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News from ICTP 86 - Profile



From soccer to science, after years of isolation, Iran is sending signals that it wants to rejoin the world community. A youthful ICTP Diploma student talks about the impact that these changes may have on his life and the lives of millions of other Iranians.


Fields of Dreams


People danced in the streets of Tehran all night long. Dancing is illegal in Iran, but the government did not interfere. For the first time in decades, people were allowed to enjoy themselves in public.

That's how Peyman Khorsand, an ICTP Diploma student in the high energy physics, describes events in Iran's capital city following his soccer team's victory over the United States in this year's World Cup. For Khorsand, the image hints at the changes that he would like to see take place in the years ahead.

"Iranians are dedicated to their culture and religion. But they don't want to be isolated from the rest of the world and they certainly enjoy celebrating their accomplishments. What the majority of people want, I believe, is balance in their lives and now for the first time in a long time, there are some small signs that my nation is willing to move in new directions."

Change and balance have also been major themes in Khorsand's life since he arrived at the Centre in October 1997.

"I'd never been outside of Iran until then. It was both an exciting and difficult decision. My mother was particularly sad because it meant that one of her two sons was leaving her household and wouldn't be returning for a long time. But she knew it was something I had to do."

Khorsand's journey began about a decade earlier in secondary school when his talents in physics first surfaced. "I was not much of a student during my early schooling. I liked playing soccer more than I liked studying," Khorsand recalls. "But when I moved from primary to secondary school, I became fascinated with physics. Excellent teachers helped nurture my interest."

At 17, Khorsand became one of 40 teenagers nationwide--out of a pool of 12,000--honoured as top science students in the selection process for the Physics Olympiad. When the list was pared to 7 he was still on it. Only when it was reduced to the final 5 did he fail to make the cut.

"My teachers had always been encouraging, but I didn't think I was good enough to excel among students nationwide," says Khorsand. "The competition helped build my confidence and make me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in physics." Equally important, as one of Iran's top 7 science students, Khorsand was allowed to enter the university of his choice. He selected Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, which has the nation's best physics department.

"Iranian universities offer excellent teaching, especially for undergraduates," Khorsand explains. "There's often a small group of dedicated professors who spend a great deal of time with their students. Since travel is limited and publication opportunities restricted, teaching takes precedence over research."

Yet, what works on the undergraduate level, carries serious liabilities for those seeking more advanced degrees. "Like the nation itself, scientists working in Iran are isolated from the rest of the world. Communication and interaction are the lifeblood of science. When these forces are short-circuited, research becomes impossible."

For these reasons, Khorsand was delighted to be accepted to ICTP's Diploma Course last autumn. "A poster about the programme had been tacked onto a university bulletin board and a friend of mine urged me to apply. Within a couple of months, I was on an airplane headed toward Trieste. No one was more surprised than me by the turn of events."

Khorsand has made good use of his time at the ICTP. Seifallah Randjbar-Daemi, head of the Centre's High Energy Section, says that he has been one the Diploma Programme's top students-in fact, the only student in his class to graduate with a straight 4.0 grade point average. Khorsand, who has completed a thesis on string theory, has been accepted to Northeastern University in the United States where he plans to pursue a doctorate degree in physics beginning this autumn. "That's where I'll go, if visa arrangements can be worked out."

"Right now, more Iranian-born physicists with advanced degrees work in foreign countries than in their homeland," says Khorsand. "Most, I believe, would come back if they were assured of reasonable working conditions. That's what I would like to do when I complete my studies."

"Perhaps what happened on the World Cup soccer field in France and then the streets of Tehran this summer will mark the beginning of changes that will slowly ripple across Iran and allow people to pursue lives that don't require them to make uneasy choices between their families and careers. I know I echo the sentiments of many Iranians when I say that's the hope for the future."

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