UNM Rainforest Innovations

The UNM Rainforest Innovations Board of Directors is honored to present the 2024 Rainforest Innovation Fellow Award to Mahmoud Reda Taha, Ph.D., P.E., Distinguished Professor and Regents’ Lecturer in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering.

This award was created in 2010 to honor annually a University of New Mexico (UNM) inventor whose body of technologies has generated significant commercialization activities. Based on achievements in new technologies disclosed, patents received, license and option agreements entered into, new companies started, and income generated from these technologies, the UNM Rainforest Innovation Fellow Selection Committee evaluates and selects an Innovation Fellow.

Dr. Taha exemplifies the spirit of innovation at the university through his inventive research, entrepreneurial pursuits to commercialize his technologies, and inclination to push the boundaries of his research into new arenas in order to make positive change. He has received national and international recognition as a world-class leading researcher in the fields of polymer concrete, nanotechnology, and emerging technologies for infrastructure resilience and energy transition. He is also the CEO of TS-Nano, an ESG energy and climate tech company that manufactures nano-modified polymer to seal abandoned oil and gas wells to fight methane emissions and mitigate climate change.

A bridge engineer by training, Dr. Taha’s curiosity led him down a unique path to develop “smart” materials. During graduate school, he was captivated by biomechanics and how the materials in our bodies respond in smart ways to stimulus and how they evolve to meet our physical demands, limited energy intake, and aging. That sparked the idea of developing similar materials, but for infrastructure.

Currently, Dr. Taha’s research focuses on the synthesis and characterization of new materials, mainly polymers and concrete, and how to utilize nanotechnology to develop special features such as self-sensing, self-healing, extreme ductility, and most recently to allow them some degree of cognition.

Since joining the University of New Mexico in 2003, Dr. Taha’s research collaborations have spanned across many departments, including faculty in Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering, Computer Science, Chemical Engineering, and even across campus in the UNM Medical School. He served as the Department Chair for Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering from 2014 – 2023 and was the Founding Director of the UNM Resilience Institute. He has worked as a visiting professor at Sejong University in Seoul, South Korea and at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He was named a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 2020 and a Fellow of the American Concrete Institute (ACI) in 2017. ACI is the leading authority and resource worldwide in concrete design, construction, and materials.

An Innovator’s Journey

I grew up to a middle-class family in the Kobry Al Qobbah neighborhood of Cairo between the mid-1970s to mid- 1990s. My father was a biology teacher, and my mother was an engineer. Science books and magazines surrounded me at home, and stimulating conversations were a common practice at our dinner table. My father, who is now 80 years old, is a well-educated man with whom I enjoyed a myriad of discussions on science, art, culture, and politics. I owe my parents their very positive view of the world, their passion for hard work, and their remarkable respect for all cultures and beliefs. I was 12 when I read a breathtaking book from my father’s library about the adventure of an Egyptian immigrant exploring his new life in Australia. I was subsequently determined to explore the world in a similar way.

I received all my foundational education in the public schools of Cairo. This public education was of the same quality, interest, and fulfillment to me as many of the highest-ranked primary schools I see in the world today. The teachers were truly devoted to their craft and for me, being at school was exciting and invigorating. I wanted to be an engineer since I was in middle school as I loved math and was captivated by the wonders of science. I also loved history, creative writing, and reading all sorts of books and was fascinated by the Cairo streets filled with thousand years of culture, Arabic calligraphy, films (both Egyptian and international), and soccer!

