Supporting Future Generations of Scientists

Qaisar and Monika Shafi talk about Abdus Salam and their motive for funding Diploma prize
Supporting Future Generations of Scientists
Monika and Qaisar Shafi (right) with ICTP Director Atish Dabholkar and Deborah Osei-Tutu, a 2023 Postgraduate Diploma Programme graduate from Ghana who is the first recipient of the Shafi Prize.
Mary Ann Williams

Abdus Salam's legacy of ensuring that the pursuit of science remains open to all lives on, most notably with the enduring success of ICTP, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2024. His legacy also lives on thanks to people who knew or worked side by side with him during his years as a professor, both at ICTP and at Imperial College, London. Qaisar Shafi is one such person: the Pakistani-American theoretical physicist was a doctoral student of Salam's in London. Inspired by Salam's charisma and vision, Shafi joined the Nobel Laureate at ICTP, organising yearly summer schools in high energy physics and cosmology. 

Their pioneering outreach spirit gave birth to an ongoing initiative aimed at nurturing high-energy physics in Asia: in 1989, Shafi and Salam, together with professors Jogesh Pati and Yu Lu, held their first BCVSPIN activity (an acronym denoting Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and Nepal), a platform for scientists in the South/Southeast Asia region to learn about exciting developments in particle and astroparticle physics and cosmology from leading experts.

Shafi, who is now the Inaugural Bartol Research Institute Professor of Physics at the University of Delaware, maintains his ties with ICTP. Recently, he and his wife Monika, a noted scholar of German literature and faculty member at the same university, established a prize in their names for the best ICTP Diploma student of the year, in order to recognize and encourage the next generation of young scientists. The couple attended ICTP's recent Postgraduate Diploma Programme graduation ceremony to meet and congratulate the inaugural winner of their prize and also to interact with the Diploma students. They took time while they were at the Centre to discuss the importance of supporting ICTP's mission. The following are excerpts from that discussion.

What motivated you to establish the Prize, and what do you hope it will achieve?

Monika Shafi: We've been in education all our lives, and both of us regard being professors, as an incredible privilege because you interact with young people and influence, hopefully in a positive way, their future trajectory. Given that we have such a long and really happy history with ICTP, particularly Qaisar's long collaboration with Professor Salam, it was just the natural development to do something for the next generation. What we hope to achieve, first of all, is to support the career of the prize winner, and also to acknowledge the importance the ICTP has had for us and to continue the legacy.

What is your impression of ICTP's Postgraduate Diploma Programme? How does it compare to other master's level educational programmes?

Qaisar Shafi: I think it's a top-notch programme since it started. It is as good a master's programme as any I've come across. I'm familiar with graduate programmes in Europe as well as in the United States, and I think ICTP's Diploma Programme really gives students a solid background for them to join any graduate programmes anywhere. It should be sustained and nurtured; it is top rated.

MS: And if I may just add, we first met the Diploma students via zoom last year. This is by far the most diverse group we have ever met, and I think it's utterly impressive. What the ICTP has created -- both in terms of the science but also in terms of providing a space for young people from all over the world, many of them from countries which have troubled histories, to explore science together -- I think it's unique.

What was your connection with Abdus Salam?

QS: I was his PhD student at Imperial College. And I hadn't realized that Abdus Salam had two sets of PhD students: those who were working with him at Imperial College itself and another set of students here at ICTP, who were registered with Imperial, but were his students here. I came through the British system: high school, undergraduate, Imperial, and PhD. It was only when I came to ICTP that I met other students and made lifelong friends. 

Eventually, we started organizing schools together; he was, of course, the director, but I was co-directing the schools with a number of people. This we did from the early 1980s until he passed away in 1996. In 1989, we started this BCVSPIN activity in Nepal. Salam came to the first school, and because he was a Nobel Laureate, the king of Nepal welcomed us and invited us to his palace for a reception! The school continued for a few years. 

What inspired you most about Abdus Salam?

QS: His determination to get things done; once he had a mission, the idea was to put all possible efforts to implement it.

MS: I've always admired Salam's vision for the ICTP. He did what we would now call the decolonization of knowledge way ahead, before we talked about multiculturalism, diversity, you know, all these initiatives. To create this physical structure, and maintain it and lay the groundwork that it can still thrive 60 years later really takes tremendous dedication. I think it's absolutely exceptional what he created.

What do you think is ICTP's most important legacy?

QS: Well, I think one of the major legacies is that thousands of people who have been here have benefited and are now out there and could help ICTP move to the next level. Many of them are very successful people ... If you compare the world of 1964 and now, I think that ICTP's vision is as relevant because we still face the same levels of different developments, different access. Social conflicts, challenges -- unfortunately, they still exist, so the vision, I think, is as relevant now as it was 60 years ago.

What advice would you give to young scientists from disadvantaged countries who face great challenges in the pursuit of a career in physics/mathematics?

QS: I guess ICTP is one key mechanism available for them. Clearly, there aren't that many, let's face it. Many of them face challenges, these days, even getting visas for countries, European countries, is difficult. For the Diploma graduates, I would say that this is the beginning of the hard work. Salam used to say that the only time that he worked really hard was as a graduate student at Cambridge. So, this is the beginning, but they should enjoy it.

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