From Kashmir to Cosmos: Dr. Qudsia Gani’s path in Physics

Dr. Qudsia Gani is a prominent physicist whose passion for revitalizing physics education in Kashmir is both inspiring and transformative. Born and raised in the valley, Dr. Gani has made it her mission to address the decline in physics enrollment at colleges, advocating for the subject’s profound applications in both industry and artificial intelligence.

As an assistant professor in the Department of Higher Education, Govt. of J&K, and leading the Physics department at GDC Pattan, Baramulla, Dr. Gani is actively involved in diverse research projects and mentoring exams. Her journey, culminating in a specialization in Nuclear and Particle Physics from the University of Kashmir, has positioned her as a prominent advocate for the cause of physics education.

From challenging the persistent gender stereotypes in Physics to navigating its current state in Kashmir, Dr. Gani provides insights into her experiences, challenges, and aspirations in an engaging conversation with Free Press Kashmir. 

Breaking stereotypes is a journey many admire, especially in the dynamic landscape of Kashmir. Against this backdrop, could you start by sharing the factors that influenced your decision to choose Physics as a field of study, especially in the face of the persistent stereotype in our society that women can’t excel in this domain? 

I will not attribute anything to gender or to circumstances, nor did I know of any iconoclasts early on in my childhood to get inspired from. I have always made use of my raw intelligence to move ahead in life.  Each one of us should respond to the inherent calling and be brutally honest with oneself. This is essentially what I did.

To my understanding, women are not born with the fear or phobia of mathematical sciences. Probably they are infused with it. 

In the Indian context, one should look up to Shakuntala Devi, the mathematical wizard who made it to Guinness book of world records and is well known as a human computer.

It was only after I grew up, that I knew I had broken some stereotypes and set some examples. Like, I am the first woman to secure distinction in Physics in the University, then I was the first to crack the elite national level competitions like CSIR-NET/JRF and GATE. I was also the first ever woman to top the JKPSC selection list of assistant professors in Physics. My teachers and the appointing authorities who are all men, by the way, have always considered me well-deserved for all my accomplishments, irrespective of my gender.

The best way to break stereotypes is to be unaware of them and not pay heed to them.  

But what sparked your decision to become a teacher, and how did this calling unfold in your life?

I had aspired to be an engineer and had obtained an 88 percentile in a state level exam to pursue software engineering. However, my father was supporting a family of six members, one of them with serious medical condition for which he was exhausting all his resources. 

For not being able to afford the expenses of a professional degree, I took recourse to academics which usually unfolds into teaching. I chose Physics since I found it the most exciting intellectual pursuit which gives a broader perception about many different fields. I had a natural bend towards this subject among all the stuff that I was reading in school. 

I express it with all humility that my teachers would often call me the next “Madam Curie” whenever I would solve a tedious numerical problem in the class. My Mathematics teachers would secretively tell my father, “Your daughter is not just good but she is exceptional in Mathematics”. Such compliments have always humbled me. The constant appreciations and encouragements of my teachers finally pushed me where I am today. I am enjoying doing Physics.

Reflecting on your teaching experience, what do you find most rewarding about being a Physics teacher?

Physics teaching is considered to be one of the most challenging and fulfilling careers you could consider. Physics teachers are the most sought after even in countries like USA and UK. Therefore, you automatically carry an aura of prestige and decorum. 

You’ve an out-of-box identity and relevance at your workplace. Your presence is deeply noted and your absence is deeply felt. Your colleagues as well as the students hold you very high. Nonetheless one should stay humble amidst all glory and glamour.

But how would you describe the current state and future potential of physics education and research in Kashmir? 

Well, it is pathetic! By now, there is a pool of PhD holders in the discipline of Physics, not to speak of other disciplines. The governments don’t have to offer much to them. As a result, some of them are switching to other fields. It is no surprise that we have seen a significant fall in the number of students opting for university education, especially in Kashmir. I would not like to point out any major drawback with the curriculum or with the teachers in place. It is only in terms of a limited output after a long term of hard-work that has demotivated them. 

To have a job and a decent livelihood are after all, the most real and the most rational concerns of any educated person. Unless there is a policy renewal in terms of providing jobs and other opportunities, especially in the sector of science and technology, the future of Physics shall tend to remain bleak in our part of the world.

