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Interview with Feridun Hamdullahpur

Updated: Sep 9, 2020


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Journalists: Romina Mahinpei, Kian Kousha



Kian: Hi, I'm Kian.


Romina: And I'm Romina.


Kian: And you're listening to SciSection 93.3 CFMU.


Romina: We are here today with two guests: Dr. Feridun Hamdullahpur, who is the President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Waterloo as well as an engineer and a professor of mechanical engineering, and Mr. David Tubbs, who is the Associate Director and Executive Communications at the University of Waterloo. Thank you for joining us today Dr. Hamdullahpur and Mr. Tubbs.


Dr. Hamdullahpur: Pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me here.

Mr. Tubbs: Same here.


Romina: So just to start, we do have two rapid fire questions. Firstly, here's one of your role models in the scientific community.


Dr. Hamdullahpur: It's such a difficult question because there are so many, but in my professional career, Hermann Schlichting, a German scientist who made me love fluid mechanics, fluid dynamics, and turbulence. So, he is the reason why I chose what I chose, to deepen my studies. There are others: Madame Curie. She is a fantastic role model, winning two Nobel prizes and her story, every student should read whether they are a science student or not. It is an incredible story. But we have our own fabulous people: Arthur MacDonald, who is a Nobel Prize winner in physics, who established the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, one of the scientific jewels in Canada. Fabulous, fabulous role model and of course from Waterloo, Raman Laflamme, who made me understand quantum science, quantum physics even though he is not the first person pioneer, but my gosh, he is the person who put Canada on the map when it came to quantum science, quantum physics. So those are my (role models) in a very quick way. My idols, my role models in science.


Kian: That sounds awesome. And what do you think has been one of the most important discoveries of all time - scientific discoveries?


Dr. Hamdullahpur: You know what I'm going to mix science and engineering a little together. To me, you will think all kinds of things, but to me, the most important discovery in our history is the transformer: a voltage transformer. Everything else you can think of (like) electrifying the whole world and being able to do things that we can do because we have electricity is thanks to a transformer, without which we will never be able to transmit electricity, the current from one location to another. That one (the transformer), it has enabled us to electrify the whole world. To me, it is the most important scientific discovery.


Romina: For sure, it definitely has made a lot of significant contributions. That's definitely true. And now moving on to your profession, Dr. Hamdullahpur, could you give us a summary of your educational path and how it led you to where you are today?


Dr. Hamdullahpur: I am a curious person. I really am. I remember, finally my teacher (in) elementary schools saying that, I don't know stop asking me questions. But I had this enormous thirst and I wanted to learn more. I was learning I was curious about things. But at the same time, I had the ability to write to David's surprise, I won a literacy award, a story writing award, when I was in elementary school, so I still wonder whether I could have gone the other way. But my curiosity kind of brought me to a juncture before going to university (for) engineering or medicine, I decided to do engineering for a variety of reasons. But it was for one week actually, I attended both schools and then decided I will do engineering. And I just loved it. I loved it. But I always thought to myself, I'm going to study for four years, I'm going to become the best engineer I could be and then I will go out and practice my engineering. I had no desire for any of these studies, until I met from books of course, not personally Hermann Schlichting and the subject of fluid mechanics. And my first experience in the laboratory that I'm actually measuring things using tubes and different things. So, it changed my view from I will not go to advanced studies to I think I may be interested in doing my Master's degree. But I graduated. I went outward for a little bit and I said no, I'm going to go back, and I did my Master’s and I said well, this is where I draw the line. I did my Master’s now I can go back and work but that inquisitivity. I could not satisfy my curiosity in my professional work because I was doing neat things, but I was not creating new knowledge. And at that point, I wanted to follow my passion, my low hidden you know, locked away passion: combining engineering and medicine together. So, I just started my PhD work in hemodynamics where I was studying the blood in arteries, so fluid mechanics, arteries and I was studying this disease called atherosclerosis or hardening of arteries. So, I did that, I did defend it. But I then moved to Canada. I entered into something completely different. So, here's the person who said I was never going to do any advanced studies after undergraduate, ended up doing two PhD topics, and since then, I love my research. It is an integral part of my life. I don't teach now. I have not been in a classroom for a long time because of my administrative career, but I have never given up my research. I've always had doctoral students, I'm publishing, so that part keeps me alive. It makes my brain, you know, work in a different direction and the 25th or 26th or 27th hour I find in my day, but this is in a quick nutshell, this has been my pathway in my academic research career. And then you may want to ask, so why are you doing what you're doing now like administrative work. That's another story of course we could talk about some other time.


Kian: That was such an interesting journey into becoming who you are today. And for sure, being at your position right now did not happen easily. A lot of us students usually get fascinated by success, the end product, without knowing all the challenges that were faced along the way. So, can you tell us about some of the challenges that you faced as a student?


