Making Opportunities By Hamza Shafique
Almost two decades ago a delegation of some of the leading physicists of that time was invited by the then President of Pakistan, Farooq Laghari. It was led by Dr. Ishfaq Ahmed, Chairman PAEC of that time. Also in this delegation was a visionary physicist in his mid-50s, Dr. Abdullah Sadiq, who had come across an item in ‘Physics Today’ a decade earlier about the International Physics Olympiad which is the most prestigious high school Physics competition in the world. He proposed that students from Pakistan should also participate in this competition. President Farooq Laghari gave a go ahead.
With initial fundings from PAEC and today from HEC this small program has now turned into a multidisciplinary National talent selection competition under the umbrella of STEM Career Program. Every year teams from Pakistan participate in International Science Olympiads in the subjects of Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology.
I happened to be a small part of this huge project, when I participated in the International Physics Olympiad 2014 – Astana, to represent Pakistan with 4 fellow college students selected from various colleges of Pakistan. And wow; was the experience enlightening! Meeting people within and outside Pakistan was an eye opener. Just to give a hint at it let me share a small incident that happened while we were in Astana.
The scheme of things is such that usually the best Physics department in the hosting country prepares the problems that students from 85 participating countries will solve. Each team is led by two team leaders that their country sees fit as the best people for the job. Naturally some of the best people in their fields lead their countries every year. As for Pakistan, every year the team is led by Program Coordinator Sir Dr. Shahid Qamar and a fellow physicist that this year happened to be Sir Dr. Amaam Ur Rehman. Before the exam all the team leaders come together to discuss the problems to make sure that the problems are just challenging enough for the participants. This time there was a certain problem in which a highly technical concept about optics was used, and all the 170 people in the room were trying to explain it in an easy way but to no avail. At that time the team leader from Pakistan, Sir Dr. Shahid Qamar went to the podium and explained the phenomenon to all the team leaders and gave the wording for the problems.
This is just a small glimpse at how totally awesome the academia in Pakistan is. One of our teachers during our training at PIEAS, Sir Dr. Aftab Rafique, while discussing the research opportunities in Pakistan bluntly told us giving an example, “If today your coordinator Sir Shadid Qamar applies to any university in the world, even the ivy leauges, will get a package no pragmatic person today will be able to deny. We stay in Pakistan ONLY because we have a responsibility for our homeland, and you ask about the research opportunities in Pakistan”.
Then there rises a very natural question, why are we not doing as well as the leading countries in academic research? Well I had asked the same question to Rector NUST, Engineer Muhammad Asghar and this is what he replied and I quote,
“Pakistan woke up only in 2002 to address it’s miserable state of higher education by introducing far reaching reforms through HEC. The total development budget of University Grants Commission in 2001/02 was half a billion rupees. It is about 15 billion today. What to talk of development and annual operational budget that is about 44 billion rupees for HEC, the research funding of just one university of China is 36 billion rupees. Despite financial difficulties, it is a miracle that our universities have appeared on the international radar screen. This is the best we can do in the environment we are working in.
Alhamdolillah , we are competing world class universities and making our mark.”
This sums up the whole story better than anything else. Coming back to International Physics Olympiad, for certain reasons Pakistan does not perform as well as it should; as one of my friends who has a silver medal in International Mathematics Olympiad from Tajikistan has so many times related to me. The reasons are not too different to the problems mentioned earlier. We do have better people to train than many countries, and also a talent pool larger and better than many. The problem is with the system itself. Pakistan lacks the penetration, funding, and attention at school levels and the time dedicated to it. China has a pool of 2 million students from which it selects 5 students, India has a pool of 50 thousand students from which it selects 5 students, and Pakistan has a pool of roughly 1000 students from which it selects 5 students. Iran spends 2 years in preparation and countries who don’t have many expert teachers like Tajikistan and Kazhakistan spend 3-4 years in preparation. Whereas Pakistan spend at most 2 months in preparation. And all these countries do better than Pakistan.
The best method to rectify the problem would be to get down to the school levels for the preparation. And planning a few years in advance of the competition, like the countries with less resources do and who for a fact are quite happy with it, can really work for us.
This competition is not just an academic challenge; you also get to meet people from all over the world, and see the reality of the world. You get to realize that academia does not care about the political propaganda game at play internationally. You get to meet people, make friends and have an experience of a lifetime. It is very difficult to place the feeling you have when you are playing cards with your age mates from countries as diverse as South Africa, Poland, Puerto Rico, Netherlands and Australia.
After having gone through the experience, both academic and social, my perception of looking at things has totally changed. I have gotten to realize, the fake and mysterious aura of fear that certain things are difficult and I am not up to it is not due to my incapability but courtesy of the lack of knowledge and understanding. We hesitate to try things that we fear and this fear is because we never try such things. Once we get through, it is half as difficult as it seems.
Today I talk to friends from Norway, Nertherlands, Poland, Kenya, Cyprus, Kazhakstan, Turkey, UK, and so many more on topics as trivial as gossip to as critical as ISIS and Palestine issue. You get the opportunity to develop concepts and ideas that were totally non-existent initially. This has all been possible because I participated and qualified for the International Physics Olympiad. Not only did it benefit me academically but it has benefited me in so many ways. I made friends; I was exposed to the world; my perspective expanded; my opportunities increased, and this is just the things I have been able to realize. There may be many more that I am yet to realize. And wow what a feeling it is!
I will surely encourage high school students to participate in NSTC being held in Pakistan every year. Try your best and test your luck, and EXPAND