First Pakistani woman to earn PhD in astrophysics fought red tape

Published: July 28, 2012
It took Mariam Sultana about six years to complete her doctoral studies. PHOTO: EXPRESS

It took Mariam Sultana about six years to complete her doctoral studies. PHOTO: EXPRESS


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.

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Reader Comments (20)

  • FDR
    Jul 28, 2012 - 6:37AM

    Wow. To think students studying in institutes of higher education are THIS behind the times in their thinking and exposure is truly startling. As if we don’t face enough problems, that our university going youth is plagued by medieval mindsets.


  • Jul 28, 2012 - 7:29AM

    Congratulations on earning a Doctorate in Astrophysics, Ms. Sultana. Do not worry about the illiterate fools who have no idea of cosmology, and physics in general. While the world sits at the edge of their seats looking at heavens and trying to understand the origin of universe including myself, I feel terrible for the extremism,& illiteracy of my people but you will also find professors who have no idea of what you achieved. May God bless you and hopefully they will one day know your name as a pioneer like Dr. Fazal Ahmed Khan who’s distinction in doctorate read “for original research”.


  • Imran Ahsan Mirza
    Jul 28, 2012 - 7:29AM

    Pakistan is a country of ignorants teaching ignorance. She is a gem and must not be afraid. Salam was given the same treatment but excelled to becomes one of the greatest Physics of last century.


  • what
    Jul 28, 2012 - 7:36AM

    I know several Indians who have PhD’s from IIT (Indian Institutes of Technology) and have subsequently gotten direct tenure-track appointment in USA universities.

    No one with KU PhD would get even close to a tenure track appointment in a US university because of the questionable quality of the graduate thesis work. Karachi University is always in the news over issues such as strikes, killings, cheating, plagiarism, students slapping professors, etc.

    What do students learn in KU? How to fight, kill, operate weapons, hooliganism, etc?Recommend

  • Aamir, Toronto
    Jul 28, 2012 - 8:35AM

    Way to go sister…….may ALLAH (SWT) fulfill your future goals…….we need more sisters like you to excel in the field of education…..hope and pray you become an inspiration for others.


  • Toba Alu
    Jul 28, 2012 - 8:39AM

    Ms. Sultana, many congratulations. Never mind those who cannot distinguish between astronomy and astrology. I sincerely hope that your community, society at large and your family allow you to contribute to the development of science and Pakistan.


  • Pakistani Agnostic
    Jul 28, 2012 - 8:41AM

    How in the world is astro physics related to palm reading. Baffling!
    I would advice this madam to fill up the migration form to countries where space research is at a very advanced level so her mind can be fully exploited.


  • yousaf
    Jul 28, 2012 - 9:12AM

    Well Done Mariam Sultana! You make us proud.


  • umair ahmed siddiqui
    Jul 28, 2012 - 9:30AM

    well done !!!!!!! Congrats!! You make us proud


  • Aik-Paki
    Jul 28, 2012 - 9:30AM

    Tenure track appointments at USA Universities mostly depend on the qulaity of reserach work, attraction of funding, and the number of high qulaity publications (journal with high impact factor) someone have produced during PhD and post-doctoral level. I myself a graduate of UET Lahore and a number of other colleagues from UET/KU are tenured faculty members (some of us full professors and IEEE fellows) in North America.
    Please don’t degarde your own institution if you are a Pak. I admire all the faculty members in Pakistan Universities who are working hard under the worst conditions. I myslef moved to North America from a Pak Univ and have been working at the tenured faculty and administrative academic positions in North AmericaRecommend

  • Nazimuddin
    Jul 28, 2012 - 10:26AM

    @what:First of all I wholeheartedly congratulate Ms.Sultana and strongly support her postdoctoral ambitions. As for Mr./Ms. what: you simply see that KU produces more Ph.ds than any other university in Pakistan. You must be a resident of city other than Karachi. Rest of Pakistanis talk about Karachi as if An American is talking about an AlKaida operative. “What” just tell me which Pakistani university is recognized blindly overseas ?


  • sam
    Jul 28, 2012 - 10:36AM

    so you made it.congrats.its never too easy to get what you want.i can understand as i am still in process of many things


  • Beegee
    Jul 28, 2012 - 10:49AM

    Are you honestly joking? Students from one of the biggest universities in Pakistan in Pakistan’s biggest city with supposedly high education rates associate astrophysics with astrology and don’t want to study it? No doubt are country is so behind. BUT thankfully people like her are trying for change.

    Also shame on the Bureaucracy. Them and their stupid rules wasted so much of this woman’s precious time. .Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Jul 28, 2012 - 11:46AM

    why is almost every other article in ET about fighting right wingers? there is nothing about fighting right wingers in this story. In fact Dr Sultana herself looks very Islamic from her outlook to me


  • Feisal Rahimtoola
    Jul 28, 2012 - 12:11PM

    You are absolutely right. Just a doctorate in an in-demand field from a good named university is not enough – the mental health, achievement-focus and the like are more important!


  • Fahad Zia
    Jul 28, 2012 - 1:01PM

    wow.. there is only one word that matches this article.. BAZINGA..


  • Prof Shahid Qureshi
    Jul 28, 2012 - 3:25PM

    KU produce on average around 40 PhDs in various areas of Natural and Social Science second to only Quaid e Azam University Islamabad. Presenting KU as is done by this writer is only ignorance to the ground realities.@what:


  • Prof. Dr. S. Siddiqui
    Jul 28, 2012 - 9:00PM

    I’m glad and proud of you, Ms. Sultana. Many congratulations on earning a doctorate with hardwork and determination. I feel sorry for the state of affairs in our universities due to which young researchers have to waste extrs years in achieving their goals.Recommend

  • J. Lee
    Aug 3, 2012 - 3:20AM

    Never mind those who cannot distinguish between astronomy and astrology. They are busy fiddling with their A-Bombs.


  • AQSA
    Aug 5, 2012 - 2:08PM


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