Since its inception in 1991, more than 1000 students have graduated from ICTPs' Postgraduate Diploma Programme, roughly 28% of whom are female. Worldwide, women constitute a decided minority in the physics community. Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and ICTP is committed to act towards the reduction of the gender gap in science and research.
Huma Nawaz, a student from Pakistan, is among the graduates of the latest class of the ICTP Postgraduate Diploma Programme. The Programme has seen a consistent rise in the percentage of women in the last few years, reaching almost parity between male and female students.
In the following interview, Nawaz talks about how she decided to come to ICTP, her plans and wishes for the future, and her connections with the Centre's founder, Abdus Salam.
When and why did you decide to dedicate your studies to physics?
I still remember that when I was a six-year-old girl my father took me to Professor Abdus Salam's grave. We prayed there and my father told me, "he is a Muslim Nobel laureate", even though in Pakistan he is not considered Muslim. My family and I belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, just like Professor Salam, and so he is an extremely important figure for us. It was actually my father's dream that I would do a PhD in physics one day, just like Salam. When I started studying physics at school I realised I really liked it, because those things made sense to me. You have a picture, a plot, an equation that you can take the meaning from. And eventually I can relate the theory to things in ordinary life.
How did your research interests lead you to ICTP's Postgraduate Diploma Programme?
Of course I already knew about ICTP because of Professor Abdus Salam. I wanted to be here to get a flavour of the research going on in the western world and then get a PhD position. Moreover, my supervisor at COMSATS University in Islamabad, Dr Waqas Masood, is an ICTP associate and he really encouraged me to apply for the Diploma Programme. I was actually doing work in space plasma in Islamabad, but I decided to switch field coming at ICTP, and enrolled in the Condensed Matter and Statistical Physics section of the Diploma Programme.
What was your diploma thesis about?
My Diploma project involved material science and machine learning. I worked with ICTP scientist Nicola Seriani on atomistic simulations of molybdenum disulfide, which is a material that can be used for the most favourable applications like energy storage devices or super capacitors, in a quest to look for the best materials for renewable energy. I investigated its structure using algorithms coming from Machine Learning.
What are some challenges you faced in pursuing your studies?
The biggest challenges I had to face were connected to my religion, and the distinctions that we have in my country, and this also had an impact at school and in my career as a student there. Moreover, at my high school I didn't study mathematics, so when I went on to my bachelor's in physics it was really challenging for me, especially because we had many pure mathematics courses. But my father was there to help me; he took me to people who could teach me mathematics. I learned many things on my own and with the help of those teachers, and I managed to successfully complete university. But now I really appreciate that I have learnt a lot, and I keep learning new things consistently. At ICTP, I learned so many things, and now I believe that I have the confidence and courage to go wherever I want to be.
In your opinion, what were the strengths of the Postgraduate Diploma Programme?
In the first semester, it was hard because we had four subjects in parallel, assignments, lectures, and it was hard to keep up with everything. And moreover, I didn't like online classes much. But the teachers were really helping, they arranged Zoom sessions for people, so they could keep track of everyone. I just loved the way they taught us.
I loved ICTP really; the Galileo guesthouse is like a home to me. I made so many friends and I share a special bond with them, we have so many memories together. The ICTP community is really hospitable and always willing to help us for any kind of need. I believe I could go to any place but not get so much care, love and affection that ICTP has shown us. It was an incredible experience for me, and I'm going to miss everything so much.
What are your future plans?
I got a PhD position at the University of Houston, Texas, in the USA, where I will continue to work in the field of Machine Learning and computation, which I really enjoy.
After my PhD, I may stay in academia, if I like it, if I have the passion to do research, to teach, and if this passion stays with me for long. But the moment I feel like I'm getting bored, or the students are getting bored, I would leave academia and I would like to land in an industry, where I feel I can do my creative work as well as I can. That's why I want to continue working in computation and learn more about it. I would really love working on something related to Machine Learning, I really like it.