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Personal Note On Migration

Iranian Professor At University Of Ottawa


Ottawa – Mina Rahimi

مینا رحیمی
Mina Rahimi

Saman Alavi is Adjunct Professor at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of British Columbia and Ottawa and acts as a Scientific Evaluator at Health Canada. After obtaining his PhD from the University of British Columbia, he spent research periods in the National Research Council of Canada, at Oklahoma State University (USA) and the University of Ottawa (Canada).

He has authored over 120 scientific publications on molecular simulations of different classes of materials. His academic book “Molecular Simulations: Fundamentals and Practice” which will be out in March 2020, elaborates on methods for computer modelling of chemical substances and materials. As a reporter of  Titre magazine, i had a chance to interview such prominent Iranian professor.  during this interview, Dr. Saman Alavi shared some distant memories with us as well as the path he followed to be here now. He answered all my questions with patience and raised some topics that are worth reading.

  • What is the major of your studies?


  • Which universities did you study at? (In Iran and other countries)

I got my B.Sc. at Shiraz University, my M.Sc. at Isfahan University of Technology and my Ph.D. at University of British Columbia.

  • When did you come to Canada?

 I arrived in Canada in 1994.

Dr Alavi delivering his speech at a conference regarding materials for future energy uses
  • What was the biggest problem you encountered as an Iranian when you first arrived in Canada?

For me the biggest problem was not English language, but difficulty on non-verbal communication and getting used to subtle cultural differences between Iran and Canada. People interact very differently here and for example, politeness in Iran can be misunderstood as weakness.

  • What advice do you have for those who have the same problem?

My recommendation for everyone is to observe careful how people interact with each other in Canada and try to learn from that to succeed better in the workplace or university. It took me a long time to realize that interpretations of behavior can be different and even now sometimes I have to remind myself that I am interacting with someone from Canada and not Iran. So, for example, I have to be more direct in expressing opinions when talking to Canadian and not to do Iranian “Taarof”, etc.

Taarof is a Persian word which refers to an Iranian form of civility or art of etiquette that emphasizes both deference and social rank. Taarof is “uniquely Iranian” and tend to understand it as a ritual politeness that levels the playing field and promotes equality in a hierarchical culture. Taarof between friends, or a host and guest, emphasizes the value of friendship as a priority to everything else in the world. Another understanding is that taarof is a way of managing social relations with decorous manners.

For example, in Iranian culture, whoever walks through a doorway first gets a form of status, but the person who makes the other go through the door first also gains status by having made the other person do it through their show of grace and deference. When it comes to matters of rank, “one defers to superiors (tribute), and confers on inferiors (favor), presses honor on equals (neither tribute nor favor) or accepts the honor from a proper source, and thereby “wins”. Status is relative for individuals in different interactions, according to Beeman, and rights and obligations shift constantly with changes in social environments.

cover of an academic book, written by Dr. Saman Alavi and will be out in March of 2020
  • What was the most interesting memory you had as a newcomer?

The most interesting experience for me was how a Canadian family volunteered to take me as a new incoming student in their home and provided me a place to stay for a few days until I found a residence. I did not need to get a hotel when I first arrived and hot a lot of good initial advice from them. They did this every year! It was totally voluntary on their part and they got no financial compensation. They just enjoyed getting to know students from different parts of the world.

  • How did you become a university professor? Was there another job you were interested in?

I am actually an adjunct professor. I have always loved doing scientific research and teaching / mentoring students and keeping a connection with the university allowed me to do this, at the same time when I have a governmental job in Ottawa. 

  • Do you have teaching experience in Iran? How do you compare it to your teaching experience in Canada?

I taught for about 2.5 years at Isfahan University of Technology. The teaching style is different here as there are rarely specific textbooks for courses (specially advanced courses) and so students have to depend on different sources to find material. Students are expected to learn more on their own here. 

With a research group in Keio University in Japan which I collaborate with
  • What advice do you have for students coming from Iran to study in Canada or this university?

Be very careful in choosing a research advisor and make sure the expectations of the advisor are very clear for you in the lab. Try to become independent in the lab as soon as possible and do not wait for people to ask you to do things. Be proactive without the professor having to give you direct instruction as soon as possible. 

  • Do you suggest anyone to travel abroad to study in this field? Or is it acceptable to study and work in Iran?

It is possible to study Chemistry in Iran up to the PhD level and there are some very good professors there. However, the lab facilities and also possibility of interacting with many other expert researchers in the field make it appealing to do the advanced degree here. Library and learning resources are also much more available here and it is much easier to attend conferences. 

  • Basic science disciplines usually lead to teaching in Iran. Is there a different working environment in Canada?

In the sciences, there are some non-university options for graduates but this may involve going to work in areas outside your initial expertise. 

  • What do you think you would have done as a job if you had stayed in Iran?

I would probably be teaching at a university. 

With some colleagues in the University of Missouri
  • What do you think is the major difference between Iranian students who came to Canada in recent years and Iranian students of your time?

The students coming now are much more familiar with available electronic resources and with life outside of Iran because of the internet. Some of them have also good research experience. 

  • What do you think of the university you teach at?

It is generally a strong university, but for graduate work, the advisor is probably the most important determining factor. 

  • If you want to make a change in the educational system of this university, what do you think is the priority? (Courses, Topics, Student Selection, etc.)

Students are strong in some aspect of their education in our field, but quantitative skills like mathematics or generally understanding numbers needs greater work. 

  • Do you also read Persian books?

Sometimes I read Farsi books. 

  • What is the latest Persian book you read or what is your favorite book?

The last book I read was about Satire and Irony in the works of Sadegh Hedayat.

Sadegh Hedayat (February 17, 1903 in Tehran – April 9, 1951 in Paris) was an Iranian writer, translator and intellectual. Best known for his novel The Blind Owl, he was one of the earliest Iranian writers to adopt literary modernism in their career.

  • In recent years, the Iranian community has become more active due to widespread migration. Do you participate in the programs that are being held? Including concert, movies and plays coming from Iran to perform in Canada.

I sometimes participate in Iranian cultural events. Ottawa has some very dedicated organizers for events and very good concerts. Poetry readings, nowrouz gathering, etc. are held there regularly which I attend with my family. 

  • What are your personal non-academic interests?

I am interested in history and enjoy hiking and bird-watching.



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