On the path from a refugee to a scientist: Adaptability, motivation, and naive fantasies about understanding the universe

Arash Azhand

Already as a young boy, around the age of ten, I was very curious-minded. I remember that I was always keen to understand how things function, be it mechanical like cars and airplanes or natural like plants, animals and humans.

At that time, back around 1990, I lived in Kabul, Afghanistan. My father, who had studied engineering, was working for the Afghan government in different positions over the years. My mother had studied Persian Literature and was a teacher and school director. Hence, my siblings and I lived a very privileged middle-class life. We were always encouraged by our parents to pursue an excellent education. Thus, it is not very surprising that I had the possibility to learn and be curious.

Unfortunately, the turmoil of political chaos and war in Afghanistan during the early 1990s vaulted us into a refuge away from Afghanistan at this time when I was twelve years old, completely changing our lives. We left Afghanistan in early 1992 and after months in Moscow, Russia, and Budapest, Hungary, we eventually came to Berlin, Germany. That time of refuge was not easy for a young boy of my age. We were on travel for months, never really knowing what the future will bring, everything uncertain. Yesterday being in your native country, going to school, playing football with your friends. Today being in a completely new country, not understanding the language, everything is completely different. Tomorrow being unknown, where will you be, will everything be okay for you and your family?

Now, more than 28 years later, I wonder if that period of uncertainty at such a young age shaped my mindset. Maybe it was this tumultuous life that impelled my mind to develop in ways that it wouldn’t have otherwise. The uncertainty can push you to adapt faster, particularly at such a young age. Once settled in Germany, knowing that this will be our new long-term residence, I immediately started to learn the language. I had the intangible desire to grasp everything as fast as possible.

After settling in Germany, I was sent to middle school. Again, my brain had to adapt fast, since I had to learn the German language as well as English and French in parallel with the normal school material. I became an incredible book nerd at that time, absorbing a dozen of books that I would borrow from the public library every month. Initially, I was not very picky about the genre. I read novels and non-fiction books of all kind. Surely, my love relation with books helped me a lot in learning the German language.

As a consequence of reading anything that came before my curious eyes, I eventually stumbled onto popular science books. Particularly, books about Astronomy and Cosmology fascinated me. It must have been one of these awe-inspiring cosmology books that had a lasting impression on my mind. As of this special moment reading this book, I had the definitive feeling that I would become a scientist. In a sense, it felt like one of those singular moments in our lives when we experience that sudden stream of motivation deep inside of us. One moment before, it was not there, but now it feels so natural as if it was destined to be so and no way else.

Arash (left) and his siblings in one of their first winters in Germany (early to mid 1990s)

It is difficult to describe this feeling now, more than 25 years later, with words. Yet, it was like a bifurcation point in life. It is as if you’ve been living in a small dark room your whole life and suddenly the surrounding walls of the room temple down. Now you can see for the first time what is behind the walls. A world full of novel colors unfolds before your eyes, peculiar sounds enter your ears for the first time. With small shaky steps you enter the new and unknown territory, but eventually you’re out of the previous limiting space and you’ll never look back.

The feeling of inner purpose for becoming a scientist, however, was not sharpened at that specific moment, nor was it directed towards any specific scientific career. I was simply fascinated by the sheer grandiosity of cosmological phenomena, such that I felt the desire to understand them in their entirety. What a naive and innocent fantasy! Still, we should not ridicule such a child-like imagination, since this naive fantasy is a major ingredient for being genuinely persistent on the path to a scientific career. You can do all your homework, you can read the required books, you can always practice the crafts of the profession. But the question at the end of the day is always how you handle the negative setbacks, within your inner self.

When my dear friend Elias asked me to write about my path to science and how I managed my PhD, it took me quite a while to sort out what I wanted to say. For sure I should start with the school time, I told myself. Then, in a chain of defined causal events I would explain how and when I came to the decision to study Physics, henceforth provide information on my PhD decision, summarize then what the topic of my PhD was, and so on …

Then again, what is this all good for? Why write all the same boring curriculum vitae type text again and again, and foolishly expect to tell something novel and helpful. No, that is not the core answer to the question why you and I might successfully follow a path of many hardships, at the end of which the PhD is awarded to us. The much more interesting questions are those focusing on the whys and hows, not the whats. Why did I not give up on getting a general qualification for university admission after failing 10th grade? Why did I instead not take the decision to leave school after then succeeding 10th grade, for an education in the skilled crafts and trades. Such questions arise at each moment in life when we experience negative setbacks. Later, during the studies at university, you may face seemingly unsolvable situations. A particular course may appear as your invincible nemesis. Nevertheless, we might be able to surpass this and other challenges. But how?

For me that question can only be answered by inner motivation, which was the key to most decisions that I had to make regarding my scientific career. When I failed 10th grade and asked myself if I should pursue school until having qualification for university admission, or instead leave school for a profession in the crafts, the imagination motivated me to pursue the former. When later I had major difficulties to grasp advanced mathematics for physicists in university, again the imagination motivated me to persist on the path. Eventually, when I experienced setbacks during my PhD, once again the early imagination of me being a scientist motivated me to follow the path to the end.

This is my story. This is how I did finish my PhD in Theoretical Physics. This is how I became who I am and where I am now, as the leading Researcher and Artificial Intelligence Scientist at a promising startup in the health care area. So, my one major advice for those who really want to achieve a PhD in the Sciences is this: Seek this first seed of inner motivation that was planted by an influencing experience in your mind and brought you to the Sciences in the first place. This will be the light which will show you the way whenever you are at a bifurcation point in life and don’t know what to do next. 

As Chief Artificial Intelligence Scientist at Lindera, Dr. Arash Azhand leads the research and development of modern AI algorithms, particularly in Computer Vision, for applications in the Health Industry.

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