‘It’s a huge loss for science’: professors honour students killed in plane crash

'It's a huge loss for science': professors honour students killed in plane crash

Professors at several universities want to honour the young, promising scientists who were returning to Canada when their plane crashed in Iran, killing everyone on board.

More than a dozen Canadian universities have confirmed they lost students, faculty and researchers in the crash, which killed 176 people — many of them graduate students. 

“It’s a huge loss for science,” said Lisa Porter, a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Windsor.

The loss is personal for Porter, whose research assistant, Samira Bashiri, was among the victims.

“It’s a loss for all of us,” she said, choking up.

For Towhid Islam, a marketing professor at the University of Guelph, the grief is compounded by feelings of guilt. One of the victims — 32-year-old Milad Ghasemi Ariani — was a PhD student doing research with Islam since last summer. 

Islam said he saw much of himself in Ariani — both had engineering degrees and MBAs. The pair were using complex modelling techniques, which included econometric learning, machine learning and experimental design, to predict what consumers will buy.

Ariani tried for years to get a Canadian visa to come study with the professor. Every time the university’s offer was set to expire due to Ariani’s visa problems, Islam convinced the administration to extend the deadline. There were many extensions until the paperwork came through last summer.

“Maybe it’s me to be blamed for his early departure,” an emotional Islam said in an interview. “I wanted to help him, but I hurt his life. I guess you don’t have control over all these things. But it also hurts me because he’s gone.”

On the same campus, Ghanimat Azhdari wowed everyone she met. The Indigenous woman from the nomadic Qashqai tribe in Iran had already performed groundbreaking work before she moved to Canada in September to pursue a PhD under ecology professor Faisal Moola.

She was proficient in something called “community participatory mapping” where she worked with tribal communities to collect oral information, Moola explained.

“She’d find out where the sacred flowers were, the medicinal plants, the endangered forest, how bird populations change as a consequence of climate change,” he said. “She was beginning to map what she called the ‘territories of life.'”

The brilliance of Azhdari, Moola said, was being able to translate between Indigenous cultural knowledge and western science and policy.

Azhdari joined Moola’s lab in September and was part of a project partly funded by the federal government to advance Indigenous governance in the protection of nature across the country.

She returned to Iran to visit her fiance and family, Moola said. They were set to embark on field work in Newfoundland shortly after her return.

Down the highway at Western University in London, Ont., Hadis Hayatdavoudi worked on ways to safely store nuclear waste.

The PhD student studied the effects of hydrogen on copper at the Electrochemistry and Corrosion Science Centre. She examined the longevity of proposed materials used in containers for nuclear fuel waste, her supervisor said.

The copper she pumped with hydrogen was then melted down into tiny balls, which would normally be thrown away, said Jamie Noel, a chemistry professor.

“She saw beauty in these little tiny beads of copper, and she was saving them because she thought that she could maybe employ them in making jewelry or something like that,” Noel said, shaking a little box full of the beads she had saved. 

Porter, the University of Windsor professor, said Bashiri made her way into her lab through intellect and sheer will.

Bashiri’s husband, who was also killed in the crash, came to the school to pursue a PhD in engineering. Bashiri, a veterinarian, worked in an animal clinic when she first arrived, but wanted to pursue research. She approached Porter, who told her the young woman did not have the proper background.

“Take me as a volunteer and I’ll prove myself to you,” Bashiri said at the time. Porter accepted. Bashiri worked night and day, helping out with the mice and zebrafish Porter’s lab worked with.

Bashiri began digging into the research and improved various lab protocols. Porter soon hired her as a research assistant and they were in the midst of applying for scholarships to start towards her PhD in the fall.

Her research would involve testing a new drug therapy for breast cancer, Porter said. She had run the numbers to perform tests on zebrafish to mimic what they’d give patients. The real work was just about to get underway.

“This research is going to be published and her name will be on it,” Porter said through tears.

The names of the other three young researchers will also carry their names when it is published, their professors said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2020.

Liam Casey and Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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