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Beating the odds: A Pakistani scientist's journey from Buleda to Cambridge

Beating the odds: A Pakistani scientist's journey from Buleda to Cambridge

Dr Yarjan Abdul Samad is pushing the boundaries of space science and wishes to see Pakistan's own mission launched.

Saadeqa KhanUpdated about 6 hours ago

It has been a few days since the news about India's spacecraft losing contact with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) began doing the rounds. While Isro has managed to locate the spacecraft, it hasn't been able to establish contact again. Will India accomplish this mission? It might. But what is the status of our own forays into this area and can Pakistan make its first manned space mission a reality?

Dr Yarjan Abdul Samad thinks so.

Following a series of talks he held in Quetta recently, I had the chance to interact with Dr Samad, who holds the distinction of being the first Pakistani space scientist to be working at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Samad hails from Buleda, a small town in Balochistan's Kech region, but was able to rise above all difficulties, forging for himself an offbeat career as a satellite and space scientist at Cambridge.

Dr Samad received his early education at an Urdu medium school in Karachi's Lyari area. Despite his humble beginnings, he went on to graduate from Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute (GIKI) — arguably one of the best engineering institutes in the country — with two gold medals under his belt. The university nominated him in 2009 for the Pakistan Engineering Council Best Graduate Engineer of the Year award.

After pursuing a PhD programme, Dr Samad started working at Cambridge as a postdoctoral research associate. Later on, he was hired by the university as a senior research scientist and teaching fellow.

In 2016, he joined the Cambridge Graphene Centre as a research associate and since then his work has been focused on space-based technologies.

His career came into spotlight when the European Space Agency (ESA) hired him to work on a solution for a problem they were having with their spacecrafts. His team was the first to perform an experiment with graphene (a form of carbon) under zero gravity conditions.

Here, I provide some excerpts from my conversations with Dr Samad.

Hailing from a small village in Balochistan, you made your way out to one of the best universities of the world, the University of Cambridge. What can you tell us about your struggles in getting there?

I spent my childhood in Buleda, a town near Turbat. The only school we had access to was a public school, which in those days — the late 80s and early 90s — was a taat school (small makeshift school in which students used to sit on gunny bags called taat). We used to write on a loh (wooden board) with a homemade qalam (bamboo pen). All our studies were in Urdu but, ironically, we weren’t able to speak the language.

Dr Samad with colleagues at the European Space Agency (ESA). — Photo courtesy: ESA

My father used to work on his agricultural lands. He started doing some agricultural work at Hub in Balochistan, on the outskirts of Karachi. As a result, we moved to Karachi's Lyari neighbourhood and I started going to a small Urdu medium school there, named Al-Karim.

I was in the 6th grade when I started thinking that learning English was inevitable if one had to progress. Consequently, I, along with my father, visited a reputed school in Clifton, Karachi, for admission. Due to my disadvantaged educational background and inability to speak in English, the principal told me, “These studies aren’t for you. You’ve got to work in the fields.”

We made several failed attempts to secure admission in so-called esteemed schools. Eventually, I got admission at the newly built White Rose Grammar School in Lyari and was in their first batch of students. This school was also as small as Al-Karim but the medium of instruction was English.

When I reached 9th grade, I found out that every student in Lyari was making use of the widely available 'help' in board examinations as a way to clear the exams. I shared the scenario with my father and his words stayed with me forever: “You cannot copy someone else’s dreams."

Seeing everyone using the 'help', it was a tough decision for me at the time but I made a rule for myself: Jo karna hai khud karna hai (Whatever I will do, I will do on my own).

I scored fairly well and secured admission at Karachi's DJ Science College, one of the best public colleges in Karachi, where some of my teachers, especially Shehzad Muslim Khan and Kamil Sher, inspired me to pursue engineering.

I graduated in 2009 from Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute (GIKI), arguably one of Pakistan's leading engineering institutes, with two gold medals. The university also nominated me for the Pakistan Engineering Council Best Graduate Engineer of the Year 2009 award.

My teacher, mentor, and coach at GIKI, Prof Fazal A. Khalid, was an eminent name in nanotechnology research. He helped and mentored me for a career in research. After graduation, I worked at Engro for about a year while preparing for the next step in my academic journey.

Later on, I pursued a PhD from Khalifa University, UAE, in collaboration with MIT and University of Tokyo which I completed in 2016. That same year I started working at the University of Cambridge as a Postdoctoral Research Associate and was later hired as a Senior Research Scientist and Teaching Fellow.

How did you start thinking of this unconventional career in satellites and space devices?

It was never planned. I got a degree in Metallurgy and Materials Engineering from GIKI and went on to pursue a Masters and a PhD on developing materials and devices for energy and environmental applications. It wasn’t until 2016 when I joined the Cambridge Graphene Centre as a research associate after my PhD that I started working on space-based technologies.

Dr Samad experimenting under zero gravity conditions. — Photo courtesy: ESA

The University of Cambridge collaborates with several agencies and companies for research work. The ESA and some other space organisations and research centres approached Cambridge Graphene Centre to provide a solution to a problem they were having with their spacecrafts. I proposed a solution and was, therefore, roped in for the project.

