Dr. Kafafi was born in Cairo, Egypt, where she was educated at the Lyçée Français du Caire. She then moved to Houston, Texas, where she raised two children while pursuing her undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry. She received her B.Sc. (cum laude) from the University of Houston and her Ph.D. from Rice University.

She started her academic career as an assistant professor in Cairo. A few years later, she returned to the United States on a sabbatical leave to pursue her research in catalytic chemistry, using the technique of Fourier Transform Infrared-Matrix Isolation Spectroscopy. She applied this technique to determine molecular structures, identify reaction intermediates, and delineate reaction mechanisms involving inert bond activation of organic and inorganic molecules by metal atoms/clusters. She then joined the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, DC, where she led an interdisciplinary research team and established a section on Organic Optoelectronics.

Her work has been motivated by newly emerging technologies based on organic electronics and photonics, spanning a wide spectrum of disciplines including the chemistry and physics of organic and nanostructured materials, organic nonlinear optics, light-emitting materials and devices, photovoltaics, and plasmonics.

In 2007, she moved to the National Science Foundation (NSF) where she was appointed to the Senior Executive Service as the Director of the Division of Materials Research. She was the first woman to lead the largest and unarguably the most complex Division at NSF. During her tenure, she managed a budget portfolio close to $1 billion and oversaw the funding of single investigators, interdisciplinary research teams and centers, instrumentation, and major facilities. In 2011, she was a visiting scholar/professor in the departments of Electrical & Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and, Chemistry and Material Sciences & Engineering at Northwestern University, working with the groups of professors Chérie Kagan and Tobin Marks, respectively. 

She was the president of the Spectroscopic Associates, Inc., in Houston, where she designed a cryogenic link that rotates and translates in vacuum, for which she won an IR-100 Award (now known as the R&D 100 Award). She received an NRL Edison Patent Award in 2004 for inventing a simple two-step, cost-effective method to pattern electrically conducting polymers for flexible optoelectronic devices. 

She joined Lehigh University in 2008 as an adjunct professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, where she launched a joint research program with the group of Fil Bartoli on Plasmonic Nanostructured Organic Photovoltaics, and currently serves as Distinguished Research Fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering

Dr. Kafafi was the founding editor-in-chief of the International Society of Optics + Photonics (SPIE) Journal of Photonics for Energy and the Inaugural Deputy Editor of the online, open-access American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) journal, Science Advances. Dr. Kafafi served on the advisory boards of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering journal IEEE Photonics and the Conference on Spin in Organic Semiconductors.

She is the chair of the Materials Research Society (MRS) Award Nominations Subcommittee. She organizes and chairs the annual SPIE Symposium on Organic Photonics + Electronics, and the Conference on Organic, Hybrid, and Perovskites Photovoltaics (OHPVs). She also organized for the first time a new SPIE Conference on Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE).

Dr. Kafafi is a member of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and Sigma Xi. She is a Fellow of AAAS, MRS, the Optical Society of America (OSA), and SPIE. In 2018, Dr. Kafafi received the Hillebrand Prize, the ACS Chemical Society of Washington’s highest honor, for her pioneering contributions in organic optics and electronics technologies through innovative physical chemistry and materials chemistry research.

She was also honored with the Kuwait Prize in Applied Sciences in the field of Renewable and Sustainable Energy for her research on the uses of organic solar cells to generate clean and sustainable energy, and to improve their performance and efficiency. In 2020, she became one of the Founding Members of the Academy of Arab Scientists in Kuwait.

In 2021, she was elected to the National Academy of Engineering for her contributions to materials technologies for organic optoelectronics.


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Zakya Kafafi
Zakya Kafafi
Distinguished Research Fellow
Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering
Packard Lab
19 Memorial Drive West
Bethlehem, PA 18015


M.A., Ph.D. in Chemistry, Rice University, Houston, TX
B.Sc. (cum laude) in Chemistry, University of Houston, TX
High School Degree, Lyçée Français du Caire, Cairo, Egypt

Areas of Research

Solid State Lighting, Nanoscience, Organic optoelectronics, Organic light-emitting materials and devices, Organic nonlinear optics, Organic photovoltaics, Plasmonics, Flexible electronics, Photonics, Flat panel displays, Solar cells, Molecularly engineered materials, Molecularly engineered interfaces, Organic materials, Organic-Inorganic Hybrid Materials, Nanostructured materials, Molecular and polymeric electro-active materials