Ladan Arissian is a professor at the University of Ottawa, a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada, and one of the authors of the book “Lasers: Power and Precision of Light” and the author of several articles in this field. She has a history of studying and researching in the United States and Canada, and believes that despite the positive steps that have been taken to achieve the rights of women lost in various societies, women have not yet reached their true status. In an interview with the Titre online magazine, the prominent Iranian professor describes her experiences as a woman, as a researcher and as a university professor and the problems she has struggled with over the years which can be a guide for women in different fields who work professionally.
How did you immigrate to Canada?
I received my bachelor’s degree in physics at Sharif University and my master’s degree in condensed matter physics at Shahid Beheshti University. I also received a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in the field of medical radiation from the Science and Research Branch of the Azad University, and then went to the University of New Mexico in the United States for a master’s degree and a doctorate in optical physics and I then had a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Texas at A&M under the supervision of this university and the National Research Council Canada. After that, I went to teach at the University of New Mexico. I came to Canada twice, once in 2008 for a postdoctoral fellowship for two years, and then in 2012 because of family issues and I have lived here since then.
What has been the hardest part of migration for you?
Although I immigrated to Canada twice, the second immigration was more difficult than the first. In immigration, the level of readiness and open vision is very important to face unknown issues. In the first immigration, it was easier for me to accept the unknown, but in the second immigration, I deduced that I knew where I was going. An important issue in immigration is curiosity, observation, and lack of prejudice about the new environment. The more prejudiced you are, the harder immigration would be. This made it harder for me to immigrate to Canada. This difficulty was also due to the people’s behaviors and of course, homesickness. Homesickness is the first thing that happens to immigrants and there is no cure for that and perhaps accepting that there is no cure for homesickness is the best way to deal with it. The hardest part for me was the human part of immigration.
How long did it take for these problems to be resolved?
Everyone is dealing with this problem in some way. Some people try to forget the problem to solve it for themselves, but for me, accepting the problem was the best solution. This is not a weakness. In my opinion, our biggest problem is ignoring our pains. There are changes that are associated with pain, and accepting these pains is the best way to deal with them. Social issues, culture, language, and attitudes are different, and the more curious and observant a person is, the faster he or she will find his or her way. I expected Canada to be like the United States, but everywhere has its own culture, and discovering the rules will help solving that problem. Of course, there was also the problem of cold weather. This weather was very unusual for me. It took about a year or two to resolve these issues.
Do you remember the most interesting things that happened to you here?
My most interesting memories of early immigration, both in Canada and in the United States, were that I met someone by chance, and that person talked to me about Iranian films she or he had seen while I didn’t expect them. Or once we were invited to the house of an American doctor and we saw that he had put cucumbers and mint in the yogurt, which he had learned from his father who had a trip to Iran. In Canada, one of my professors invited me to his house and put some traditional Iranian music on for me. These were surprising moments for me.
How did you become interested in teaching and research?
It’s true that I have been doing research, but I did different things in life. I don’t think it makes a difference what kind of title a person has. It doesn’t matter whether you are a university professor or a government researcher or you are working for a company. I don’t see much difference between these titles. But I love researching with young people and getting to know new ideas. This title allows you to discover new things, connect with educated people and be curious. I was a teacher at Farzanegan school in Iran and the best years of my life were when I was teaching at this school. After that, I taught in some universities and other educational centers. It has always been interesting for me to teach and communicate with students. I was mostly in contact with graduate students, and teaching in this area is more educational.
What is the difference between teaching and researching in Iran and in Canada?
My teaching experience in Iran was very interesting. In fact all my teaching experiences were good. The teaching I had in Iran was mostly theoretical, while when I came to Canada everything was empirical. It was not possible to model and complete a research in Iran at that time, and most of the works were simulation. Iranian students have very strong theoretical knowledge because they had very good mathematical foundation. Another difference is that the culture of teamwork in our time in Iran was not strong. This is very effective in high-level research, because no matter how smart a person is, if he works alone, he will lose the advantage of teamwork. In Canada, projects have been designated and professors who have received funding for the project, must implement it and be accountable to it. I rarely saw this in Iran. Here the work must reach the product.
What advice do you have for Iranian students who came to Canada or this University to study?
Perhaps the advice for students is also for immigrants. I think immigration as a student is the most ideal situation for immigration. Because they enter a society from the best environment. There is variety in this environments and they are usually like a game environments, where there is the possibility of errors and learning. Therefore, because the environment is an educational environment, they should make the best use of it, not only to learn professional subjects, but also to learn the social and cultural aspects of that society. What is always challenging for immigrants is defining principles and habits. There are things that can change, and we thought they were principles but they were habits, and there are times when we lose things, which are our principles because we want to be aligned with the community. Principles are different for each individual.
For one person, religion may be the principle, for another, culture might be the one. A line must be drawn between principles and habits. We do not have to be absorbed in every society. Sometimes we forget our principles when it comes to success. But sometimes there are things that are habitual and can change. So you have to be smart and learn. Another problem is being afraid of making mistakes. In our time, students were afraid of making mistakes, and that made us unable to even ask questions. For example, my professor once told me that you ask a question only when you know the answer. We need to be positive, ask questions and make mistakes, not be afraid of making mistakes and not be isolated, and make learning as our priority.
