We recently sat down with Dr Rashid Jalil to talk about his life as a researcher and on the lack of quality science education and research in Pakistan.
Dr Rashid Jalil is an Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore. He completed his PhD from the Manchester Centre for Mesoscopic Physics and Nano-Technology at the University of Manchester, UK, in 2012 under the supervision of Andre K. Geim and Konstantin S. Novoselov, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010 for their discovery of graphene. He has published his research in reputable international journals including Nature, Science, Nanoletters, and Physical Review Letters.
In the first part of the interview, Dr Jalil talked about his experience as a science researcher. In this part, he discusses the changing trends of scientific research and the current state of research in Pakistan.
You have done research in both Pakistan and the United Kingdom? What differences have you observed?
Dr Rashid: This is a very important question. I believe in acknowledgement and appreciation as they motivate researchers to do good research. Unfortunately, in Pakistan we have a different mindset. We do not appreciate people for their efforts. I do not know why we behave like kids. There should be some norms of doing research. If someone has contributed to a research, he or she must be acknowledged. What happens instead is that there are people who do not contribute and yet want their names on the paper for the sake of a position in some university or department.
Another problem is that we do not have trained operators and high-tech technicians to operate lab equipment. This causes delays in research. Suppose you want to use an optical microscope. An optical microscope takes images just like your mobile phone, but with better resolution. This should only take about five minutes, but what happens is that you are required to fill in a log book and hand over your samples and then check back in four weeks’ time.
I have collaborated with people in Singapore and [University of] Manchester and Oxford. The only thing required of us in these places is the idea, which we submit in the form of a paper.
The mindset of the people in the UK is different. For example, during my second year of PhD, there was a robbery at my house. The thief also took away my laptop, which is the only important thing a Pakistani student has. My supervisor was kind enough to lend me a laptop to work on. You will find both yin and yang everywhere you go, but it is the attitude that matters in the long run. We need to come out and help our younger generation to come forward. We should lead them and provide them with proper facilities. Believe me, we are very hard working as compared to the people abroad. If we look at the British, even less than 10 per cent of the people pursue PhD. In fact, it is we who are doing all the work for them.
So, the community is more supportive there?
Dr Rashid: Yes, the system is more supportive.
So, we should have tolerance and respect for our fellow members, right?
Dr Rashid: I am the kind of person who likes to accept criticism. Students usually have difficulty conversing with their professors. They have to say things like “Can I?” and if the professor says “No”, they cannot do anything. The only thing we need to do is change our mindsets. You are an undergraduate student, right? What do you want from me? Good behaviour, better teaching or inspiration about the subject I am teaching? If you look at MIT professors, you like them for their academics.
Let us say you are a student of electrical engineering and I am a professor in Physics. You cannot have a Senior Year Project with me because our fields are not the same. But I know many researchers in the Electrical Engineering Department who did their PhD from abroad and their supervisors were physicists. So, you accept a PhD degree supervised by a physicist, but not an undergraduate who wants to do his or her project with a physicist.
You have published papers in high impact journals, such as Nature, and have also peer reviewed for some of these journals. Why is it that no Pakistani journal has been able to match the quality of such journals?
Dr Rashid: The reason is that we have not provided adequate facilities to the students. And the most disappointing thing is that we do not even have a proper source of funding. If you want to publish a research paper, the university is not going to pay for it and you will have to pay from your own pocket. If you are working on the front line, you must overcome these sorts of things. I have collaborated with people in Singapore and [University of] Manchester and Oxford. The only thing required of us in these places is the idea, which we submit in the form of a paper.
Societies and organizations like Spectra are trying to kindle the spirit of science in Pakistani students. What advice do you have for such organizations? How can they achieve their objectives?
Dr Rashid: They are working for a noble cause. It is a voluntary and community service, the vision being ‘Love for Science’. Inspiring things are happening all around us. All you should have is some eagerness to learn. It can even become your hobby. Spectra is writing articles on different scientific ideas. School kids can read about these things online and develop an interest in them. I do believe that our new generation is better than us. So, we must guide them about the different fields that they can choose from.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances, there are some people in Pakistan who are passionate about doing science. What general advice would you like to give to these aspiring scientists?
There are two things. If you jump into a deep pool, it can kill you. This means that it is better to learn to swim first before jumping into a pool. In this way, you will also enjoy the pool. You can swim in any way you like. So initially it depends on the environment you are living and growing up in. Most of the kids are spending time with their mobile phones and television. What is happening is that mothers no longer have time to spend with their kids, so they just turn on the television and put some cartoons on it.
Kids are learning from it. I have seen so many informative programs, for example on BBC. They make small projects and even three to five years old kids watch them. You must work on that level with kids, engage them and tell them of all the beautiful things out there. You also need to make it ‘colorful’ because kids like to see colourful things. When I came back to Pakistan, all I saw on the media was Doremon and Cartoon Network. If you look at Baby TV, it is so simple. I like Baby TV. It is so polite, and they always have a certain theme in their programs. The case with Spectra is similar. They want to interact with the children at school and tell them about some inspirational things that they can do.
We should organize productive events at schools. Tell kids that they can make projects. This will help build the nation too. We should provide schools with good facilities. Currently, we have some science festivals. We also need more science museums. We need to take these kinds of initiatives at grass-root level.
A significant number of students in Pakistan are not aware of the fact that research is an option for them, let alone how to get involved in it. How can we create awareness for this and what kind of role should academic institutions play in this regard?
I do believe that our new generation is better than us. So, we must guide them about the different fields that they can choose from.
Dr Rashid: You are right. When Dr Atta-ur-Rehman was the chairman of HEC, he created a roadmap of how to build a nation. He believed that the only thing is research. We should have better scholars and PhDs. We need to send our students abroad so that they can learn new things. Once they come back, we should then provide them with a proper environment. But what is research? It is keeping track of where the world is going.
If you want to do something new, you should have the courage and confidence to do so. You should also be ready for any kind of outcome. One of the prizes that Andre has won is the Ig Noble Prize for using magnetization for levitation. He put a jug of water in a 32 Tesla magnetic field. Because of the high magnetic field, a gravity-free space was created where you could suspend objects, such as frogs, in mid-air.
What is your dream? Do you want to be an engineer? Are you happy studying 40 subjects and doing some laboratory work and then going in the industry? Where is innovation? We need to create an environment in our university at the laboratory level where people can think about doing something different.
What is your advice to a school-going student aspiring to be a physicist? What path should he or she follow?
Dr Rashid: We should look at the system. There is a race to get good marks. You must secure 90 per cent marks. Then you need to give an entrance exam. So, everyone is running in a race. One is never thinking of doing something
Secondly, one must believe in oneself and be honest in whatever one does. The Raaziq [the one who gives] is Allah (SWT). He will provide you with better things. He has already promised you food. We have these new people in the market who call themselves motivational speakers. What does it mean? It means that we are so weak that we need a push. Give me one litre so that I can go for six more kilometres! Why do we need these people? Because we have stopped believing in ourselves. So, should someone else come and tell us to believe in ourselves?
Dr. Rashid Jalil strongly emphasized on the power of belief that students should have in themselves to do something great in life. He believed that the element of ‘love’ is of utmost importance for people doing research. Moreover, lack of tolerance and respect for fellow beings is one of the reasons the country is lagging in innovation. Parents should encourage children to pursue careers of their interest and teachers should let students explore things around them in a different way. One should not take life as a burden but rather live it in a colorful way.
This interview was conducted in collaboration with Shehryar Malik.