Country of Hope and Development: My Experience of Research in Pakistan!

As Boilermakers, we always stick to our great slogan “WE ARE PURDUE, WHAT WE MAKE MOVES THE WORLD FORWARD” meaning that we always try to actually move the world forward with our research. Sometimes, as part of our research, we get the chance to travel to different regions in the world to help communities in different scientific issues, which, in my opinion, is the whole idea of our slogan. Fortunately, I recently had the honor to be part of a research team representing Purdue University to travel to Pakistan to work on water quality of two major rivers in that region. This was a great experience for me that I decided to share with you in this post.

Let’s start with the very moment that I was told by my advisor that as part of my Ph.D. research, I have been assigned to be part of a scientific cooperation between the United States and Pakistan working on “Endocrine disrupting chemicals in Kabul and Swat rivers and their impact on fish populations and rural community livelihoods“, which was funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by National Academy of Sciences (NAS). I remember that I was so excited to be part of this project as it was a great way to help the people of Pakistan to improve their water quality. I should say that I don’t believe in such concepts as border and nationality, meaning that we’re all from one beautiful planet no matter where we’re born, in what language we speak, or even what religion we practice; however, when I got the news, I had this feeling that now that I can’t help people of my own country who are really suffering from lots of environmental issues, I have been given the chance to play my role in that area of world. We started the preparation process for our upcoming trip to Pakistan in June in order to do water sampling in these two rivers.

River Kabul and its tributaries including River Swat are major freshwater sources in the KP province of Pakistan that serve the water needs of most of the Northern mountain and Northwestern plain areas of the province. These rivers also serve as a rich source of various fish species which local populations depend on for their livelihood as well as the tourism industry. Unfortunately, untreated effluent discharges from dozens of small and large-scale industrial units enter the Kabul and Swat rivers directly or indirectly. For more than a decade, there have been complaints about the declining water quality of these rivers and reduced crop production. There has also been a substantial decline in fish numbers as well as reports of mysterious fish kills, ultimately affecting the livelihoods of rural communities. Therefore, we were quite sure that we should do our best to make the situation better (which is actually ongoing).

Everything was ready and we were prepared for a long 23-hour flight to Islamabad and then Peshawar where the project was supposed to be started. As an Iranian student in the USA who was fully experienced about the huge differences between the reality and what media show about a region, I was completely aware of what I was reading in the media about Pakistan and what we were going to see there; however, it is a lie if I say I wasn’t worried at all, which later on, I realized that I shouldn’t be worried even a little as it was the best country in the world with the greatest people I have ever seen in my life.

First Days:

Finally, after a two-stop-24-hour flight! we arrived at Islamabad at around 5:00 am while our colleagues were waiting for us there, which was the first sign of knowing how hospitable Pakistani people are. We started another two hours driving from Islamabad to Peshawar where we’re supposed to stay. For me, except the cars that had the steering wheel on the right side! everything kind of looked familiar which was a great feeling. I was watching people driving in different and the most colorful cars reflecting the great Pakistani culture. I was so excited about this trip.

Fortunately, we had a great place to stay in the University of Peshawar that was much better than we expected. This was a great news for us as we knew that we’re going to have a big jet lag after that long flight. However, it turned out that my advisor’s suggestion of drinking a lot of water before, during, and after the flight actually worked, and yes, we concurred the jet lag!

Next day was the start of the journey. The meeting with our Pakistani colleagues was the second sign of knowing how great Pakistan is. Since almost all the colleagues could speak English very well (even better than me), we started hanging out and actually becoming friends beyond being colleagues. I had never expected to make friends there when we were planning to go there, but after getting to know them, I realized that this was going to be even a much greater trip for me.

In that day, we went to see some sampling points in the Kabul river, which was my first experience of actually living in the city of Peshawar that was under Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) construction at that time. For lunch, we went to a local restaurant to eat “Chapli Kebab“!  We started talking about lots of things there as we were preparing for hard sampling days! 

In the first couple of days, after seeing people in the streets with their nice traditional outfit and talking with my fellow friends, I literally became in love with Pakistan. Even though Pakistan has unfortunately had such disastrous experiences in past years, I could easily see in their lives and in their eyes that they are hopeful about the future and are trying to develop more and more. This was the main reason that I unintentionally felt as one of them especially when I saw the number of mutual concepts in my and their culture such as similarities between their national language “Urdu” and our “Persian“.

