Professor Abad joined UCI’s faculty in the summer of 2016, and taught a physics class over the summer. Now, she is focusing on her research at UCI, and might teach later on in the future. She has definitely overcome many obstacles to get where she is today. Her journey to where she is today tells an important lesson of perseverance and confidence.
Can you give me a summary of your journey to UCI?
I did my undergrad back in Iran in physics, and I also did a year and a half of my masters there as well. Then I came to University of Massachusetts, Amherst for my Ph.D. for about five years. After graduating, I went to Harvard for my postdoctoral fellowship. When I was in graduate school, I met my husband, and at that time we got engaged. He was doing his Ph.D. at M.I.T during that time. He was offered a position at UCI, and I decided to follow him. He is currently a professor in the Civil Engineering department.
What inspired your passion for physics?
I think it started when I was a sophomore or junior in high school. I had a really good physics teacher. She pushed us very hard to learn physics, and at the end of the year I began to thin k that physics was one of the easiest subjects to study because we practiced a lot. When I wanted to go to college, I was debating between management and physics. They are totally different subjects. In Iran, you take a national exam before entering college, and based on your score you can pick which school you can attend. I chose physics as my top choice, and because I had a good score on the test I was able to attend a really good school in Iran. When I was freshman, I had the chance to change my major. But, I told myself I am already doing it, and I like it. At the time I was not sure about the job opportunity that I could have after finishing college. I guess I was enjoying doing physics so much that I just did not care about finding a job. The thing is in Iran, you have a better chance of getting a job if you have a degree in management rather than physics. But, I decided to stay because I really liked it.
From my time at UCI, I have noticed that there are not many women in the physics department. Have you ever had an experience where someone told you that you could not succeed in physics?
Let’s just say that when I got accepted into physics for my undergraduate work, most of my distant relatives congratulated me, and told me I could make a very good high school teacher. That was the expectation they had as a women who does physics. When I was finishing my college people were asking what I was going to do, and I realized that if I decided not to go to grad school I might have to do jobs I really did not enjoy. That was my motivation to continue on to graduate school.
Why did you decide to come to the U.S. to continue your graduate schooling?
In Iran there is not a lot of job opportunities that you would enjoy with the degree I had at the time. I had a friend who was thinking about applying abroad, and I talked to her because I found it very interesting. I did some research and I noticed there were many opportunities here. I decided to give it a shot, and I applied. After six months, I ended up in the United States.
Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up, and it was getting too much to handle?
The only time I struggled, and thought about quitting graduate school was a year before finishing my schooling. The reason had nothing to do with my research or my courses. The main reason was that at the time I was in a situation where I had to work with four or five postdoctoral fellows, and all of them were men. They believed I was not doing a good job, and they had a close relationship with my advisor. I had to go through that fight, and it was my first time being in that situation. I did not know how to handle it, and every time I did something I had to fight to show my results were correct. I had to prove myself, and that would okay for a first or second year student, but not towards the end of my graduate career. Before working with \ those men, my advisor trusted me 100%, and only because of their influence I had to explain the situation. I still do not know why my advisor let that happen, but he only got feedback from the team. I was so busy trying to prove myself to other people, which I should not have done. I was thinking about quitting. But, I told myself you could always quite, but I you quite now you will always wonder if you could do it or not. In less than I year, I graduated and found myself at Harvard doing my post-doctoral fellowship.
Is teaching something you enjoy, and do you plan to continue teaching?
I have always enjoyed teaching, and my very first student was my sister. She is four years younger than me, and when I was in college she was in high school, and she was a math major. Every time she had a question in physics, she would come to me. I would start from the beginning of the concept, even though she just wanted to get the answer for a particular question. But, I explained to her that I could not do that because next time she would not be able to do the question by herself. When I got the offer from UCI, I told my sister, and she told me I would make a good teacher because she still remembers all the things I taught her. It is a responsibility being an instructor in college because everything you do in class can change your students’ lives.
What was one of the most defining moments in your life?
I guess I would say the time I struggled through my education, and personal life are the most defining moments. Because when you are in the situation, it is really difficult, but later on when you pass it you realized it made you stronger. It makes you believe in yourself more.