But then, we now have a new education policy, NEP, in place which comes with a myriad of changes aimed at internationalization, diversity and inclusion. What does it mean to you as a teacher? 

The respondents to this policy fall in two categories, the supporters and the critics. The critique is that the policy lays more emphasis on a general rather than a specialized framework of different courses. But all sorts of progress of a nation in different fields would need more specialists than generalists especially in the current era. 

Previously, all general aspects of education were to be followed and finished in school only. While coming to college, a student had to mend to specialize. The policy also aims at acquiring and upgrading various skills for the students to be self-reliant but it cannot be without realizing that the schools and the colleges do not have the necessary facility in terms of infrastructure and equipment to impart such trainings. Let the vocational training and industry training be taken up separately and not be messed up with educational institutions. That is why we have already seen some states doing away with the new education policy. 

Do you anticipate that the new policy will in any way influence or change the perception about the subject of physics among students in Kashmir?

Well, it is too early to provide a definitive assessment of the new policy. While on one hand, it does not lay much emphasis on specialization, but on the other hand there is also optimism regarding the policy’s potential to broaden the students’ choices, encourage diversity and enhance the overall quality of education. Let at least one batch of students, graduate under the new scheme to see where they are able to land. If the choices really diversify or deluge, remains to be seen.

But beyond your role as a teacher, your contributions as a writer are noteworthy. Can you share your specific writing interests and shed light on the areas that you typically cover in your articles?

Thanks for your appreciation. Yes, I have been contributing to science pages of the leading national and regional newspapers and journals, from quite some years now. I have specific interest in Cosmology, Particle Physics and Astrophysics. Thankfully, I have received an immense response from my readers which keeps me going.

As a writer covering scientific topics, how do you navigate the balance between making complex scientific concepts accessible to the public and maintaining accuracy? 

Well, I don’t take my readers through the abstract assumptions or the mathematical formalism needed to evaluate a hardcore physics idea, because I understand that I am reaching out to a mixed audience. I just bring to them the interpretations and meanings of different ideas, mostly of astrophysics. 

I can confidently say, I have been able to evoke lot of interest in all segments of people from professionals to businessmen to employees to literary to commoners, besides the students of all age groups.

What are some of the recent developments or discoveries in physics that excite you the most?

There are many, but I am driven by two of them. One is the discovery of gravitational waves remotely proposed by Einstein and recently discovered by the famous LIGO experiment. This idea also lends credence to the theory of multiverse or parallel universes. This is going to be a hot topic in the physics fraternity for many decades from now.

The second is the idea of neutrinos; the minute indetectable particles which are actually jam packing the Universe. In fact, I hold my PhD in the same topic. There is a high likelihood that everything in the world in a few decades from now may prove to be neutrinos only.

OK, but what are some of the common misconceptions or myths about physics that you encounter in your work or in the public domain?

Physics is supposed to be hard but it can be broken down to simpler ideas. One can always find it interesting and appreciate the beauty of its contents. It is said that Physicists are socially awkward persons who don’t mix up with others so easily nor do they fall in love, or be good life partners. A physicist may not necessarily be a nerd. He/she may also be jolly and loving. 

In a beautiful chain of words, Stephen Hawking writes in a subtle way that he pursued PhD to get a job and he wanted a job to marry Jane. Sometimes, Physicists make an influence in the society, far more than that of leaders or statesmen. Some time back I had written about the politico-effectiveness of Einstein, for example. Similarly, Isaac Newton is rated as the second most influential person in the entire human history, by some analysts. We are also sometimes labeled as atheists but how many people know that Newton was a theologian of equal footing as he was a physicist.

Alright, so what resources or support do you believe teachers need more of to improve education in Kashmir?

There are already many strategies in place that can work well in support of educators but I am sure that bulk of educational institutions in Kashmir are not having or availing them. Teachers need access to high-quality instructional resources by way of separate libraries for them, as well as the online support systems like smart classrooms and sophisticated science and language labs. Some schools and colleges are working on it using what is called LMS or learning management system. Teachers can also benefit from professional development programs conducted by various institutions of higher learning. 

However, facilities and provisions don’t mean much unless the students have the desire to learn and let there be some degree of cooperation from their parents as well. Our youngsters are looking for short cuts to success which for their kind information don’t exist. Rest, we can always make up for the deficiencies in resources. It is not a big deal. 

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to become a teacher and what actually makes a great teacher in your opinion.