I did my undergraduate degree at Ain Shams University, College of Engineering in Cairo, the top engineering school in the country. Studying at Ain Shams Engineering was the beginning of my journey to fulfill my dream of being an engineer. Studying at Ain Shams was demanding and often stressful, and yet very fulfilling. The Professors were highly regarded and always fair in their assessment, with many of them going to great lengths to ensure we were fully grasping the material. I received my degree in Structural Engineering in 1993 and was ranked 5th in my class, granting me the chance to work at the university and continue my master’s degree. I have a profound respect for Ain Shams Engineering for its remarkably hard-working environment. During my master’s, I was introduced to the world of polymers and their use as a structural material. Polymers were a material rarely used in structures, giving me a new world to explore. I was lucky to meet my mentor and advisor Dr. Amr El-Dieb who had recently returned from Canada after finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. He opened a gateway for me to the world of materials research and that subsequently changed my life.

After finishing my master’s, I received an offer to do my Ph.D. studies at the University of Calgary. I moved to Calgary in 1996, almost 30 years ago! Learning, studying, and working at the University of Calgary was an exceptional experience for me. It provided me with an abundance of knowledge and so much to adapt to and experience. Working with and learning from my advisor, Dr. Nigel Shrive, was a life-changing experience where work challenges no longer became a source of stress, but rather, an enjoyable experience that I craved. My research at the University of Calgary was about using ultra-high-performance concrete and carbon fiber polymer composites to extend the service life of buildings and bridges. It was at the University of Calgary that I realized the value of working at the interface of structural engineering and materials science. After finishing my Ph.D., I worked for a few years as a bridge designer. Working as a structural designer taught me to always think about the practical constraints of applying my ideas and how to overcome these constraints.

I felt the urge to return to academia, so I searched for a faculty job. I was amazed when I visited the University of New Mexico campus during my interview. The culture and the academic setting were remarkable features at UNM that I have not observed in other places. The campus architecture and the welcoming nature of New Mexicans were very captivating, making me desire a life here. I was delightfully surprised when I was offered the faculty position at UNM Civil Engineering. I moved to Albuquerque with my family and called New Mexico home 21 years ago.

At UNM, I collaborated with faculty of Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering, Computer Science, and Chemical Engineering. I also collaborated across campus with faculty from UNM Medical School. My work was mostly focused on the synthesis and characterization of new materials (mostly polymers and concrete) and how we can use nanotechnology to change these materials to allow them special features such as self-sensing, self-healing, extreme ductility, and most recently to allow them some degree of cognition! I am delighted that me and my team at UNM did something very interesting that was nationally and internationally recognized.

I owe UNM the freedom it gave me to choose my research work, the support it gave me to build a state-of-the-art lab, and the time I was given to build my research. I also owe UNM the incredible opportunity to work with world-class researchers at UNM’s main campus, medical school, and through interaction with the national labs. I worked on research topics that never came to my mind spanning from research investigations on the biomechanics of hand ligaments to the use of artificial intelligence to detect damage in bridges and using nanotechnology to alter polymers. The ability to nurture innovation and support intellectual property development is a great culture at UNM that I highly admire, respect, and appreciate. I also enjoyed the very healthy and collegiate environment at UNM Civil Engineering and the UNM School of Engineering at large with its remarkable mentorship and friendship that I entertained with distinguished colleagues whom I learned from and enjoyed their camaraderie.

Over the past 27 years, I enjoyed my professional association as a member and subsequent fellow of the American Concrete Institute (ACI). ACI is the most prestigious organization working and producing knowledge in concrete worldwide. I had the pleasure of serving on several ACI committees and was recognized with many awards by the ACI. Likewise, I am a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). I worked as a Visiting Professor at Sejong University in Seoul, South Korea, and at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. I have been fortunate to travel across the world and visited many places in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. I have yet to visit South America and Australia which I still have the dream to explore one day.

I owe a lot of my success to the amazing collaborators I worked with, my dedicated students, and post-doctors who always surprised me with their talents, commitment, and friendship. I am also in debt to my family here including my wife, my children, and my extended family in Egypt, for their continued support of my endless hours of work and their unconditional love. I am excited to continue this journey and I am eager to continue communicating a positive view of the world, a passion for hard work, and a heartfelt respect for all cultures and beliefs to my students, my children, and my grandchildren.

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