Sunday, June 4, 2023

An invitation to a serious life

The story of how an Iranian woman has scaled the corporate and social ladder.

There are reports here and there about the shining presence of Iranian scientists in international circles and the success they have pulled off in science and research, but when it comes to air transportation few people know that the first woman who got a Ph.D. in aerospace is the very person whose invention in college years made her Iran’s top student of mechanical engineering.

Today she is the director of Training and Human Resources Development at the Iranian Civil Aviation Organization, head of Iran Air Aviation Training Center, deputy managing director of Iran Air, and a legal expert who arbitrates disputes among airlines. She is also a professor at Amir Kabir University of Technology and Shahid Sattari University of Aeronautical Engineering.

Zan-e Rooz (Today’s Woman) weekly, a publication of Kayhan Institute which is run by Hossein Shariatmadari, featured an interview in its 2431st issue with Farzaneh Sharafbafi about the path she has taken and her goals. What comes below is an excerpt of the interview:

How come you developed an interest in this field?

Basically, a child’s character forms at an early age, between 10 and 12, when s/he faces questions about their future job. When I was a child I would repair home appliances on the fritz. My family provided me with the opportunity to learn through trial and error. I could fix all devices […] and I was very much interested in technical issues. That I could repair the vacuum cleaner prompted my parents to call me “The Engineer” at home. I started with simple things.

My dad was a physics professor at Sharif University and this helped me see many lab tests objectively. I had some inventions like airbag shoes under which I had placed a pair of spring to help the wearer jump higher […]

I was always an active student in school and took extracurricular courses. When I was admitted to university, I wanted to change the world. […] As a young girl, I used to buy tools I needed for my studies instead of what other girls would purchase. I used to sit up to study and at times I would stop reading only after hearing the call for morning prayers. […] I was admitted to Sharif University to study shipbuilding.

Right then mechanical engineering had two subdivisions: aerospace and shipbuilding. The latter was not all that popular among women because its job prospects were dim.

I consulted with a university professor telling him I wanted to study fluid mechanics. He let me know that women were allowed to take up aerospace. That was what I did. […] At first it was hard for others to accept me as an aerospace student and my admission dropped a bombshell at the university. I was ahead of my classmates because I’d tried many things before. […]

What was the focus of your undergraduate thesis?

I chose a scientific topic and went so far as building a plane wing. It turned out to be a good one. […] I built the parts needed for the plane wing all by myself; I tried to learn machining because I wanted to build it all by myself. It was not easy to make a part. Thanks to my thesis, I finished first in mechanical engineering in Iran. […] It all happened when I was pregnant with my first child.

Wasn’t it difficult for you to continue as an expecting mom?

When PCs made their debut in Iran, I had to buy a computer to keep pace with the world’s latest technologies. We weren’t well-off. Instead of buying the items I needed for the coming baby, I bought a PC. It was when I was hired by Iran Air. […] There we were trying to make something to cushion the blow of landing when the plane touched down.

We found a plane, disassembled its wheels and collected the needed items from different places. […] Humans can develop a better sense of appreciation through touching something than just talking about it. I wanted to go ahead and build the item. We did it but we worked our fingers to the bone, so to speak. […]

My first kid was 40 days old when I started my master’s program. Later I became a Ph.D. student in Sharif University. I never skipped class. I attended my first class two days after I gave birth to my second kid. That day when I arrived late, the professor asked where I had been. “I just gave birth to a kid,” I answered. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Normally a woman stays home ten days after delivery. But it was not the case with me.

What did you work on for your Ph.D. thesis?

I studied aircraft structures for MS. I pursued my studies in fracture mechanicsat the PhD level. It deals with a part when it breaks as a result of aging. I picked that since I was working at Iran Air and I could see firsthand that the planes were aging. I wanted to solve this problem.

I wondered if I could find the cause of such breakage and prove it mathematically. It took me about three and a half years to complete it. […]

As for the air industry, I’m seeking to find self-healing parts for planes, something which can repair itself in case of malfunctioning. This may sound hard to believe, but it could be done if we think outside the box. We can copy the models God has placed in nature, for instance, human skin which has a self-healing ability. I floated the idea in a conference. I’m still following that. […]

When I proved the math equation, I was told that I couldn’t release it in Iran and I had to have an essay released through the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) before getting my Ph.D. I was also told I had to find a foreign professor to register the equation under his/her name. Earlier I had sent an essay to England where a gentleman released it in his own name! I didn’t want to repeat that experience.

I had bad feelings because nobody supported me and I was about to miss a deadline to complete my Ph.D. program. I couldn’t register the work under another person’s name either. Finally I found a place in England which accepted to assess the essay for £600. My husband paid for it and my essay was accepted.

I was asked to go there and personally prove the case. It was a tough situation. I had no visa and it wasn’t an easy job to get to England in a few days. Furthermore, the conference was to be held in Southampton, which was quite a distance from London. At last, I secured my visa after going through many hardships and my husband and I went there. […]

When I arrived at the conference hall having the Islamic covering on, all participants surprisingly asked me, “Have you come from Iran?” and I said yes. They didn’t expect to see me there. An Israeli man who was a full professor was in the front row. He would ask anyone presenting their article two very difficult questions.

I solved the math problem to the best of my knowledge and ended my speech on time. It earned me an almost one-minute standing ovation. When I was asked what my final words were, I turned to the Israeli man and told him that I was ready to answer his questions, if any. “No need for that since everything was perfect,” he said. I felt a sense of pride for the honor I had earned for my homeland.

Do you write poems too?

Yes. I have two books to be printed: a book of poetry and a novel. When I wanted to tell my children bedtime stories, I would go for adventure stories and at the same time try to convey ethical points to them. The story book I’ve written is full of ethical points and morals. I’ve taken them from folkloric stories to provide children with instructive tales. […]


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