One would expect Mariam Sultana, the first Pakistani woman to earn a PhD in astrophysics, to be admired and revered by her students. Instead, she finds herself warding off the invective heaped on her and clearing the misconception that she has studied astrology, a pseudoscience which is considered haram.
“The students somehow confuse my field of study, extragalatic astronomy, with fortune telling or palm reading,” she told The Express Tribune. “Their parents do the same thing and advise their children to stay away from the subject.”
After working assiduously for almost six years, 30-year-old Sultana, a lecturer at the mathematical sciences department of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology (FUUAST), earned her PhD a week ago. When she started her coursework back in 2006, she was a research associate at Karachi University’s (KU) Institute of Planetary Astrophysics. She explained that the goal of extragalactic astrophysics is to understand the formation of planetary systems, stars and galaxies which are embedded in the cosmic web.
Her work was supervised by Dr Salakhutdin Nuritdinov, a professor at the National University of Uzbekistan. He was appointed in 2006 to FUUAST through the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) foreign faculty hiring programme. Dr Nuritdinov is a pioneer in the field and allowed Sultana to further develop mathematical models that he had created. “I didn’t feel worthy enough to do such high standard work,” said Sultana. “It was Dr Nuritdinov who led me all the way through.” In her thesis, she investigated the instabilities and physical conditions which gave galaxies their ring shape.
Sultana was thrilled when two eminent professors agreed to become examiners for her doctoral thesis. One of them was James Binney, a professor of physics at the University of Oxford. He also heads the Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics. The second examiner was Dr Ana Katrin Schenk, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California. Dr Binney wrote to her and said that “[Sultana’s] thesis represents a considerable body of work, and from a technical aspect, it is surely worthy of a doctorate.” Sultana plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in the United Kingdom. “But first I want to supervise all the PhDs which were left incomplete because of Dr Nuritdinov’s departure from Pakistan,” she said. She is currently supervising the doctoral students at FUUAST’s mathematical sciences department.
Jumping through the hoops
Sultana did admit that there were many hurdles that she had to cross in order to earn her degree. During her studies, she found out that KU did not accept foreign supervisors unless they agreed to stay in Pakistan for at least seven years. Her supervisor only planned to stay in the country for four years. “I submitted the abstract of my thesis to the university in August 2006 and it remained pending for the next 22 months because of foreign supervisor issue,” she said. Sultana even approached the chairman of the HEC, who had advised her to ask Dr Nuritdinov to be her supervisor. “The authorities at KU did not even listen to him,” she said.
Finally, in October 2008, her abstract was accepted after she replaced Dr Nuritdinov with Dr Shahid Qureshi, a Pakistani professor at the Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics. Two months before this happened, Sultana’s research paper was published in a Russian journal called “Astrofizika” (Astrophysics) and was later printed in another journal, Astrophysics. But after accepting her abstract, KU kept on insisting that she spend a year in the MPhil programme, as is the rule. Dr Nuritdinov admitted that he was not expecting Sultana to get the PhD because of “the bureaucratic behaviour and incompetence of upper-level academics.” He was pleasantly surprised when Sultana broke the news to him.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 28th, 2012.