For anyone aspiring to become a teacher, especially in the higher education, I have one important piece of suggestion in the context of Kashmir. While our students keep piling up their degrees one after the other, they don’t pay the necessary attention to crack various competitions and fellowship exams which could really give them a boost. Nor do they acquire the desired skills which could have made them worth the job market. In addition to a PhD degree, a student should necessarily go for various national eligibility exams without which the recruiting agencies do not honour their degrees and it is clearly laid down in their selection criteria. There are also many students who think it easy to compromise the quality to acquire their degrees in a short time. Later they realize that they have cut a sorry figure as they are unable to defend their work on certain platforms. 

A person aspiring to become a teacher should be an efficient communicator who is able to raise and maintain a two-way interaction in the classroom with a productive outcome. Besides, he/she should constantly update in terms of content and teaching skills. A good teacher is able to deliver an intricate idea in simplest terms. According to Einstein, if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

Is Artificial Intelligence a direct application of Physics? Has it taken over the world and do you treat it as a boon or bane?

Yes, indeed, AI is drawn from some fundamental principles of physics. It is used to model and simulate complex systems to help machines to learn, adapt, and make intelligent decisions. However, machines don’t have self-awareness and emotions. They are very unlikely to match the human conscience or take over us. Nonetheless, AI is transforming every walk of life and we have to keep pace with the current trends or we shall cease to have a meaningful existence in future. 

Calling AI a boon or bane is much like the essay we would be asked to write in school, whether science is a boon or bane. Going gracefully ahead with AI in future, will depend on our intent and our values and virtues. Moreover, the development of AI is heavily regulated, and is subject to strict ethical and legal guidelines. Its operation is quite transparent and accountable, to the best of my knowledge. Rest is rumor and hearsay

OK, so how can the education system and teachers better support both students interested in physics and those not interested, igniting passion for physics and making it more engaging and relevant?

This is an important question that you have asked. Physics can be popularized in many ways. Learning by doing projects and labs, holding of science fairs and workshops can be of great help. Though, these practices are already in vogue, but not to the requisite level. The physics teachers can volunteer for some mentorship examinations for students at all levels of education. The students with any grades or score in Physics are eligible to write these exams. These are held by various physical societies such as Indian Physical Society (IPS), Indian Physics Association (IPA) and Indian Association of Physics Teachers (IAPT). Luckily, I am a life member in all the three. 

I have been conducting Olympiads for school students since 2019 by registering an exam center at JK Institute of Mathematical Sciences. I have also been conducting two more popular exams for college students. These are National Standard Examination (NSE) and National Graduate Physics examination (NGPE). The advantage of cracking such examinations at an early age is that the students get enrolled in various institutions of higher learning for integrated courses with handsome fellowships. Quite early on in their life, they get monetary support to achieve their higher education in well reputed institutions which is indeed a huge motivation. 

Similarly, the schools and colleges should frequently invite noted Physicists (teachers and scientists) across the country for popular talks and interactions with their students to get them inspired. Seminars and conferences should be regularly organised to impress upon the importance of science in nation building. The popular science movies must be played at various events to highlight the importance of the subject in almost all walks of life. 

What message or encouragement would you like to convey to the students specifically about the subject of physics, highlighting its relevance, potential, or any insights you’ve gained through your own experience with the subject?

There is a general consensus that Physics is the most fundamental and exact of all the sciences. Its laws are basic to deep understanding of other sciences such as astronomy, materials science, chemistry, photonics, life sciences, earth sciences, medicine, engineering and environmental science. It lends credence to the equations of Mathematics by giving them a meaning. 

To me, Physics is not just about metrics and measurements nor is it only about mechanical entities like machines and gadgetry. It has rather encroached into almost all domains of human conscience including origin and evolution of universe, the concepts of life and death or even into religion and philosophy. It grills you for everything else. Physicists are the only professionals who have secured prestigious prizes in other fields of knowledge as well. Physics has given me a great personal and professional satisfaction. It is exciting if pursued with consistency and a living spirit.

Physicists hold a key to the glory of nations. Recall Chandrayan, for instance, and many more such upcoming missions. One can render a great deal of service to mankind in general and to the nation in particular by holding to the principles of Physics. It can also win you an international recognition. The names like Newton and Einstein are synonymous to intelligence. Glory comes default with it.

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