Dr. Hamdullahpur: Challenges (are) always the presence of the unknown. Presence of, you know, "what if"? The presence of certain things that is within your reach, and it's a low hanging fruit. It's easy to get and you're tempted to do this, which I did a couple of times, but immediately I said, this is too routine, too easy. I can picture my entire life rolling out in front of my eyes if I took this pathway. What are the unknowns? So, all the unknowns, like, you know, hey, I started this study, I have no idea where it's going to go or if it's going to go anywhere. I have no idea, while my friends who were working in the industry, making good salaries, whether I'll have enough money to buy myself a new pair of shoes. And I had no idea when I decided that my research ambition and career is kind of pulling me to go to another country that I had no idea, speak a different language that, you know, is different from your mother tongue and all of these things. They were challenges. They were never roadblocks. On the contrary, they've enabled me to think beyond what may be possible and to make me very, you know, a resilient person by, you know, hey, I have to cook for myself but I have no idea how to do that other than cracking eggs, my entire life, but now I have to figure it out to I could live with working on a problem for two weeks non-stop. And then all of a sudden in the middle of your sleep, you jump out and say I got it. So, it makes you resilient. It doesn't stop you and you won't give up. So, the personal aspect of your life actually is very much reflected in how you see for your research or how you see that you want your students to be successful, you don't give up on them. You always remember that it is the reason why you are here for them because of them. Therefore, you have to do everything possible whatsoever (so) that they learn at the highest level. So those are all intermingled, but again, I am glad that I had those challenges (and) issues in my life. I wouldn't be here talking to you at this moment had I not had those difficulties. Everything has just been put in front of me on a golden platter.


Romina: For sure, thank you for sending that message out there too, because I feel like as students, we often look at challenges with a negative light, but they really can help you grow as a person and I think it's just about the mindset of going into that challenge with a positive mindset and getting something out of it. So, thank you for sending that message out because I'm sure a lot of students with the whole online courses coming along are facing a lot of challenges. And talking about remote learning, what do you think are some of the benefits and drawbacks of remote learning for students this year?


Dr. Hamdullahpur: I think remote learning is a very important component of the total learning picture. It's incredibly powerful that you bring a technology as one of the components of your learning. It's very efficient, effective, but for a lot of other things... (For example) I am really enjoying our interaction right now, I will probably be enjoying it 200% more if we were doing this, you know, across from my desk. Why? It enables me to read your reaction better (and) the same for you. And there is a lot of interactivity, okay, that takes place. When you walk into a class as you are listening to the lecture, maybe a fellow student next to you will say, Oh, where did that come from? All of a sudden, your understanding of the subject matter has changed. I'm making these up but there are so many pieces that if you are able to combine remote learning, and also you don't have to write notes like crazy because you can review the lecture later and that's great, but if you can combine it with the in-person presence, that at last moment a question just as the professor leaving the classroom and say, Hey, what about this and the professor turns and then you have another 10 minutes of in depth conversation. So those kinds of things. Of course, the teaching and learning does not just happen in a physical classroom environment. It happens in many other places, the corridors, you're having your dinner with, you know, all kinds of things. So, I think, a presence in this intellectually stimulating environment that we call our university campuses and using the technology to its absolute highest level is the best environment we can provide to our students.


Kian: That sounds great. And I'm sure that the students can definitely use that advice to manage their courses during this pandemic, especially those students who are just coming to university and experiencing university.


Dr. Hamdullahpur: Let me give you one example. When I went to university, five of us, we always studied together. For every class, we would take turns, only one of us would take notes. The other four would just sit and listen. We irritated our professors because they thought that we weren't paying attention. Actually, we're paying more attention by not taking notes, because somebody else was taking notes, and we'll copy it from him afterwards. This was our low-tech solution.


Kian: Right! So, my next question is going to be related to your role as the President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Waterloo. It might be a tough question, but what has been your proudest moment at Waterloo so far?


Dr. Hamdullahpur: This is not a cliche question. At every convocation, I am immensely proud of the accomplishment of our students. I really mean it. Some of my colleagues say how can you do all these convocations, so many ceremonies I said, it is the climax of my (career). It is what we are harvesting, what we have planted, and took us four years, five years, nine years for some PhD’s but that's my proudest moment of our students. If you say just give one specific "this is wonderful" I will say the morning that I got a phone call that Donna Strickland, our professor of physics, had won the Nobel Prize. I think that was an incredibly proud moment for me.


Kian: Yes, I had a chance to meet with Dr. Strickland at McMaster University because she did her undergrad at McMaster and that was also an amazing moment for me, just to meet with her and talk to her.


Dr. Hamdullahpur: You know how much she also loves talking to students and inspiring them.


Kian: Exactly.


Romina: And I'm sure that was definitely a moment a lot of Canadians are proud of as well. Just hearing that news. It really was such amazing news to hear for all Canadians.


Dr. Hamdullahpur: More than that, actually, all Canadians and a lot of scientists. Like in 60 or 70 or how many years since a woman winning a Nobel Prize in Physics, it's just remarkable. That's (also) why Madame Curie is very special to me.


Romina: Definitely! And just because we are a bit short on time, we do have one final question for you. What advice would you give to undergraduate students for this upcoming academic year?


Dr. Hamdullahpur: I would say do not (lessen) your level of enthusiasm regardless of however, you know, whichever mode you're going to be taken (online or in-person).


Dr. Hamdullahpur: You are starting your studies at an incredibly exciting, great time. Think of yourself as a person who will provide enormous value and leadership to this. That's when you're entering your university education. Enjoy it to its maximum. Do not worry about it.

Dr. Hamdullahpur: It's not going to be like oh, rose gardens (easy). Learn from it, get stronger because the world needs you and enjoy every moment of it. That will be my advice.


Romina: And that does bring us to the end of the interview. Dr. Hamdullahpur and Mr. Tubbs, thank you once again for joining us today and for highlighting the importance of science and motivating students for the upcoming academic year. And for everyone listening make sure to check out SciSection's podcasts available on global platforms for our latest interviews.


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