Anyways, we had two rivers as our target points. Everything was ready, and I had already practiced a lot to make sure everything works perfectly. We were all ready for the project.

Going to Swat district:

Before Kabul, our colleagues had managed to start the sampling process first with Swat river in Swat valley for 4 to 5 days, and then come back to Peshawar for the sampling of Kabul river. Therefore, we started our trip to Swat districts, which was almost 6 to 7 hours driving. On our way, we started talking about everything including politics, literature, science, etc., so I kind of missed the gorgeous road we’re driving (also because it got dark when we started the trip). Finally, at around 2:00 am, we arrived at “Trout Culture Training Centre Madyan Swat” where we supposed to stay for the next couple of days, which turned out to be absolutely amazing.

Swat was the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen in my life. I don’t want to talk more about it, just watch this video:

See? It was like a dream. Even though we weren’t tourists and had the work to do, still, we could easily see how beautiful is this region. But besides its beauty, there was something else that made me be in love with the region, which I can generalize to the whole country: people!

It goes without saying that when you’re from another country with different looks and outfits and go to a less developed area of a country like Pakistan, it’s a fair assumption to at least not expect local people’s support, which was honestly my assumption at first too. However, it turned out that it was a completely wrong one. We received so much support and love in almost each sampling point that I couldn’t believe it. People were so kind and supportive that in some places, they even started helping us during the sampling process. This was, by far, the best thing I learned in this trip that Pakistan has one of the kindest and the most hospitable people in the world.

However, the sampling process was harder than we expected. Because of the road constructions and heavy traffics in some of the places, transportation was hard enough to make us not be able to get more than 4 samples in one day. As we were there in high flow season, measuring the river discharge was our another challenge that took us a lot of time to figure out.  We also got sick there a little but fortunately could handle it before getting worse. 

Meantime, we had the chance to meet new places and new people. We had been invited to some places and had the honor to meet local authorities discussing different aspects of the project. Speaking of meetings, in Pakistan, or at least in places I visited, Pakistani Chai, which is a combination of normal black tea and milk with a specific recipe, is the most popular drink that is being served in almost every meeting. At first, I remember I preferred just a normal tea (or as they call it “Sulaimani Chai”!), but after a couple of times that I drank the Pakistani chai, I became in love with it.

By the way, despite all the hardships, we successfully did all the sampling points alongside the Swat river and were ready to come back to Peshawar. We couldn’t do it there without the sincere help of local people and authorities there.

Coming back to Peshawar:

After 5 days of being in Swat district, We went back to Peshawar to continue the work on the Kabul river. We decided to rest for one day and be more diligent to finish the process in the next 2 days as we already had the experience of sampling in Swat. One huge difference between Swat and Peshawar regarding the sampling was the weather! In Swat, we had to be prepared for sudden rain and storm, but in Peshawar, the sun was the enemy! as it was so much hotter than Swat. 

We even decided to rent a small boat to move along the river to reach the points faster and easier than going there by car. This was a great decision even though the boat was much slower than we expected, meaning we had to be under direct hot sunlight for 7 to 8 hours. But we finally did the sampling process as excellent as what we did in Swat. I have already mentioned a difference between Swat and Kabul, and now is the time to talk about a similarity between these two regions: people, again! Same as Swat, we had the warmest and the most support available from people who were greeting us, trying to communicate with us, and especially, helping us. I was absolutely stunned by their amount of being kind and hospitable.

Last days of rest and shop:

We did the work! we did all the sampling points, measured all the needed parameters, and gathered all the data sooner than expected, so we could reward ourselves with resting and more importantly, being with people (also shopping for sure!)

Thanks to my friends, I had the chance to visit Qissa Khawani Bazaar for shopping and visiting cultural places, which for me, was reminding of the Grand Bazaar in my hometown, Tehran. There, I got the chance to buy different souvenirs. There, they invited me to eat the traditional Charsi Tikka, which was by far the most delicious food I had in Pakistan. It also reminded me of our Persian Shishlik kebab, which is also great. Just in case, did you know that in Pakistan, there is another platform like Uber called Careem?!

