In Conversation With the New Dean of the School of Science and Engineering, Dr. Muhammad Sabieh Anwar

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Since its inception, the Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering has been a hub for groundbreaking research by gifted individuals trying to make a difference, creating small supernova explosions in their respective fields.

Dr. Muhammad Sabieh Anwar is one such inspired academic who is working to train the next generation of leaders of scientists and researchers in Pakistan and leave a lasting impact. Dr. Anwar has been appointed the new Dean of the Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering (SBASSE). His tenure is being supported by the Ahmad Dawood Chair, established in 2003 by The Dawood Foundation.

Dr. Anwar’s academic and professional journey is an interesting amalgamation of surprises. He pursed an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering, and decided to change gears. As a Rhodes Scholar, he did his PhD in Physics from Oxford University, and his postdoctoral research at the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, working on magnetic resonance spin physics and hyperpolarised nuclear magnetic resonance. Pakistan beckoned and he returned home to join LUMS in 2007 and helped establish the Department of Physics at SBASSE.

A little over a decade later, announced as the Dean of SBASSE, Dr. Anwar is more comfortable talking about the world of condensed matter and spin physics and quantum computers, than answer a question about how he has achieved so much in such a short period of time. He fondly talks about some of his recent research work he has done at LUMS while working with undergraduate students. “One area that excites me is of quantum computing, which was also the subject of my PhD. In the past two years ago, there have been reports of breaking the quantum ascendancy limit, which means building a large enough quantum computer that could do something which other classical computers can't possibly achieve, even within the lifetime of the universe. At LUMS we've built some basic tabletop quantum computing experiments with photons, with the idea of exposing this fascinating field to our students.”

Regardless of the topic of discussion, he reveals a wealth of information and shares a dynamic vision for SBASSE in which faculty and students will play a crucially interdependent role towards the School and the University’s advancement.

Dr. Anwar credits his academic and professional journey as an example of the symbiotic relationships in science. This, he believes, has resonance at SBASSE too, and is an extension of the learning without borders agenda at LUMS which adopts an integrated core curriculum across disciplines. Dr. Anwar elaborates, “The no-borders approach is central to the School of Science and Engineering. The teaching we do is very interdependent and is designed to highlight and amplify the interconnectedness of science. We have and will continue to expound on this interdisciplinary approach in our classrooms. What I would like to see in the near future is a physicist teaching a chemistry lecture, a biologist going into physics class and introducing biology from a physical perspective.”

To achieve this, he adds, the faculty needs to be facilitated in the learning and teaching process. “We need to encourage what they are already doing, see if they have some stumbling blocks in their way and empower them. This can be done by recognising their diversity, their precise and unique strengths. Every individual that is a part of the team at SBASSE has a particular strength and caters to a particular niche. We would like to first recognise what the niche is and help them grow in their respective directions.”

However, this vision, he explains, is not just restricted to SBASSE. It is also essential to make connections across faculty, in particular with faculty from other schools.

The role of a Dean here is crucial, he adds. “The Dean must be a leader and lubricate these connective pathways so that faculty feel more liberated to talk to their colleagues and have a very strong and effective communication mechanism. I would like to build a strong science communication wing where we could develop fascinating stories of the brilliant work that our faculty does.”

For Dr. Anwar, the faculty at SBASSE and the work they are doing is driven by the sense of duty to the country and love for science. These are individuals, he explains, who are passionate about SBASSE, about LUMS and more importantly about science and knowledge inside Pakistan. The country, he explains, can greatly benefit from this treasure trove of extremely talented and brilliant individuals. “We wish to shape the future of the country by training people who are better than us.”

To train a driven and ambitious crop of scientists and researchers, Dr. Anwar shared the idea of ‘synaptic hires’, which will help create a truly interdisciplinary faculty who may not belong primarily to one department, but are at the crossroads of different disciplines so they can spiral new movements of scientific inquiry inside SBASSE. And such a dynamic approach to education in Pakistan, he reiterates, could only have been possible at LUMS. “Here I have academic freedom, as LUMS respects diversity and is the best springboard to spread the light of science in Pakistan.” 

This academic freedom, however, is not enjoyed by many in Pakistan which is why the state of education is lamentable. Having helped design the curriculum at LUMS as well as of the undergraduate national curriculum in physics, Dr. Anwar has closely worked with the public education sector. He believes, barring a few exceptions, the country is not making much progress on bringing science-based teaching out of the closet of traditionalism and making it more critical inquiry based.

“One major obstacle that scientists and in particular educators in Pakistan face is that they are prisoners of a process. This process is bureaucratic and undermines and discourages most of the scientific and creative work necessary for a more modern approach to science education.”

He elaborated that our education system has ossified as teachers lack passion for teaching and unless the teaching of science is not done by those who have fire in their bellies and adopt new pedagogical techniques that make science fun, not much will change.

This model is certainly not a theoretical concept for Dr. Anwar. At the Department of Physics at LUMS, a similar approach has been adopted and an entire ecosystem of creation and design has flourished. From homegrown instruments and equipment, indigenous ideas and a whole lot of passion for the subject, he has helped set-up the PhysLab at LUMS, a model adopted in multiple universities in Pakistan. At LUMS, a large cohort of students is being trained in this laboratory where they work closely with faculty members in developing new experiments which have been published in top notch journals. For Dr. Anwar, this is an attempt to change the face of how experimental science is taught and learnt in this country.

He advises students to take advantage of such a dynamic research environment. “Students at LUMS have the luxury of experimenting. They must experiment inside laboratories as well as by extensive reading, by going deeper into the burrows of certain features of knowledge outside the classroom. Don’t make your grades your final goal.”