” says KTU student from Bangladesh.

“I grew up in a village, so I know what freshness is. If you go to Bangladesh in summer, the variety of vegetables in the market will blow your mind. Whereas here you have the same items round the year: cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, potato, tomato, cucumber…” says Setara, adding that whenever she goes back home, she asks her family to fill her plate with green and colourful vegetables.

I wear colour, I eat colour

“Look at me – I wear colour, and I eat colour!” says a KTU student from Bangladesh.

Half-joking, she says that food may be one of the reasons why Europeans seem so depressed. Colourful food and clothes, according to her, can add to a better mood, and help self-love and creativity. However, when asked if, after her studies, she would go back home, Setara cannot say for sure.

“I love travelling, I love exploring new places. Also, for me, it is important not just to see places, but to learn. I must put some learning into my basket, to have something to bring back from that place,” says Setara, who during her study years at KTU has travelled extensively.

For Setara, home is always an option, but she would like to look for opportunities in other countries in Europe. She has already been to Germany, Belgium, Estonia, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, and Finland more than once, and is looking forward to her trip to the US in September. From those countries, she most comfortably felt in Finland.

“There is a diversity, great infrastructure, and nature in Finland. I lived by the Baltic Sea, and as I love nature, this was very calming,” says Setara.

European cities, according to her, most of them seem very similar. In Kaunas, she loves walking in the Panemunė forest by the river.

“I love to take random streets for waking, to get lost and to find my way,” says Most Setara Begum, KTU’s materials engineering PhD student from Bangladesh.