In that bazaar, I actually blend in with local people in a way that you couldn’t know that I’m not from Pakistan! How? see the picture:
Yes! my friend did me a great favor and brought me a traditional Pakistani dress that was absolutely beautiful. But on a serious note, those couple of days that we had the chance to meet people and talk about daily issues were a great experience for me to be more thoughtful in my future environmental activities.

Last words:

Humanity is beyond all the borders. People are not defined with their language, skin color, religion, nationality, etc. As an Iranian student, I can say that I have already suffered enough from different levels of misunderstandings and misjudgments. I also blame myself since I have also done such things that I don’t proud of. However, as an environmentalist, this trip to Pakistan was a great reminder for me to know that people are the same all over the world in spite of the politician’s struggles! In this trip, Pakistani people taught me to be humble and try for the betterment of your society, which was a great practical lesson that I won’t forget. I decided to not mention any names in this post just to write my experience, but my friends there know how much I respect and miss them. I hope I can see them soon. Even though Pakistan has had rough days in recent years, it’s now flourishing as ALL the people are trying to do their best to make their country a better place, and I want to speak to all of them that you are doing great. You have a great country to which I also feel belonged. You are the best and God Bless you all. It was a great honor for me to be there as a Purdue student and try to represent my university alongside with my other colleagues as it is what we do at Purdue University.

Regards,
Peyman

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Attending the American Society of bone and Mineral Research (ASBMR) annual meeting 2017 in Denver

What I learned from attending academic conferences

Me with my advisor and my lab mate at the American Society of Nutrition meeting 2017 in Chicago.
Me with my advisor and my labmate at the American Society of Nutrition meeting 2017 in Chicago.

Most of us who pursue a graduate level degree know that attending an academic conference is a worthwhile opportunity. Why? An obvious reason is we get to learn new knowledge in the field. From my experience, going to conferences benefits me far beyond this answer.

I do believe that attending a conference provides an excellent platform for professional development. First and for most, it allows us to put ourselves out there and present interesting findings from our research. This can lead to further thought-provoking discussion among us and other scientists in the field. Most of the time, we think and work on our own and it is always productive to have someone with fresh eyes critically share their thoughts on our work as well as what we could do to improve it. In some case, we might interact with someone who is working on a specific area that complements our work. In that case, the discussion can lead to potential future collaborations.

As a young scientist, I found both oral and poster presentation to be very challenging in different ways. An oral presentation is usually 12 minutes long. You have a 10-minute period to tell your story and another 2 minutes to answer questions from the audience.

Giving an oral presentation at the American Society of Nutrition meeting 2017
Giving an oral presentation in the Gene-Diet Interaction Research Interest Group session at the American Society of Nutrition meeting 2017

From my experience, you can excel the presentation part by practicing and putting a lot of thoughts on the flow of the presentation and limit the contents to where your target audience can follow easily in 10 minutes. Knowing your audience is always the most important key to success in a presentation. This is because you would cater the information, details to be included and words you use to suit your audience.

Presentation of my first research project on the impact of dietary calcium and genetics on 3D structure of femoral bone and lumbar spine.
Poster presentation of my first research project on the impact of dietary calcium and genetics on the 3D structure of femoral bone and lumbar spine.

The more difficult part for me is when you need to respond to questions from the audience. Given that I am already nervous to speak in public, I need to think on my feet in order to provide a sound answer to a question which I might not have thought about before. It is definitely challenging, yet helpful for developing my skills in communicating science. And remember, to master a skill, you need to keep practicing it. You might fail many times before you start to feel like you are getting better, BUT that’s a required step of growth 🙂

Apart from the opportunity to present your research, you would get to expand your circle of people who work in the same field and have similar research interests as you. As you can imagine, this is very useful and necessary especially when you are graduating and hoping to secure a job in the near future. Many people, myself included, dread the idea of networking. However, if you see it as an opportunity to getting better at networking (again practice makes perfect!) and you have nothing lose (since you might meet that person only that one time anyway lol). This helps put you in a productive mindset and might boost your confidence to go for it.

Attending Nutrigenomics Workshop at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2016.
Attending Nutrigenomics Workshop at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2016.

Also, networking can be very fruitful at times. Many times I heard stories of people who got their job because a friend of their colleague knew someone that can link that person to his or her future boss. Therefore, it is worth keeping your eyes opened and get to know new people. A couple of times I have met people who have become my good friends until now.