I have since been working on such projects with many partners across Europe. Our team was the first to test a material called graphene in zero gravity. We have performed experiments in several zero gravity flights arranged for us by the ESA and have also launched a sounding rocket that went as far high as approximately 150,000km above the earth.

Some other spacecrafts such as Space RIDER (Space Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return) will also be used in the future and we plan on taking some of our experiments to the International Space Station (ISS).

I was recently promoted to a senior scientist position by the university to work on these projects.

You have the privilege to work at the Cambridge Graphene Centre which runs in collaboration with the ESA and other research institutions. What is it like to work there?

The University of Cambridge carries a legacy of excellence in research and so does the Cambridge Graphene Centre for the kind of work I am doing. The environment, with all sorts of research facilities as well as great colleagues and seasoned scientists, is favourable for high-quality research.

One is challenged daily to think out of the box and develop interdisciplinary skills to tackle today’s scientific challenges. Partnerships with industry, government organisations and other academic institutions also enrich the experience and prepare researchers to solve real and interdisciplinary scientific problems.

What are some of the expectations from you coming in as the first Pakistani space scientist at Cambridge University? What do you think the next big thing should be for the Space and Upper and Upper Atmosphere Research Com­mission (Suparco) to promote space sciences in Pakistan?

There is a lot of things that I feel responsible for delivering on, and that's a driving force and a source of motivation. It reminds me that I need to work hard to better myself as a scientist who is able to face the fiercest of challenges.

In my opinion, the first thing that Suparco needs to do is engage with local institutions in research projects, which are of strategic importance to the country. There are a lot of beautiful minds out there in our academic institutions that need to be tapped into for important projects rather than engaging them in a useless race of writing low quality and impractical scientific papers.

I am in talks with a few organisations here to develop a micro satellite in partnership with an academic institution in Pakistan. This will be announced in due course. Projects like this need to be a routine and Suparco will have to take such initiatives.

Behind every space mission, there is a huge team of engineers, scientists, and researchers to make the discovery happen. Can we do it here in Pakistan with our fewer resources? Make our first manned space mission a reality?

There are challenges, of course, when it comes to resources as well as the right leadership. However, there is no doubt in my mind that a manned vehicle can be launched whenever Pakistan determines to do so.

Launching man into outer space is not a new thing. To make such missions fruitful, for the country and for our economy, we need to utilise them for research that has never been done elsewhere.

What do you think about the importance of STEM education for Pakistani youngsters?

During my visit to different universities, I was most impressed by the passion of students to learn and grow. Students from Balochistan, especially, demonstrate a great thirst for knowledge. This presents a great opportunity for the country to step up and further develop such talent for a better and brighter future. In this era of knowledge-based economies, the most precious resources are such intrigued and enthusiastic minds.

What led you to develop an interest in the field of space sciences?

Dr Samad with renowned ESA astronaut Jean-François Clervoy. — Photo courtesy: ESA

Scientific problems that are interdisciplinary and are challenging for the scientific community around the globe intrigue me. As a researcher working on the development of materials and devices, I developed an interest to look into making materials and devices for space applications.

The project that we got at the University of Cambridge, in which ESA and many other EU organisations were involved, manifested itself to be the platform where I could put my knowledge and skills to use in the field of space technology. I then started working proactively on other such projects.

What challenges did you face in building devices specifically for use in space-bound satellites?

The space environment is still not fully understood. When it comes to making devices for space, one needs to have a comprehensive understanding of the space environment and its effects on spacecraft, on devices inside them, and on human life.

The biggest challenge for us is that we design materials and devices on Earth and then test them in zero gravity. Therefore, sometimes we meet surprises and challenges that we need to tackle there and then within a short period.

Tell us about the future of space devices that can run without consuming energy and electricity.

Although the space environment poses a plethora of challenges, there are several unending resources in space that can be harnessed to make things function out there. For example, the space environment is an infinite heat sink, which enables us to design devices that do not need any electricity to function.

In the future, we believe that we can develop devices that not only run without electricity but will also use the abundantly available radiation and the infinite heat sink to generate energy as well.

What space destinations are you still most excited about? What is the future of space travel with more sophisticated technologies like nanotechnology coming into the mainstream?

The destinations favoured by me are not devoted to space and space missions alone. In fact, I aspire to work with many persistent scientific challenges close to my areas of expertise and interests — space is but one of them.

Nano and quantum technologies augmented with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are going to be indispensable parts of all future technologies including space-based technologies.

I foresee the launch of micro and nano robots performing several tasks, in outer space and on other planets, such as investigating the environment, exploiting resources there to produce water and oxygen, and growing plants. All of this is pertinent before human beings can consider habitation there.

What is next for you? Would you like to coordinate with Suparco?

I would love to coordinate and collaborate with Suparco and contribute to their efforts as much as I can. I have kept my connection with several academic institutions in Pakistan and have been quietly playing my part in constructive activities. I am also trying to get a micro satellite project completed by students in Pakistan, which we hope can be launched into space on their behalf.

Saadeqa Khan i


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