A role model for young physicists

ICTP Diploma alumnus Muntazir Abidi tells about his brilliant career
A role model for young physicists

ICTP Postgraduate Diploma Programme alumni can use the knowledge and skills gained from the experience to achieve successful, diverse careers. Of the more than a thousand graduates, many have gone on to do PhDs at various prestigious international universities, while others have obtained notable positions in academia, economics or policymaking, or have returned to their home countries, where they are actively involved in teaching and in developing advanced research.

Muntazir Abidi of Pakistan is the perfect example and model of the scientific value and academic quality of Postgraduate Diploma Programme alumni. Abidi arrived in Trieste in 2012 to study High Energy, Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. After finishing the Diploma, he returned to Pakistan where he spent two years as a lecturer at the Karachi Institute of Technology and Entrepreneurship and at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. Later, he was awarded a special fellowship to attend a university every physicist dreams of: the University of Cambridge, UK.

At Cambridge he completed one of the top physics and mathematics programmes in the world for his Master's, with excellent results. After passing successfully, he was accepted for a PhD position in the same university, which is extremely competitive: only 15 students are accepted yearly of the 100 Master's students who are already some of the top students at the international level.

During his PhD at the Stephen Hawking Centre for Theoretical Cosmology of the University of Cambridge, Abidi studied large-scale structure cosmology, specifically galaxy biasing, that is, the distribution of dark matter and galaxies of the Universe, under the supervision of Dr Tobias Baldauf and Dr Blake Sherwin. Here he excelled again, publishing well-cited papers in international peer-reviewed journals and successfully defending his thesis in the summer of 2020.

"When I went to Cambridge for my Master's, it felt like a great time in my career, because I had the chance to really explore things and because I got to meet people who are working on specialized fields," says Abidi. "There I found out that cosmology could be the perfect topic for me to study, because not only would it allow me to study more physics, but I could also learn new skills like computational methods and data analysis, so I joined the cosmology group at Cambridge that was doing very interesting work."

Abidi's love for science started at a very early age. "I got interested in physics when one of my teachers gave me the book "Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking", he recalls. "After reading that book I took a special interest in physics, but when I went to university in Lahore, Pakistan, for my Bachelor's the focus was mostly on engineering. When I arrived at ICTP I still did not know what I wanted to specialize in, I was just genuinely interested in physics. I was taking courses and most of the time I was just reading random books in the library. I really liked the ICTP Library, I spent a lot of time there." Eventually, he chose to focus on theoretical high energy physics, and graduated with a thesis on "Simple Supersymmetry Breaking Models in Stable and Metastable Vacua" under the supervision of Professor Matteo Bertolini of SISSA.

"I think the Diploma Programme changed my life and if I am where I am it's because of ICTP. There's no doubt about it," says Abidi. "I can easily say that the courses at the ICTP Diploma Programme are at the same level as the courses taught at Cambridge University. Moreover, researchers at ICTP come from all around the world and people are very friendly and cordial. Here I met a lot of great scientists, I got to meet people who I considered my heroes."

Abidi recalls in a particularly fond way the support and teachings received by former ICTP Director Fernando Quevedo, who continued to be a mentor for him after the Diploma, when he went to Cambridge. "One of the things that I am really thankful for is meeting Professor Quevedo. I think that if I had not gone to ICTP, I would have not met people like him and then I would not be doing what I'm doing now," says Abidi. "I became very close to him and it was a great experience for me to see the director of ICTP to be always available for students to discuss physics and motivate them to do science."

Since November 2020, Abidi has joined the University of Geneva as a post-doctoral researcher, where he is working with Prof. Camille Bonvin on testing gravity using galaxy and intensity mapping surveys. He was also invited as a short-term researcher by the Cosmology X Data Science group at the Simons Foundation's Flatiron Institute in New York, USA. He has been collaborating with Prof. Shirley Ho’s group on simulation-based analysis of galaxy surveys as well as applications of deep learning in cosmology.

Besides cosmology, he is also interested in biology, finance and entrepreneurship. He is involved in two start-ups, one in the field of quantitative finance and the other working to develop a patentable technology to find therapeutic targets for diseases such as cancer by combining proteomics and machine learning. "I like to keep my options open concerning my future," says Abidi. "As far as I'm enjoying what I'm doing, I want to stay in academia and do research, but I also like to explore other fields. There are many problems that can be solved using the skills developed as a physicist. Studying physics gives you a very different perspective on problem solving. Not only do we learn mathematical modelling, computational skills, and data analysis, but we actually understand how to model almost any system from very basic, fundamental principles. And these are the skills that are required to virtually solve any problem."


In August 2021, ICTP will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its Postgraduate Diploma Programme with an exciting, three-day, online event featuring talks, social activities and focus groups. Highlights of the event include: a keynote speech by 2020 Nobel Laureate in Physics Andrea Ghez, a talk on diversity in science by Sylvester James Gates, Jr, president of the American Physical Society, talks by prominent Diploma alumni, and parallel sessions in various regions of the world to foster the creation of networks. The event takes place from 23 to 25 August 2021: register now!



--- Marina Menga

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