Another thing I appreciated from my experiences going to scientific meetings is I get to learn about a life story of thought leaders in my research area or their path to becoming a great scientist. I found this to be very inspiring and encouraging. Working in research requires a perseverance both mentally and physically. Therefore, it is very easy to fall for failures or failed experiments and feel bad for yourself in the course of Ph.D. study. Hearing how senior successful scientists overcome these challenges and thrive in this type of environment definitely help open my perspective and encourage me to keep working hard and determine to my goal rather than focusing on small setbacks that we inevitably cannot avoid.

Reunited with a friend from my Master's program.
Reunited with a friend from my Master’s program.

In addition to all the skills I earned from attending conferences, it is an opportunity for me to apply for financial support. Most research societies provide a travel grant for graduate students who have outstanding research work to present their work at the meeting. Applying for this type of sponsorship not only will you receive monetary support to attend a meeting, but also get a recognition for your research work which subsequently would enhance your profile in the long run. Besides an external support from meeting organization, I sometimes apply for a financial support from my college. Given that you presenting your work which has been conducted on campus, you help publicize the research quality at your university at the same time. Therefore, you are likely to get a fund from your university to go to a meeting.

Lastly, I enjoyed traveling to a new city as a way to broaden my horizons. Besides that, I get to meet new people as well as reunite with my old friends/colleagues. So I always have a wonderful experience attending a meeting both for my professional development and for my personal fulfillment.

 

 

Airplane view Vancouver

Purdue Will Allow You To Visit Amazing Places!

The Globe

There are very few cities in the world where vibrancy, greenery, innovation, and economic vitality are combined in such a way like in Vancouver. For these reasons this city ranks among the top 10 most livable cities in the world. This less-than-a-million-people city, located in the Province of British Columbia, western Canada, was the host of the 64th Annual meeting of the North American Regional Science Council (NARSC) last November, to which I had the pleasure of attending.

Two other students and I attended this conference to present our research being conducted as part of the Sustainable Transportation Systems Research Group at Purdue, which focuses on transportation planning, energy, and economic development. During my presentation, I got very insightful feedback about my research on regional economic resilience and transportation accessibility. This presentation was also accompanied with an incredible view 22 stories above Vancouver’s downtown streets on a Friday afternoon.

CANA sign

 

I had also the chance to attend other sessions highly relevant to my dissertation. For example, one presentation discussed the role of transportation on the specialization and diversification of cities. At the same time, I had the chance to meet and chat with renowned scholars in my field during coffee breaks or while waiting for the sessions to start.

My friends and I also had the chance to visit some famous landmarks of Vancouver, explore restaurants, and interact with locals. All I can say is that we were sad to leave a city that we came to love in just a few days. I did not leave, however, without getting some bottles of Maple syrup.

Dinner

In summary, this conference’s vibrant and encouraging environment inspired me to continue applying my best efforts towards research and future professional goals. I am also very thankful to the College of Engineering and Purdue University for their support, which allow me to attend this awesome conference. We learned that the Purdue’s reputation and quality of research will not only open doors to academic and technical worlds, but also to an amazing array of experiences around the world.

Purdue Ag Alumni’s Graduate Student Industry Tour: An Eye Opening Experience

During the semester Fall break, Purdue College of Agriculture and Purdue Ag Alumni offered the first Graduate Student Industry tour which highlights some of the great companies in and around Indianapolis and learned about their core businesses, laboratory facilities, and work environments. Fifty graduate students under the College of Agriculture participated on the tour along with some of the faculty members and staffs, including Dr. Barbara L. Golden from Department of Biochemistry and Dr. Shawn S. Donkin from Department of Animal Sciences. The tour was managed by Ag Alumni Program Manager, Danica C. Kirkpatrick.

As an international graduate student, I was very excited to be selected for this tour because just like many students who participated on this tour, I still have a little idea about career opportunities and the day-to-day rhythms of the workplace. Providing students to tour a company helps gain a firsthand knowledge of the technologies and skills apply especially in STEM-related jobs.