What is your field of research?
Today, laser and optics are the most delicate tools for anything in the world, they are used in surgery, machinery and equipment production, etc. My research field is to achieve the highest precision in optics. We can measure time precisely using laser and atoms energy levels. My previous work included deviating lightning strikes, generating laser with nitrogen in the air, electrical discharge of clouds, cloud formation and snow and rain control, and laser-detection of distant materials.
Is it possible to continue studying in this field in Iran?
As for my field of study, there is no specific equipment and facilities in Iran, so if someone is interested in this particular field, they can travel to another country. My field is very practical and there are different companies that work in the field of photonics and there are diverse job opportunities. This field usually doesn’t lead to teaching because most of the work is practical, and teaching is one of its futures that is usually associated with research. Graduates of this field can work in public or private companies. Of course, in Iran, in addition to teaching, in the field of laser and optics, research activities is also pursued.
What do you think you would do now if you stayed in Iran?
The year I was a teacher in Iran was so amazing that I would probably continue to be a teacher if I stayed in Iran. Of course, I also worked for a few companies in Iran for a short time.
What do you think is the main difference between Iranian students who came to Canada in recent years and Iranian students of your time?
This is a difficult question because I can only answer according to the limited number of examples I have seen. Generation gap in Iran is huge. But here a grandmother is not much different from her granddaughter. But in Iran there is a great difference between two generations. I think sense of fear of making mistake is less in the new generation, which is very good. Our generation had more scientific and theoretical knowledge, because we used to study more. But on the other hand, we may have been more afraid of making mistakes. But this cannot be generalized. Of course, the new generation is more ready because of more internet access.
As a woman, how do you see the conditions for studying and teaching and research?
Being a woman is not easy for a researcher in any country. It seems that women are given the same opportunities as men, but this is not the case. Because there are tough situations that stop women. I have experienced many of the hardships that women face in this path. Maybe this created an exceptional opportunity for me to get through all of them. Maybe I wanted to publish more articles, but given the hardships I went through, I consider myself a successful person because I was able to be a woman the way I wanted to be. It was my choice to have a family and work at the same time. I have two children, one was born in the United States and the other in Canada. I was alone with my child and working in the United States for two years. I think men sow seeds on plowed land, but women have to prepare the rocky soil for sowing. Canadian society has also shown that it is not very supportive of women. Of course, positive steps have been taken in this direction.
What do you think about the University of Ottawa and its strengths and weaknesses?
I think the University of Ottawa is very strong and developing in this field. I think the educational system is changing dramatically. Previously, education was based on the transmission of information, which is not possible today. One of the problems that Ottawa has from school level to university level is that it is difficult for them to accept the language, and because the French language is in the minority, it has a special privilege. In general, the whole educational system is changing, because the generation we are training must be ready for the next 20 years, and the capabilities that the next 20 years will need are very different.
Do you read Persian books?
I read Persian books for children every day. Of course, I myself also read Persian books, but because I don’t have enough time, I often can’t finish them. I have focused most of my attention on my children to learn Persian and I am very happy that my daughter, although she has never been to Iran, has finished third grade and can read and write in Persian.
Which of Iranian cultural programs do you participate in that are held in Ottawa?
I participate in all Iranian programs that are suitable for my children. We don’t have much time for our children due to our profession, so if there is a program, my priority is a program that is suitable for children and can transfer Iranian culture to them. Most of the people I am in contact with are Iranians, and Ottawa provides that opportunity, but I interact with people who can communicate with my children. That’s why my priority has always been my children so that I can make good memories for them with Iranian culture. Last year, I participated in the Yalda night program for children. Also, last year’s Nowruz program was held at the university, where I participated with my daughter. This year, if there is a good program, I will participate.
What are your personal non-academic interests?
My first personal interest in life is literature and poetry. After that, I love yoga and dancing.
Given your wealth of experience in teaching and research, what advice do you have for women who are working as students, researchers, or university professors?
I have been in contact with many women in different fields and from different countries. All of them feel pressures that men do not feel and this issue is not limited to Iranian women. The feeling of being a stranger in a position they are in always puts pressure on women. Awareness of being a minority in a group with the majority of male members makes them feel that they are not part of that group. The environment itself places culture on the majority, and does not accept you and treat you differently.
Some women are put under pressure by separating themselves from the environment. Others ignore being a woman in order to be accepted as a member of the environment, and in both cases they would face difficulties. My suggestion is that they first accept themselves and define their principles and habits. If a woman in an engineering field is forced to do things that seem masculine, it does not mean that she should forget her femininity. The habit is that women don’t do these things, but that’s not a principle.
It is necessary to keep the feminine identity and at the same time to be able to work in a masculine environment and to create this balance, although it is difficult to establish it. Reviewing the story of being a woman in the mind as an unusual issue makes us feel strange. On the other hand, we should not forget that we are women and we should not lose our identity. Many things are not common because few people have done it before, and that is why we deny them and feel contradictions. Fortunately, the movement is very positive now, and I know that many conferences offer free kindergartens so that women can feel that they are welcome. I don’t think being a woman is an obstacle to any activity. Incidentally, in my opinion, Iranian women are very strong. Perhaps in societies where women have been oppressed, they have become stronger and do not feel disappointed easily.