Maki Kawai: using chemistry and physics to address pressing environmental issues


Chemicals have brought great benefits to society, but have also created significant environmental pollution. Now, a leading woman scientist has uncovered a way to manipulate surface atoms and molecules that could lead to the discovery of new chemical and physical phenomena, and address pressing energy and environmental issues. Her name is Maki Kawai, and she will receive the 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award for Asia- Pacific, in recognition of her exceptional scientific achievements. 

Prof. Maki Kawai specialises in surface science, the study of fundamental aspects of physics and chemistry that occur at a wide range of surfaces and interfaces (such as between solids and liquids or solids and gases). In particular, she explores surface chemical reactions at a nanoscopic level using vibrational spectroscopy. For example, she and her team are helping to unveil the complexity behind the chemical reaction in catalysis, and exploring the heterogeneous charge distribution at the interface of solids that function as molecular devices.

“The global ambition of science and technology is to support the sustainable development of our planet,” she says. “We must strengthen the fundamental research that can be applied to the many examples of chemicals that have proved to be noxious for the environment, such as micro- plastics.”

Prof. Maki Kawai’s success in manipulating surface atoms and converting the energy absorbed to generate certain chemical reactions on a surface is considered as foundational to nanoscience. In particular, this could lead to ground-breaking physical and chemical discoveries, and pave the way to creating innovative materials with improved characteristics - better performing photovoltaic cells, for example. It could also contribute to energy conversion, which could help to reduce the carbon emissions associated with energy.

As the daughter of two university physics professors, and a regular visitor of the local science museum with her father, it is perhaps not surprising that the young Maki became interested in science from an early age.

“I was curious to understand the “why” behind everything,” she explains. “I was fascinated by the beauty of nature, and phenomena such as atmospheric pressure and the acceleration of gravity.”

Throughout her distinguished career, Prof. Maki Kawai has experienced both challenges and ‘eureka moments’. She undertook various positions across governmental organisations, academic institutions and businesses before finding an opportunity to engage in long- term research. In retrospect, this multi-dimensional experience provided her with an array of different perspectives.

However, it is research that truly inspires her. The freedom to explore and the joy of discovery have remained with her, particularly when she uses new theories or ways of thinking to explain unexpected experimental findings. “It’s important to have a dream and move forward with positivity and courage towards your next target,” she says. She recently combined data and theory to explain the differing spin nature of iron phthalocyanine molecules according to the adsorption site.

Commenting on the position of women in science, Prof. Maki Kawai says: “Diversity in our science community is always a problem. We must work hard to increase the proportion of women scientists and ensure that men and women can contribute equally.”

She believes that confidence is the key to breaking the glass ceiling, and that collaboration is integral to learning and amplifying global scientific discussions.

The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

Each year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards honours five outstanding women scientists, from each world region (Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America). The Fondation L’Oréal and UNESCO have worked together for more than 20 years to help empower more women scientists to achieve scientific excellence and participate equally in solving the great challenges facing humanity. Together they have celebrated more than 3,000 women scientists in 117 countries, and awarded 107 laureates. 

The 2019 Laureates’ achievements will be celebrated alongside those of 15 promising young women scientists from around the world at an awards ceremony on 14 March at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris.

Follow the ceremony live on facebook.