The two days tour started on October 9th includes a visit to Dow AgroSciences headquarter, Eli Lily and Company corporate campus, Roche Diagnostics and Indiana Biosciences Research Institute (IBRI). I also attended a poster session and a networking reception at the 2017 BioCrossroads Indiana Life Science Summit. In the networking event, I met with the members of the Indy Science Connect networking organization and industry professionals from companies like Eli Lily, Dow AgroSciences, and Labcyte Inc. I had the opportunity to engage with them in STEM research and think about how I might connect to tech-related jobs post graduation or participate in an internship program. 

With some of the students at the 2017 BioCrossroads Indiana Life Science Summit
With some of the students at the 2017 BioCrossroads Indiana Life Science Summit

This tour has been an eye-opening experience because I was impressed by the diversity of life science ecosystems in Indiana, especially in and around Indianapolis. It was also inspiring to learn from the Purdue alumni and other industry professionals about their journey to building a successful career after leaving the school. On a fun note, I also had the chance to meet new friends and explore the city together. I hope Purdue will keep on supporting such accessible interactive event that will enrich students experience during their graduate studies.

A group picture in front of Dow AgroSciences headquarter (thank you, Jennifer Hale, from Dow AgroSciences for the picture).
A group picture in front of Dow AgroSciences headquarter (thank you, Jennifer Hale, from Dow AgroSciences for the picture).

Due to company policy, taking a picture is not allowed most of the times during the tour but here is some information about the companies to share a bit of excitement about the tour:

Founded in the 1950s, Dow AgroSciences has been a part of Indiana’s agriculture heritage and is one of the biggest companies that develop sustainable chemical and biotechnology solutions for increasing crop productivity. Ely Lily is an American global pharmaceutical company that was founded by Colonel Eli Lily in 1876. They have developed and delivered trusted medicines includes treatments in the areas of oncology, cardiovascular, diabetes, critical care, neuroscience, men’s health and musculoskeletal fields. Roche Diagnostics is a part of the Roche company businesses, one of the largest biotechnologies company in the world. Roche Diagnostics focus on delivering diagnostic solutions to provide sustainable healthcare and improve people’s lives. Meanwhile, IBRI is a relatively new institute founded in 2012 that has a mission to bring world-class research talents to Indiana to enable discovery science and innovation, working in collaboration with academic and industry researcher.

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Jessica Eisma photo

PhD student Jessica Eisma impacts African dams

PhD student Jessica Eisma has completed a one-year project studying sand dams in Tanzania.

In 2016, Eisma was awarded a pair of prestigious research grants — totaling more than $45,000 — from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program and the U.S. Borlaug Fellows in Global Food Security Program to study the ecological impact of sand dams in Tanzania. She flew to Africa in August 2016 to begin her study, which is the basis for her doctoral thesis.

Eisma, whose focus is in hydrology, investigated the ecological impacts of three sand dams in collaboration with researchers from the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology.

In semi-arid regions of the world, sand dams are useful for capturing and storing rainwater into the dry season. The water is used for domestic or agricultural purposes, saving women and children up to three hours each day normally spent collecting the family’s water.

Her research aims to develop an understanding of how sand dams influence both the physical and biological changes that occur after a sand dam is constructed. Preliminary results indicate that a typical sand dam actually has a much smaller impact on groundwater levels than previously believed. Studies thus far have largely been performed on the “ideal” sand dam, when in reality up to 60% of sand dams are silted and therefore non-functioning. Furthermore, Eisma has found little to no trace of macroinvertebrate life in sand dams, hinting that sand dams do not create a suitable habitat.

This research is particularly important, because NGOs across sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly building sand dams, yet few field studies have been conducted to understand the greater impacts of these structures. Eisma says, “As civil engineers, we are constantly addressing the consequences of decisions made when certain concepts were still largely misunderstood. In a similar vein, I hope my research helps illuminate both the positives and negatives of sand dams before over-development occurs.”

Eisma also worked closely with local community water groups to achieve her research objectives. Volunteers from the community were trained by Eisma to take daily measurements of climate data and water table depth as well as bi-weekly erosion measurements. The volunteers will continue collecting data until Eisma returns to Tanzania in December 2017 for a two week data validation trip.

About her year in Tanzania, Eisma says, “The challenges were definitely greater and different from what I was expecting, but I am grateful for the opportunity to learn and conduct research in Tanzania. This experience has been irreplaceable in terms of developing cross-cultural competence and refining my scientific communication skills.”

Eisma plans to pursue a professorship at a research university after completing her PhD at Purdue.