Reflections by Usama Javed Mirza (Physics, SBASSE, 2013)
I've always been excited by magic. Growing up I read many fantasy fiction books such as the Harry Potter series and the Abhorsen Trilogy. Science to me was the magic I could see in the world around me. I remember reading Einstein's biography as a kid and wondered at the power of E=mc2 . My father is a nuclear physicist as well, and when I would go for walks him daily he would spellbound me with strange facts of physics, whether they were about magic numbers that govern the atomic structure, or about how electric circuits actually channel energy from flowing water. It was then when I started studying Physics at LUMS that I realized just wonderfully weird and whacky, yet beautiful the universe is capable of being! Quantum tunnelling, time dilation and ball lightning are just some of the phenomena I learnt that made me see wonder everywhere in the seemingly intuitive world around me.
My Physics teachers loved a good debate, and I would love to challenge the physical models presented in class. Our Physics batch was a total of 6 students, and so we were a tightly knit and supportive group. We'd spend hours eating samosas in the Physics department and arguing over things like whether a hamster would survive a fall from an aeroplane if it fell on its belly on muddy ground, and whether 'time' was actually an illusion. What I also loved was how encouraging my major was of interdisciplinary study. I was able to take many courses in Philosophy as well, and these helped get thinking critically about the nature of science, and also about the relations between science and religion.
After graduating from LUMS, I became a high school teacher. I taught Physics and Math with relish, and loved opening the minds of bored teenage students to exciting realities of time travel (dilation), potential multiple universities and the delight of Tesla coils. I innovated in my classroom, inspired by the exciting experimental demonstrations that Dr Sabieh Anwar would perform in class, and the fun intellectual challenges that were posed by professors like Dr Amer Iqbal and Dr Babar Qureshi. I went on to pursue my Masters in Education at Teachers College Columbia University on a Fulbright scholarship, and did my Masters Thesis on completely reimagining the O level Physics curriculum that is taught so dryly in too many private schools across Pakistan.
After coming back to Pakistan, I have worked as a social entrepreneur, academic coordinator, teacher, activist and science education policy maker. I am especially grateful to Dr Sabieh, who continued to mentor me long after I graduated from SSE in 2013. We worked together on proposing new science education policies to the Punjab government, and science education activism activities at the Alif Ailaan campaign. We also then cotaught a course at LUMS on science education for undergrads, along with Dr Yasira Waqar! I am also very grateful to Dr Sabieh for writing me a letter of recommendation for the Gates Cambridge scholarship.
This work was what led me to then provide consultations to the Single National Curriculum Council for their middle school science curricula! This policy work, along with in parallel running Saving 9, the health education social enterprise I founded, gave rise to the inspiration for my PhD topic. It was also inspired by the public debate that sprung up between Dr Perve Hoodbhoy and Dr Abdul Nayyar (both of whom I have studied under at LUMS) and Dr Mariam Chughtai regarding the role and impact of religion and science in school education in the context of the Single National Curriculum.
In my experience and observations, I came to realize that countless social problems are aggravated by lack of conversations around science and religion. My PhD research at Cambridge University will try to understand how the ideological perspectives of youth in Pakistan are shaped around science and religion, as the Single National Curriculum is being rolled out to enforce minimum learning standards across the country. This research will provide rich learning on public policies for social issues and help identify roadblocks that hinder citizens of postcolonial Muslim countries from making substantial contributions to the natural sciences.
Watch Usama Javed Mirza talking about his unique experiences at SBASSE here.